I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Paul tells us to walk worthy of our calling. The word is axiōs, meaning to balance the scale. As spiritual, redeemed people in Christ, we are called to reflect our Savior in the way that we live. Our position is in the family of God. In turn, our practice and behavior should align with our position. To balance the scale or walk worthy is to live as God expects his people to live.
In this passage, Paul gives us five characteristics to consider and strive for: humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and unity. We’ve already talked about humility, but let me add just a bit more to it. I want to share with you one of my favorite examples of humility in Scripture.
Mark 7 gives the account of a Gentile woman coming to Christ to ask him to remove an unclean spirit from her daughter. If you didn’t already know the story, then you might assume that Jesus would be quick to say, “Yes, of course. That’s why I’m here. I came to love, show compassion, and heal people. I came to save.” Surprisingly, though, that’s not what he says. Instead, he tells her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27). Ouch.
Jesus certainly had a unique approach to evangelism. How many times does he seem to make it harder for people to follow him? Why does he seem throw stumbling blocks in their way? In this case, he appears to outright insult the woman. Why?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s insulting her. He’s simply pointing out the long-standing divide and animosity between the Jews and Gentiles. Even so, it seems rather discouraging. How would you respond? Some of us would probably be outraged. How dare you imply that I’m a dog! Most of us would likely be saddened. I get the impression this woman was desperate. She had nowhere else to turn. There was no other way to save her daughter, so hearing Christ suggest that he wouldn’t help a Gentile was devastating.
If he wasn’t insulting her, what was he doing? First of all, he was doing what he always did: He was testing her resolve. Thousands upon thousands of people showed interest in Jesus at one point or another, but for so many of them, their interest was shallow and vain. They weren’t genuinely converted. They weren’t looking to Christ as King and Savior. He was a celebrity with miraculous abilities. Perhaps he was a political zealot preparing a revolt against Rome. Who knows. But Jesus wasn’t interested in padding his stats. When five thousand families in the book of John wanted to make him a king (not the King), he sent his true disciples across the sea and disappeared into the mountains. Christ would accept nothing less than sinners seeking the Savior.
But I think there was even more to his response than testing the Gentile woman’s resolve and sincerity. I believe he was testing her humility, and she passed with flying colors. She answered, “Yes, Lord” (Mk 7:28). First, she affirmed his statement was true. “Yes, I am a dog,” she said. “You’re absolutely right about that.” Second and equally important, she acknowledged Jesus as Lord (capital L). She didn’t see him a mere political figure with awesome powers. She wasn’t starstruck by his celebrity status. She saw herself as a sinner and Christ as God in the flesh. In other words, she approached him with humility. She understood her place as a lowly sinner, and she knew Christ was to be exalted as the Holy God.
All the while, she maintained her resolve. She continued by saying, “Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28). With that statement, you can see how boldness and humility are not mutually exclusive. They can simultaneously exist at once. We can remain humble while acting and speaking in boldness. This woman was desperate. She needed help, and she wasn’t about to leave without pleading with Christ. “Help me, Lord. Just grant me an ounce of compassion. Please.”
In turn, Jesus said, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29). He responded positively because this woman was (1) persistent and (2) humble. She serves as a great example to all of us. Humility requires that we understand our place in relationship to God. Pride, on the other hand, is when we lift ourselves too high or lower God too much. As I said before, pride is when we compete with God for his glory.
Humility comes when the heart truly understands who we are as sinners. Humility comes when sinners behold the glory and holiness of God through faith. Like this Gentile woman, we think, Yes, Lord. I am a dog, and you are the Master.
Beyond humility, Paul gives four other characteristics of the Christian person. Picking up where we left off last week—
If I were to survey churches all over the country, asking people to describe the characteristics of a Christian believer, I wonder how many would say gentle. I doubt there would be very many. I’d probably hear a lot of people say things such as loving, compassion, and so, but gentle is not often top of mind.
What does Paul mean by gentleness? Most dictionaries will tell you that gentle or meek—meek is another possible translation—means timid or lacking courage, but those are not biblical definitions. Perhaps one of the best synonyms would be self-controlled. Jesus wasn’t timid. He certainly did not lack courage, yet he once said of himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:29).
I like “self-controlled” because it implies discipline and restraint. Gentleness doesn’t have anything to do with weakness or cowardice. It’s a word used to describe a wild animal that’s been domesticated. The lion at the circus is no less strong or courageous than it was out in the wild, but it has been restrained. It has learned how to control its abilities. It can still tear someone apart. It’s still a strong animal with massive claws and sharp teeth, but it doesn’t attack anyone just because it’s hungry. It’s subdued if you will. Its power is under the control of its trainer.
According to Galatians 5, gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. From the inside out, God transforms his people from the vindictive, defensive, quick-to-lash-out people we once were into quiet, mild-mannered people. Even so, Paul is reminding us here that we do not always balance the scales. We don’t always walk worthy of our calling. In other words, we sometimes fight against the Spirit to please the flesh. Paul told the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal 5:25-26).
One of the most difficult things for us to control is emotion. How many times have you reacted without thinking because you were angry? The fury boils up in a matter of seconds, and you’re lashing out before you’ve had even a moment to think. Instantly, you regret what you said or did, but it’s too late. At least I hope you regret it. I’m afraid that we’re often prone to justify ourselves. He or she deserved it. Maybe, but vengeance isn’t ours to give. What does Paul say?
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
David is a good example of gentleness. King Saul was jealous of David and tried to kill him more than once. In 1 Samuel 24, David has an opportunity to stop it once and for all. He could have killed him. It would have been easy enough because Saul walked right into the cave where David and his men were hiding. Plus, he was seemingly justified, but he didn’t do it. Instead, we’re told:
David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord [i.e., Saul], the Lord’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed.” So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. (1 Samuel 24:4-7)
Of course, there’s no better example of meekness than Jesus himself. Can you imagine standing trial for crimes you didn’t commit and not defending yourself? Jesus didn’t say a word despite Pilate’s best attempts to get him to explain himself or maybe plead for mercy. At one point, Pilate asked in a fit of frustration, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (Jn 19:10). Actually, Jesus did respond to that. He said in what I imagine was a surprisingly calm tone, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11).
I’m not suggesting, of course, that gentleness forbids us from talking. It’s just that gentleness or meekness is not impulsive. Impulsiveness is where we usually fail. It’s in the face of criticism, opposition, or frustration that we typically lose our cool and all semblance of gentleness is lost. We shout at our spouse when he or she annoys us. We blow our horn at the guy who cuts us off on the road. We post aggressive messages on Facebook to tell the world of our disagreements with something or someone.
Take a step back. How do those around you perceive you? Would they call you gentle? Are you a model of meekness? A meek person is in control. He’s slow to anger. He’s a peacemaker, quick to forgive and always ready to support others. He doesn’t walk around with a sense of superiority. Even when he deals with critics of his faith, he responds with loving gentleness. Peter said:
[Be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:15-17)
Are we better than our Lord? Should we walk around with an air of arrogance, ready to attack the first person who criticizes or upsets us? Peter said:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
That’s an interesting way to put it: “[Christ] continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Do we have enough faith in God to be gentle? That’s what it requires. Meekness means we’re trusting God with our circumstances. We don’t have to pounce like the wild lion because we know that God will take care of our enemies himself. He’ll take care of us, too.
Sadly, more times than not, we’re not even confronted by enemies when we fail to be gentle. We’re just frustrated or annoyed at some meaningless thing. Perhaps we’re just ego-driven in the moment, trying to defend our reputations. Even worse, we sometimes excuse our lack of gentleness in the name of God. “I’m only defending God,” we say. “I’m defending his truth,” as we verbally abuse and discourage some poor babe in Christ. I’ve been guilty myself too many times to count.
Remember what Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. … Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5:5; 9).
Just as humility breeds gentleness, gentleness will inevitably lead to patience. In many respects, they are almost synonymous. The word is literally long-tempered.
For example, think of Noah who spent 120 years of his life building a giant boat on dry land even though it had never rained on the earth. That’s a long time. Meanwhile, Peter tells us that Noah was “a herald [or preacher] of righteousness” (2Pe 2:5). You can imagine the kind of criticism he received from his neighbors, but he stood his ground. Not only did he keep building, but he also declared the truth of God’s coming judgment while he was at it. He suffered all kinds of shame and humiliation, yet he remained blameless before God and the people around him.
Frankly, we can study the lives of every prophet in the Old Testament and see the same thing. James wrote, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast” (Jas 5:10-11).
When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, he told Jeremiah that he would be hated and persecuted. What did Jeremiah do? He served God faithfully and patiently to the very end. When God told Isaiah to speak, he also said that no one would listen to him. Israel would refuse to turn from their sin, but Isaiah did as he was told anyhow.
Aristotle once said that the greatest virtue of the Greeks was refusing to tolerate insults. In his mind, having the pride and courage to strike back was characteristic of a noble person. God, on the other hand, rejects that notion. He calls his people to be patient, to be long-tempered, to accept his circumstances and respond with humble, gentle godliness.
Elsewhere, Paul says, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1Th 5:14-15).
That’s an excellent passage to consider in light of what Paul is telling the Ephesians. Remember the context. Throughout the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul has encouraged the Gentiles to embrace God’s inclusion of them in the church despite the potential hardships of joining together with the radically different culture and mindset of the Jews. “The Gentiles are fellow heirs,” Paul said, “members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6).
The emphasis in Ephesians 4 is not so much learning how to be humble, gentle, and patient with the world outside of the church but with our brothers and sisters inside of the church. Again, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1Th 5:14). He’s instructing the church how to deal not with the world but with one another.
There are times when our fellow saints become idle. There are times when others become fainthearted. Our brothers and sisters may become weak. Any one of these scenarios can lead to a degree of difficulty and possible conflict between us. How so? Take a look at Romans 14. Paul says, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Ro 14:1).
The believer who is weak in faith may lack a sound theological understanding of many things. His faith is shallow. As a result, he perceives things differently than his stronger brothers in the church. In short, they’ll disagree with one another. In the case of the Romans, one man says it’s okay to eat meat from the Gentile marketplace while another man calls it a sin.
Which man is right is hardly important to Paul. He concludes, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Ro 14:17). In this case, it doesn’t matter who’s right. It is far more important that we learn to preserve peace in the church by—what?—being patient, learning to be long-tempered.
I’ve been in the ministry for a little over ten years now. There have been a few occasions when I’ve sat across the table from a member of the church who I could see was drifting from one point of biblical truth or another. They’d say something that tripped all kinds of alarm bells in my head. Uh oh, I thought, I better straighten this person out before it goes too far.
Along the way, I’ve learned to move a bit slower. I’m always tempted to pounce much like that wild lion. I’m ready to tear apart someone’s wrong thinking in an instant. The truth is, it rarely works that way. The aggressive approach usually drives a person further away. I always want to speak the truth and speak it boldly, but I also need to be patient. There’s a reason Paul spent a year and a half with the Corinthians. There’s a reason he spent three years with the Ephesians. The truth of the Bible is not about winning an argument with someone; it’s about transforming the mind which takes time.
“That’s fine,” you say, “if we’re talking about trivial subjects such eating meat from a heathen sacrifice. But what if the issue at hand is a bit more substantial? What if, let’s say, someone’s error goes much deeper?” Paul’s answer is the same. Be humble. Be gentle. Be patient. Bear with one another.
Paul says, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:1-2). What does he mean by bearing with one another? It doesn’t excuse or justify anyone’s sins or errors, but it does cover them.
Notice what Paul tells the Galatians near the end of his letter to them. In Galatians 6, he writes:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
What’s most surprising about that exhortation is that it comes on the heel of a long scathing rebuke where Paul strongly expresses his anger over what has happened among the Galatian churches. What happened? False teachers of the worst kind had crept in and persuaded them to believe a false gospel. They had adopted a theological framework that essentially denies the Savior. It was an issue so serious that Paul says anyone teaching such a corrupt doctrine should be accursed. He should be cast away for the purpose of utter destruction.
He then turns his attention to those in the church who have been misled by this teaching. They were deceived, and Paul understood that, so he tells those who were not deceived, “You who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. … Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:1-2).
Think of it this way. Imagine you’re following someone on the highway who’s clearly distracted while driving. Maybe he’s texting or playing with the radio when his car goes off the road and crashes into the ditch. It’s his own fault, you think as you consider driving past him, going about your day. You’re right. It was his fault, but refusing to help is not the right thing to do. We are to bear one another’s burdens, so you stop your car to see whether he’s okay.
When you stop, you may be tempted to scold him for texting while driving. He deserves at least that much. He could have killed you or someone else. A good tongue-lashing will do him good. Then again, Paul says, “You who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). Why? Because you’ve probably done the same thing or something similar. Have you never been distracted while driving? “Keep watch on yourself,” Paul tells the Galatians, “lest you too be tempted.”
We have no excuses, no justification for refusing to be humble, gentle, and patient with others, especially our family in the church. God has called us to bear with one another in love. Your problems are my problems. My problems are your problems. To bear with one another is to take those problems upon ourselves even when they’re not ours and even when they cause us difficulties.
Peter says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1Pe 4:8). Again, we’re not to hide sins. There is nothing loving about pretending not to notice that someone else has a problem. Read what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5. He was extremely upset with them for sweeping their sins under the rug, refusing to do something about them.
No, loving forbearance is about supporting one another. It’s about coming alongside of someone who apparently has a problem and gently, patiently leading them back to the right path. It’s about loving others unconditionally despite the challenges they impose on you.
J.C. Ryle once said:
Our Lord has many weak children in his family, many dull pupils in his school, many raw soldiers in his army, many lame sheep in his flock. Yet he bears with them all, and casts none away. Happy is that Christian who has learned to do likewise with his brethren. (Practical Wisdom for Pastors, Curtis C. Thomas)
Let’s not forget that every one of us has been that weak child or dull pupil at times. Frankly, we all begin as lame sheep in need of Christian love and support. Have enough humility before God and before your brethren to lose that harsh tone of voice and uncaring spirit. Christ is not honored when we discourage and crush his people under the weight of our impatience and crude words. Love is the prevailing commandment of the Bible which should rule our every action.
Lastly, Paul tells us that we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Ultimately, all roads lead to unity. We’ll look at the final part of this passage next time.