The season of Advent is a time for us to reflect upon the birth of Jesus. But why do we do this? Is it as simple as finding something beautiful in the Christmas story and of baby Jesus with Joseph and Mary? There is something beautiful in that, but there is in the birth of every baby. So why do we make such a big deal about the birth of Jesus?
The birth of Jesus is important, not just for what happened in the manger, but for what that baby grew up to be. We think of Jesus on the cross but we should also think of Jesus as an adult who taught about and lived out the kingdom of God. Jesus demonstrated for us the type of life that God wants for us. Knowing how difficult that is, the Holy Spirit came upon the church after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. The Holy Spirit works in our life to make us more like Jesus and this is what we are going to look at over the next few weeks. We are going to look at the fruit of the Spirit as described by Paul in Galatians and then look at how Jesus taught about those virtues in the Sermon on the Mount.
We are going to begin with the virtues of gentleness and self-control. I cannot overstate the importance of these virtues in our present world. This is especially true in the world of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Take some time to read what people say on social media. Beyond whether people are making true or false statements, it is often something that is not marked by gentleness and self-control. We have seen celebrities lose their jobs over statements they have made on social media that lacked gentleness and self-control. Even if you delete it once you realize you made a mistake, someone has already captured the image and the damage has been done.
Whether or not we are on social media, we all need lives marked by gentleness and self-control. Let’s take a look at what Jesus says about these virtues in the Sermon on the Mount.
Turn the Other Cheek
One of the most well known sayings of Jesus is to turn the other cheek. Many would recognize that statement, even if they didn’t know it was by Jesus. But what does it mean?
For many Christians, turning the other cheek is a clear statement about Christian pacifism and the rejection of Christians serving in the military. While there is a case for Christian pacifism, this passage is not anticipating the debates over Christians in the military. It is speaking more directly to something that is more relevant and likely to happen to each one of us.
When Jesus speaks about being slapped in the cheek, we shouldn’t imagine an armed criminal breaking into our home, threatening our family. The purpose of the slap in the face is not physical injury but rather insult.
Many years ago I went to a swimming hole with a friend. As we were walking along the shore, a guy that I recognized but didn’t know well, punched me in the face. His intention was not to beat me up, because he could have easily done that if he wanted. It was rather to demonstrate to his friends that he could hit me and there was nothing I could do about it. It was meant more to humiliate me than to hurt me. I didn’t exactly turn the other cheek, but I did make sure to leave that swimming hole.
What Jesus wants us to imagine is a situation in which we are hurt, humiliated or insulted. The natural response would be to hit back. If it was a slap, then we would slap back. If it was an insult, then we would insult back. Naturally we would want to get revenge, we would want to get back at the person who hurt us. But Jesus tells us that we are to turn the other cheek. We are to take it and not seek revenge. This is what we see in Jesus’ lives. When Jesus was arrested, he was both physically hit and verbally insulted. And yet Jesus did not respond in kind. Jesus did this because his life was marked by gentleness and self-control. What Jesus did, he calls us to do as well.
Cultivating Gentleness and Self-Control
Since we are thinking about the birth of Jesus during Advent, let’s take a moment to think about babies in general, specifically in terms of gentleness and self-control. Gentleness seems to come naturally to babies. We all start out gentle and gradually seem to grow out of it. We become more bitter and harsh over time and we need to rediscover that original virtue. Self-control, on the other hand, is a different story. As a father of five children, I can testify that self-control does not come naturally. I have never known an infant that I could point to and say “ that is a self-controlled baby.” Self-control is something that must be developed over time, with persistent discipline.
I think most people have some idea what we mean by gentleness but what do we mean by self-control? The King James translates this word as temperance and that has certain connotations. Previous generations had temperance societies that preached for strict abstinence from alcohol. When we think of temperance, we may think of the self-control to avoid outward activities that are destructive. This could include the strength to avoid abusing alcohol, using illegal drugs and watching pornography. This is indeed an important part of self-control. But it is also about more socially acceptable activities. This is where the turning the other cheek comes in. When we are insulted, it is considered reasonable to insult back. In fact, it may be considered weak to not respond with the same behaviour. But Jesus calls us to a different way.
We need to understand that gentleness and self-control is not about being weak. It is actually the opposite, it is about being strong. Jesus Christ was the most powerful man whoever lived and he was also the embodiment of gentleness and self-control. It takes strength to respond to anger with gentleness. It takes strength to control one’s response and to not do just what comes naturally. But how do we get to this point?
The key is that these virtues are part of the fruit of the Spirit. That is, they are something that the Holy Spirit produces within us. But that doesn’t mean that we are passive recipients. I have learned from my own feeble attempts at gardening that just because something is planted doesn’t mean there is going to be a harvest. We need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. We do this by choosing to act in gentleness and self-control even when, or especially when, we don’t feel like it. Each time we choose to follow the Jesus way rather than the natural way, it will get a bit easier as the Holy Spirit does his work in us.
If I was to describe the contemporary world, I would not use the words gentleness and self-control. Unfortunately, these virtues haven’t always been evident in the church either.
But this is the world that Jesus was born into. One of the reasons that Jesus was born was to show us his way, the kingdom of God and to help us to become the people God created us to be. This includes turning the other cheek, not in the sense of allowing ourselves to be beat up, but to not seek vengeance. In a world that is harsh and reactionary, we need a church that is gentle and self-controlled.