Jonathan Edwards wrote that “a lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper” is “the true, and distinguishing disposition of the hearts of Christians.” And he has something to teach us.

Not many have identified gentleness as a major theme in Edwards (more common are titles such as Jonathan Edwards: The Fiery Puritan), and not many identify gentleness as a major need in the church right now. And yet gentleness is perhaps the most neglected virtue among Christians today.

Edwards wrote in his diary: “A virtue, which I need in a higher degree, to give a beauty and luster to my behavior, is gentleness. If I had more of an air of gentleness, I should be much mended.”

True for him then. True for us now.

Is Gentleness Manly?

But some Christian men resist gentleness because they associate it with being effeminate. Strength and gentleness can seem mutually exclusive. As we picture what it means to man up and be a leader in the home and in the church, gentleness isn’t, for many of us, a defining element of that picture.

The way forward isn’t by choosing gentleness over against manliness, but by rightly defining manliness according to Jesus Christ. After all, if anyone was ever a man, a true man, he is. And while he could drive money changers from the temple, he also delighted to gather up into his arms the little children whom his disciples tried to send away (Matt. 19:13–15). He dealt gently with outsiders. He wept over the death of a friend (John 11:35). He welcomed healthy, manly physical affection with his dear disciples. The apostle John, for example, was (to translate the text literally) “reclining . . . at Jesus’s bosom” (John 13:23—the very relationship said to exist between Jesus and the Father earlier in John 1:18).

Gentleness is perhaps the most neglected virtue among Christians today.

The supreme display of Jesus’s manhood, however, was in his sacrificial laying down of his life on behalf of his bride, the church. When the apostle Paul defines what it means to be a husband, he can speak simultaneously of the husband’s headship and also the husband’s sacrificial, Christlike laying down of his life on behalf of his bride (Eph. 5:25–33). Such sacrifice isn’t unmanly: it’s the supreme display of masculinity.

Any immature man can be a forceful, unheeding, unloving “leader.” Only a true man can be gentle.

Majestic and Gentle

Men who long to be the leaders God is calling them to be must see that the glory of Christ, into whose image they’re being formed, unites together awesome majesty and tender gentleness.

In the sermon preached at David Brainerd’s funeral, Edwards speaks of what saints in heaven will look on when they see Christ:

The nature of this glory of Christ that they shall see, will be such as will draw and encourage them, for they will not only see infinite majesty and greatness; but infinite grace, condescension and mildness, and gentleness and sweetness, equal to his majesty . . . so that the sight of Christ’s great kingly majesty will be no terror to them; but will only serve the more to heighten their pleasure and surprise.

True manhood, to Jonathan Edwards, isn’t a hard, tough exterior with a soft, spineless interior, but just the opposite—a steely, rock-solid interior mediated through an exterior emanating with the beauty of gentleness. Manliness isn’t machismo. Masculinity isn’t inadequacy-mitigating posturing and chest-puffing. On the other hand, gentleness isn’t cowardice. Both non-gentle masculinity and also non-manly gentleness are to be avoided.

Any immature man can be a forceful, unheeding, unloving “leader.” Only a true man can be gentle.

We’re after a life that’s both courageous and contrite, both tough and tender, both manly and gentle. But only in the power of the Holy Spirit can we be both at the same time (22).

Walk in a Manner Worthy

The turning point of Ephesians drives home Edwards’s insistence on the importance of gentleness in the Christian life. After reminding his readers what God in Christ has done, Paul tells them what this means for their personal conduct: “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 _________” (Eph. 4:1–2).

How would you expect Paul to finish that sentence? We might expect something like “with all sacrifice,” “with all zeal,” “with all boldness,” “with all fortitude.”

Paul says, “with all humility and gentleness.”

That is where the first three chapters of Ephesians take us. Jonathan Edwards understood this point. The lofty theological discourse of Ephesians 1–3 funnels down, above all else, into an aroma of gentleness exuded by ordinary Christians in their ordinary lives. Yet such an aroma isn’t ordinary. It’s extraordinary, supernatural. It’s where the Spirit takes us.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway, 2014).