I find it quite paradoxical how, on a given day, I can clean my kitchen so well you’d think I was Cinderella, but then the next day it looks like the shared apartment of a couple phlegmatic bachelors. Something tells me this shouldn’t happen, but thanks to the law of entropy, it does. There are many paradoxes in life, things that seem apparently contradictory, but are actually quite true and do happen.
Children are another good example. One Christmas, my sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids came to visit. Throughout the time they were there, I was amazed that my little niece—who wasn’t much bigger than a bread basket—could cry so loud and for so long. You’d think noises like that could only come from fire engines or air raid sirens, but au contraire, mon frère. The lungs of a one-year-old are well-able to rival those of any Scottish bagpipe player.
One of the things I love about the Bible is how it, too, is chock-full of paradoxes. Its pages are brimming with truths that flip us upside down and shake us like a snow globe. Then, when everything settles, we realize that actually we were the ones upside down. Sandwiched between those leather covers is language that will blow our minds if we only let it.
Allow me to indulge myself in one example I recently discovered in Psalm 18. In context, David is bursting with joy and praising God for the incredible victories He has won for and through David: He lights David’s way and helps him leap over walls and run against armies (which, in my opinion, is pretty amazing. But then again, just getting out of bed in the morning can sometimes feel like a feat for me). David even says, “He teaches my hands to make war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” (verse 34). But the head scratcher doesn’t come from there or anywhere else where David gives God glory. The part that makes you do a double take is a short clause nestled in verse 35. It’s so unpretentious, you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention.
“You have also given me the shield of Your salvation; Your right hand has held me up, Your gentleness has made me great” (verse 35).
[Head wag] . . . Wait, what? Gentleness?
To me, this verse makes about as much sense as a Picasso painting. This is David we’re talking about, after all. He’s the dude who took on lions and bears while he was teething. He was like Tarzan turned shepherd. He was the guy who was a fugitive, a soldier, and a champion. He led Israel in battle after battle and watched nation after nation fall before him like dominoes. He was a warrior, but he attributes his greatness to God’s gentleness?
And if we fail, we beat ourselves and each other up in order to have motivation to do better.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of a tough warrior, I don’t think of someone who’s used to being treated gently. I think of muscles, sweat, and beards. I think of a plaid-clad lumberjack who kills cougars for a hobby and drinks the tears of children. I think of a rifle-toting marine whose heart is as hard as his bullet-proof vest. I don’t think of someone who says, “It was Your gentleness that made me great.” Maybe if David were selling pansies door-to-door or joining the Girl Scouts of America that could work, but not if he’s a warrior.
But this is one of the paradoxes of Scripture, the paradox of gentleness. It taps us on the shoulder and begs us to view something that doesn’t quite make sense. It catches us by surprise because, in our society, warriors are not made through gentleness. We become warriors through boot camps and battles, through toughing it out and sucking it up. We are driven by fear and the need to be in control. And if we fail, we beat ourselves and each other up in order to have motivation to do better.
Like acid rain seeping into the ground, this kind of thinking is absorbed into many areas of our lives. Gentleness isn’t usually our go-to tool when we’re trying to become great or make others great. I cringe when I see parents lose their tempers with their children, thinking if they just yell enough or cuss enough their kids will shape up. In the workplace, a tongue-lashing is often the weapon of choice for a boss who needs to correct an employee. Even when it comes to our treatment of ourselves, we’re not very gentle. Too many people have a drill sergeant in their heads, yelling at them to do better and chewing them out when they fail.
The other day I was hanging out with a close friend of mine. Flopped onto her bed, she told me about something she’d said recently that was embarrassing for her. Her voice at one point grew tense with humiliation and her eyes looked past me as she spoke, as if she could see the incident happening once more. She told me how she’d replayed it over and over again in her mind, like a song on repeat, chastising herself to the point where a mental blister formed and she had to ask God to help her let go of the incident.
It seems that the only way we know to correct or change our behavior is through being rough and tough. We think that by beating ourselves up we’re becoming warriors, but we’re really just becoming worriers and weaklings.
God isn’t a power-hungry commander ready to chew us out.
The paradox of gentleness, though, tells us that this isn’t the way it was meant to be. God isn’t a power-hungry commander ready to chew us out. Instead, He is a God who has always wanted to make Himself accessible to us, even to the most fearful. So He came in the gentlest, most unintimidating way He possibly could: as a baby. This Baby grew up to be the Man who said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29, emphasis added). This Man was the incarnate version of the God who said, “I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them” (Hosea 11:4, emphasis added).
The truth is our hearts are made of glass, not cement. They’re fragile works of art, not punching bags. So when someone encourages us gently, loves us gently, and believes in us gently, it gives us the courage to rise to the occasion and be who we’re supposed to be. And even if we do fail, we can keep trying because the gentleness of love takes away fear and spurs us on to greater and greater heights. This is what God does.
Fear might fuel good behavior for a while, but only gentle love can be an eternal motivator. Anything else will eventually burn us out. We don’t have the energy to keep competing with others for the top, and we weren’t made to constantly live on edge, wondering if we’re enough. Gentleness motivates us from a deeper place than intimidation ever can, and it creates in us a loyalty and resilience that is stronger than anything else.
“It’s OK. Know you are loved and you can move on.”
A friend of mine verbalized it beautifully when she said to me, after I told her about an embarrassing moment I’d had and what a moron I was, “It’s OK. Know you are loved and you can move on.”
Though simple, those words were like a salve to a bruised soul, and I believe they are a reflection of God’s attitude toward us. He is the God of gentleness, after all. He loves us and wants us to try again when we fail. It’s this gentleness that gave David the courage to be the warrior he was, and made all the other heroes of Scripture what they were, for that matter. Any character of the Bible who is worth admiring is merely a sinful human being who leaned into God’s gentle love. And if you and I do the same, we just might be surprised at the warriors we become.