Humility and Gentleness, Patience and Forbearance
The Apostle Paul, after writing half of the letter to the Ephesians extolling the praises of God and the blessings and promises that we have in Christ, now changes his subject material to speak of practical matters of living. He moves from concentrating on spiritual matters, now instead turning his attention to how we are to live. In this second half of his letter, Paul is speaking more as to how we as the church of Christ should act:
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. (Ephesians 4:1-2 ESV)
In our common experience, some people are born in this world with the benefit of much greater resources than others. These have better opportunities for a superior education and for careers that can benefit society.
Often, of course, these individuals do not live up to the potential that is afforded them. Instead, they use their advantages in life mainly for self-advancement and self-enrichment. It is only those conscientious ones that realize that that the blessings that they have been given are best used if they also bring benefit to others.
Likewise, in the church, not only is it important for us as individuals to realize the blessings that we have received have come from God through Christ, but it is also important to understand that we have been given these blessings to be used for the betterment of others.
For half of this letter to the Ephesians, Paul attempted to help us understand the depths of the riches of our position and blessings from God. Once we begin to comprehend the excellencies of these riches, he is now ready to explain further what our manner of life should be.
Paul urges his readers to “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
There are both great benefits and great responsibilities that accompany all the blessings from God. We are to live in a manner worthy of being born into a life that affords us all the great riches of our Father in heaven.
As Jesus said in one of his parables, “From everyone who has been given much, shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke NAS).
Again Paul Mentions being a Prisoner for the Lord
Perhaps interestingly, Paul chooses here to again mention that he is a prisoner for the Lord. As I before pointed out, at the time when he wrote this letter, Paul was indeed in a prison in Rome.
In some ways, it may be surprising that he should bring this up again now, since he had just written of suffering for the Lord somewhat extensively in the previous chapter, and since he has now changed the tone of his letter to speak of the riches of God.
In fact, in most of the letter up until this point, Paul talks primarily of our high calling and the blessings that had been provided for us from even before the foundation of the world. Considering this advantaged position, one would not expect there again to be a mention of being a prisoner.
Although it may be a bit puzzling, I am certain that the fact that Paul mentions it again now is not to try and invoke sympathies from his readers. This simply is not in the character of the apostle. Actually, when we consider the contrast that Paul has been making in the letter between spiritual blessings that we have in Christ and the depravity that we see in the world, we may be able to see why he chooses to mention in passing his imprisonment at this point.
In chapter two of the book of Ephesians, Paul speaks of the contrast between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven. He speaks of the kingdom of this world as being under “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
This is the prevailing kingdom that is in the world today. When one places his priorities on the eternal kingdom of the Spirit of Christ, he is placing himself in opposition to the powers of the world. The Christian should not expect that the powers of the world will treat him or her kindly.
What various believers receive from the world will differ in specifics, but it will be similar in that it will all be opposition in some form. For Paul, this meant imprisonment in the literal sense. But allegorically speaking, in some sense all believers are held in various types of prisons in which the world confines us.
A Worthy Calling
It is with this background to what he himself was experiencing that Paul urges the believers of Ephesus to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which they had been called. These things that Paul mentions are almost universally recognized as being “good” traits among all men.
Even in the kingdom of the world, these are traits that are said to be valued. But the truth is, the priorities that Paul speaks of in these verses are not the ones that are practiced in relations between nations and men, despite any conciliatory words those of the world may speak to mask their true priorities. These are the characteristics of humility and patience, gentleness and forbearance.
If we can learn to make these virtues a part of our lives, they will enable us to free ourselves of walking in the ways of the world. The more we practice these qualities, the more we will walk in a manner worthy to the calling to which we have been called by God.
The Rewards of Humility
Everyone will say that it is good to be humble, but speaking in practical terms in the world, it is not the humble man who usually advances beyond his contemporaries. The person who lands the job or receives the advancement is usually the one who aggressively promotes himself or herself. It is a relatively rare occurrence when the humble woman or man is recognized.
It is more common that the more aggressive in business advance because of the work of the humble. They rise in prominence upon the backs of those who instead live a life of service. Indeed, this is also the treatment that the world gives to the humble of the kingdom of God.
Paul spoke of this when he met with the Ephesian elders when he was en route to Jerusalem for the last time. Paul said to them, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” (Acts 20:18-19 ESV).
In writing to the Philippians, Paul also spoke of the importance of humility in our living, saying, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV).
The purpose for humility is not so I can be recognized or receive advancement, but so that the interests of others are better served. This attitude, quite frankly, is looked upon in the world as being a little foolish. Nevertheless, it is the very essence of living in the kingdom of God. The humble man is not looking for recognition.
When Paul pointed out his own humility to the Ephesian elders, we might think that he was acting a little unhumble. Actually however, he was merely pointing to the One after whom he had patterned his life. It is as he said to some others:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8 ESV)
Jesus Christ is the supreme example of humility. In the world, it gained him nothing of benefit, but it did gain him something.
Just what did it gain him in this world? Paul tells us plainly. It gained him death. But as Paul explained to us, Jesus was not looking out for his own personal interests. Rather, Jesus acted for the benefit and the interests of others.
When we speak and work and live in a humble manner, we should not expect that someone will commend us for our humility. In the end of it all, we should expect nothing more in this world than Christ himself gained. Paul was also eventually to realize this, as did most of the early disciples. Their fate was the same. They were put to death because the world did not like what they were saying.
The Strength of Gentleness
Gentleness (your Bible might use the word “meekness”) is another of those words much misunderstood by today’s society. We might even do well to look the word up in our own English dictionaries.
Many people, when thinking of the word gentleness, use third preferred definition that most dictionaries give. This is the definition that says that says gentleness speaks of something or someone that is easily handled, or even of some who is docile. It is strange that we should prefer that definition.
The first definition of gentleness is closer to the way in which Paul intends it. This is in speaking of someone who is considerate and kind. Actually, when one thinks about it, it is an outgrowth of someone who is acting in humility. It is putting oneself in the place of another and acting toward that person how we, ourselves would like to be treated.
Gentleness, acting in this way, takes a very strong person rather than a docile one. A docile person would shrink away from confrontation altogether or let someone else control the situation. But to the contrary, a truly gentle person does not hesitate to place himself or herself in the thick of things when it becomes necessary. The position that he takes is often the most difficult position of all.
Paul advises his young friend Timothy: “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Timothy 2:24-25 NAS).
We see in this advice that gentleness is not necessarily avoiding confrontation, but rather correcting it with a view of bringing benefit to the other person. Gentleness is the direct opposite of contentiousness or being quarrelsome. A person with an attitude of being quarrelsome also confronts, but he confronts with the purpose of building himself up and strengthening his own position. Unlike the gentle person, the quarrelsome person is looking out primarily for his own interests.
The words of the apostle James may be beneficial to us here. He asks the question, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom” (James NAS).
The apostle Peter also shows us that a gentle person is one who does not necessarily avoid confrontation, but one who does so with the good of the other person in mind: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15 NAS).
A gentleman is not a person who holds back and who is too timid to speak his mind, but a gentleman is a man who defends the undefended and who seeks to put right that which is wrong. A gentleman is a man who has learned to treat others with kindness and equity, who indeed treats others as he himself would want to be treated.
A Rare Commodity Called Patience
In speaking of humility and gentleness, we see that in both cases the object of the humble and gentle person is the betterment of others. As I mentioned, in the world this is considered foolish. The perspective of the prevailing culture of the world to this is that those who do not promote themselves will not advance, and this is generally true. Nevertheless, once we come to understand the culture of the kingdom of God, we see that there are actually great promises of reward that are given to those who learn to live in a humble and gentle manner.
The writer of Proverbs tells us that “the reward of humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4), and James says that the one who receives the word of God with meekness (gentleness), his soul will be saved (James ). However, we will also notice that these are rewards which we see very little in the present time.
Jesus tells us, “Behold, I am coming soon, and My reward is with Me, to give to each one according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12 BSB).
These are things that are promised to believers, but realistically speaking, during the time of this present life, the humble and the gentle are not the ones who see these rewards.
Because of this, Paul adds patience to his list of attributes worthy of the walk of a follower of Christ. Unfortunately for most of us, patience likely is the most difficult of these virtues, and it is becoming increasingly difficult. Today’s society battles against patience. We acknowledge that we have become conditioned to almost expect instant gratification, and with credit cards and access to unreasonable loans, it largely has become possible. We can even get same-day or next-day delivery for items we buy online.
But Paul is talking not only about the patience that we must have in achieving something, or of patience toward ourselves. He is not even speaking here primarily about patience regarding the future realization of the promises of God. In this case, it seems that Paul must mostly have in mind patience toward others. As difficult as it is to exercise patience regarding the fulfillment of the things for which we are waiting for ourselves, it is even more difficult to have patience toward others.
Having the type of patience that extends to a troublesome or quarrelsome person demands something of us that we cannot produce and maintain by our own strength. This kind of patience requires something from outside ourselves.
Bearing with One Another
When we live in a culture where impatience is the pattern, a patience that is mostly for the benefit of others is a rare commodity indeed. Paul adds to his admonishment for patience these words: “…bearing with one another in love.”
In another of Paul’s writings, where he was also calling for patience on the part of his readers, he gives one of the strongest reasons that we should exercise patience. Paul writes to the Colossians:
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Colossians 3:12-13 NAS)
God’s forgiveness of our sins is the pattern and the motivation for us to forgive others. Peter writes of God’s great patience and forbearance toward us. His forbearance knows no limits in time.
Beloved, do not let this one thing escape your notice: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9 BSB)
We are to be humble and gentle in our dealings with others, because God is humble and gentle with us. We are to be patient and forbear long with others, because God has shown his great patience and forbearance toward us.
“So when you, O man, pass judgment on others, yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you disregard the riches of His kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:3-4 BSB)