There's a passage in the Old Testament that Christians especially love to quote. It's about "God in the gentle breeze!' The fact that we pick it out should put us on the alert - but we'll come to that. That passage is about Elijah's encounter with God. "There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle breeze. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle..!' (I Kings 19:11-13). In another translation it's even more striking: instead of the gentle breeze there is "sheer silence" (NRSV). Other translations say, "a still small voice," or "the sound of a soft breath” or "a quiet whispering voice!'
    All this would seem to make us think of the God of the Old Testament as a soft, gentle, unchallenging Presence - until we read on and hear what he said to Elljah in his 'soft whispering voice'; he told him take up his sword and put his enemies to death! In its original context this passage is saying that God is spirit and he converses intimately with his prophets. It doesn't mean that God's dealings are gentle.
    In a way, you could say that we Christians misread it. We take it out of context and apply it wholesale. But Christians have always been doing this with the Old Testament; you could say that for us the Old Testament is not the last word. God's word to us is primarily in the New Testament. We don't look at the New Testament from the standpoint of the Old; we look at the Old Testament from the standpoint of the New. We take what suits us, reinterpret it, and pass a blind eye over the rest. Even when we read the most gruesome things in the Old Testament some passages in the psalms, for example - we read them differently. Every Sunday in the Prayer of the Church we placidly recite the words of Psalm 149, "Let the praise of God be on their llps and a two-edged sword in their hand!" These words are the classic headline of religious terrorism, but we don't really hear them; we gloss over them for the sake of the rest of psalm 149, which is beautiful: "Sing a new song to the Lord...!' We know something about the gentleness of God that people of the Old Testament could never have imagined. "Blessed are the gentle," said Jesus (Matthew 5:4). St Paul gave a list of the 'fruits of the Spirit': "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22). If you had no love in you, you could hardly claim to be a Christian; likewise gentleness (and all the others). One name for the Holy Spirit is 'paraclete', translated sometimes as "the Comforter" John 14:26).
    Does this soften our religion to the point of weakness? What kind of comfort can we expect from the Comforter? Look more closely at the word 'comfort'. Modem usage has weakened its meaning to softness and gentle touches; in fact its real meaning is just about the opposite. The word comes from the Latin ‘confortare’, which means 'to strengthen'; ‘fortis’ means 'strong'. Comfort therefore means strength! The Holy Spirit will make us robust. But this is entirely different from the unrestrained violence of the Old Testament.
    Many growing boys and young men think that gentleness is weakness, and that strength can be expressed only in violence. The task of growing up includes learning the falsity of these equations. Jesus himself is the clearest expression of it: his presence among his contemporaries was an extremely powerful one, yet he could say, "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart" (Matthew 11:29).

Donagh O'Shea

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