The gentleness and wisdom of St Francis de Sales

May 31, 2022 | INSIGHTS

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is at hand. (Phil. 4:5)

(Other versions render the word reasonableness, forbearance, kindness, graciousness, moderation, unselfishness, consideration, Or as the Voice paraphrases that verse, ‘Keep your gentle nature, so that all people will know what it looks like to walk in His footsteps. The Lord is ever present with us.’)

I love sitting down for the odd half hour and making my way through a collections of quotations – whether a specifically Christian one, or some such as the Oxford book of Quotations, or the very wide-ranging AZ quotes. The advantage of the first is that you come across gems from authors you might not have known anything about otherwise as you turn the pages, and of the second that you can home digitally on authors you are particularly interested in. There are so many gems just waiting to be unearthed!

It is always refreshing, and sometimes challenging to read assembled founts of wisdom; concisely expressed  gems that can instruct, inspire, and warn across a whole range of topics, whether to confirm and clarify what we already know, or to help us think in a new way about some other topic.

The value of any good quotation is that it bears repetition, and has the power to become embedded in one’s thinking, and whole outlook on life. In this article I would like to share with you a collection of pithy and powerful quotes that will enable you to feast on the writings of Francis de Sales, a man of great integrity, love and gentleness – who lived and wrote in a day when, like ours, people tended to adopt hard line attitudes and to take exclusive positions over everything from politics to religion, which, even when they may theologically have been ‘right,’ often failed to convey the heart and character of the Lord Jesus Himself.

I have studied in detail the history of the Huguenot revival that took place in a region close to Savoy a generation after Francis, (I will love to share the story with you sometime) and the persecution they endured at the hands of the French king and the rabid anti-protestant laws. But here was a man who ministered in Savoy, a region that was overwhelming Protestant and fervently anti-Catholic, whose love and example made the most profound impact on many, and led to him being appointed as Bishop in the Diocese of Geneva.

Without shying away from controversies, he worked on the principle that ‘drops of honey are far more attractive than barrels of vinegar’. Despite having survived attempts to assassinate him in his early days, he insisted that no one should be ordained as a priest unless he had a real love for Protestants.

It is a joy to combine my love of quotations with these gems from Bishop Francis de Sales’ writings. I hope this collection of pithy and powerful quotes will bless as well as serving to introduce you to the writings of Francis de Sales. Much of his efforts were directed to pioneering the whole idea of people being as close to the Lord outside the cloister as people might be expected to be inside it. He succeeded well!

Amongst many other accomplishments, Francis developed a sign language in order to teach a deaf man about God, as well as composing a vast body of correspondence with those for whom he provided spiritual oversight – letters which continue to speak to this day. Many of these include fine statements that can continue to speak as quotes and epigrams even when removed from their original context.

*This article in Wikipedia provides the bare bones of an introduction to the man and his ministry but, inevitably, it can hint at their full richness.

Quotes from the writings of Francis de Sales Bishop of Geneva

Many of the truths contained in these quotes will be entirely familiar to you, but that is not the point; their value lies rather in their ability to impart a fresh anointing to us so that we may apply them in our own lives.

On the love of God

Francis lived and wrote in a day like our own, when people tended to adopt hard-line attitudes and exclusive positions over everything from politics to religion. But, as St. Paul observed, even when our theology is correct, if there is not love in the way we share it, then the heart and character of the Lord Jesus is not heard, and we are merely clanging gongs.

Sometimes, when reading 1 Corinthians 13, I have tried turning each statement about love into a question. Like this:

Love is patient: am I? Love is kind: am I? Even when I am tired?

Love does not envy: do I? It does not boast – what about me? Do I boast? Love is not proud – but how does pride manifest itself in me?

And that is just verse 4 – there are another eleven statements we could go on to look at in relation to our life and relationships!

Here are some thoughts from Francis on the subject of love:

It is love that gives value to all our works; it is not by the greatness or multiplicity of our works that we please God, but by the love with which we do them . . . The measure of love is to love without measure.

The perfection of life is the perfection of love. Love is the life of the soul.

We must do all by love, and nothing by force.

All the good we do, we do for love of God, and the evil we avoid, we avoid for love of God.

You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. Begin as a mere apprentice and the very power of love will lead you on to become a master of the art.

We have to do everything for love, not out of force.

A sign that we love truly love God is that we love Him the same in all occasions.

Charity is a spiritual fire; when it is embraced it is called devotion. Genuine devotion is consistent with every state of life. Like liquid poured into a container, it adapts itself to any shape.

I wanted to love not knowing what to love. I have found Him who my soul searched for!

Oh, eternal love! My soul requires you and chooses you eternally.

How authentic is our devotion?

We all colour devotion according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness; and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbour’s blood, through slander and calumny.

Another esteems herself devout because she multiplies prayers, and yet afterwards speaks arrogantly to her employees or to her neighbour.

Another person will gladly take alms from his wallet to give to the poor, but refuses to draw kindness from his heart to pardon his enemies. Still another person will pardon easily but refuses to pay his creditors unless compelled to do so by law. All these persons may pass for being ‘devout’ but they are nevertheless not so.

Fits of anger, vexation, and bitterness against ourselves tend to pride and they spring from no other source than self-love, which is disturbed and upset at seeing that it is imperfect.

If, when stung by slander or ill-nature, we wax proud and swell with anger, it is a proof that our gentleness and humility are unreal, and mere artificial show.

True and solid devotion consists in the constant will, resolve, promptness and activeness to execute what is pleasing to God. (See Eph. 5:10: Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. (NLT)

God wants to deal with the things in our lives that are not pleasing to Him. That is not always comfortable, and can feel a lot like ‘tribulation,’ as Francis terms it!

‘We do not enjoy discipline and punishment,’ says the writer to the Hebrews. ‘It is painful at the time. But later, after we have learned from being punished, we have peace, because we start living in the right way.’ (Heb. 12:11) Francis puts it like this: “Those who wish to straighten a young tree, not only to bring it to the direction in which they wish it to grow but even bend it somewhat beyond, so that it will not return to its former direction.”

What is the bed of tribulation? It is simply the school of humility . . . Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly . . . Be who you are and be that well. Humility consists in not esteeming ourselves above other men, and in not seeking to be esteemed above them.

Looking sideways instead of up

We can spend so much time looking sideways at others instead of up at the Lord, wondering whether they are esteemed more highly than us – whether by our peers, or by Jesus Himself. As Francis warns, “It is the part of a futile soul to busy herself with examining the lives of others.” (cf 1 Tim. 5:13) Paul is very clear on the matter: we are not wise when we measure ourselves by one another and compare ourselves with one another. We do far better to pay careful attention to our own work, for then we will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and we won’t need to compare ourselves to anyone else. (2 Cor. 10:12 Gal. 6:4 NLT)

Comparing ourselves to one another is a sure way to either pride or despair, and to making many false judgements. But which of us has not judged the actions and motives of others, especially if we are feeling out of sorts ourselves? It is so easy to fall into the way of holding others to rigorous standards while being only too willing to excuse ourselves. It is just as possible to excuse others where we would accuse ourselves.

To borrow Francis wordings, “those who look well after their own consciences rarely fall into the sin of judging others.” Let’s be careful, too, not to ‘time-warp’ people, either, supposing that they can never change. “Since the goodness of God is so great that one single moment suffices to obtain and receive God’s grace, what assurance can we have that a person who was a sinner yesterday is a sinner today?”

(See also my article on this subject. ‘The Danger of time warping each other.’)

Instead, let us, “support and excuse our neighbour with great generosity of heart.” That too is a vital part of being ‘completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love – making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love’, as the NLT puts it. (Eph. 4:2)

Friendship

A heart doesn’t become truly generous without effort, but it does open the door to all manner of good things, including the treasures of friendship. True friends are a wonderful gift! They challenge us, they support us, they correct us, they heal us, they forgive us, they journey with us, they love us.

A faithful friend, writes Ben Sirach, is a sturdy shelter; the one who finds one finds a treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price; no sum can balance its worth. A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy, such as one who fears God finds. (Sirach 6:14-16) Or, as Francis puts it,

“The meeting of hearts is a place where we ‘can see one another in spite of the distances of places”.

Truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. Heaven and Earth are not distant enough to separate the hearts which our Lord has joined. Even the bitterness of friends can be sweet!

Friendship pours out its grace upon all the actions of the one who is loved.

Having said that, we should neither ‘imitate nor tolerate’ sin in our friends, for, as Francis warns, it is ‘a sorry friendship which would see a friend perish, and not try to save him.’ As our friends Paul and Gretel Haglin used to say, may we have the courage to go in and rescue those whom satan has taken captive.

See also Flagship friendships that foster fervent prayer.

Gentleness and patient endurance

Love, humility, gentleness, patience . . . these are those fruits that reveal a good tree, planted by the water and bearing its harvest in season (Ps. 1:3):
Francis was renowned for his gentleness. I love the way Paul urges us to cultivate this quality: Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is at hand. (Phil. 4:5)

Other versions render gentleness by the words, reasonableness, forbearance, kindness, graciousness, moderation, unselfishness and consideration. ‘The Voice’ paraphrases this verse thus: ‘Keep your gentle nature, so that all people will know what it looks like to walk in His footsteps. The Lord is ever present with us.’

Gentleness is not weak when it combines with patient endurance to understand that, ‘God never permits anything to come upon us as a trial or test of our virtue without desiring that we should profit by it,’ and is thereby able to ‘kiss frequently the crosses that our Lord Jesus himself puts on [our] shoulders, not looking to see if it is of precious wood or perfumed; they are more of a cross when they are made of the most despicable wood, the most rejected and dirty.

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. It is wonderful how attractive a gentle, pleasant manner is, and how much it wins hearts.

The truly patient man neither complains of his hard lot nor desires to be pitied by others. He speaks of his sufferings in a natural, true, and sincere way, without murmuring, complaining, or exaggerating them. For our misery is the throne of God’s mercy.”

In understanding these things, we are not called to glorify suffering or indeed to love or seek it, any more than Christ Himself did. In the course of working out our call to love and serve Christ in the world, however, guarantee that we will face trials and sufferings of all kinds – including having to cope with the limitations and imperfections of others, as well as the disappointments and heartaches that we ourselves face.

Timothy Keller’s book ‘Walking with God through Pain and Suffering’ is a superb overview of the subject and provides a beautifully balanced biblical perspective, which in turn may also help us to take Francis’s insights on board rather than to react against them, as some of our Pentecostal backgrounds may initially incline us to do. For these great truths we can thank God – that He is at working all things for our good (Rom. 8:28) and that He is ‘wooing us from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.’ (Job 36:16 NIV)

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had . . . Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset (attitude) as Christ Jesus: (Rom. 15:5, Phil 2:2-5)

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