During these days of division and discord one often hears admonitions that Christians be “winsome” in their speaking, writing, and interaction with others. For example, look here, here, and here. In some cases I have heard fellow Christians advocate for winsomeness as if it were a fruit of the Spirit or even a cardinal virtue.
It is important to achieve clarity about what it means to be winsome and when it is appropriate, because calls to winsomeness are increasingly common and often function as conversation killers. Such admonitions can be disingenuous, content-dodging tactics as opposed to sincere pleas for virtue. In a post-truth culture—as some have described contemporary American society—the substance of an assertion may be deemed less important than how it is said. A focus on process may stand in the way of actual communication about content and real insights about issues and solutions to problems.
So what does it mean to be winsome? The American Heritage Dictionary defines winsome as “charming, often in a childlike or naïve way.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to be winsome is to be “charming and attractive in a simple way.” And the Oxford Dictionary says a winsome person is “attractive and pleasing with simple qualities.” Other lexicographical accounts associate winsomeness with such qualities as sweetness, gentility, or an engaging presence. Let’s keep these traits in mind as we consider whether we should consider winsomeness to be a Christian virtue.
Was Jesus Winsome?
When considering the appropriateness of any character trait for Christians, perhaps the first question to ask is whether Jesus Christ himself displayed the trait. After all, Christians are called to emulate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). He is our moral exemplar. But when we search the Gospel narratives, what do we find? Surely, Jesus was often winsome in his interactions with some people, especially the humble, needy, and disabled. You might say that with those who were humble, meek, and repentant, he showed himself to be humble and meek, from his interactions with children (Mark 10) to his healings of the sick (Luke 4-5; Mt. 8-9) to the mercy he showed the adulterous woman (John 8) and the humble thief on the cross (Luke 23). But the traits he displayed in his interactions with the proud, haughty, and deceitful were quite a different matter. On these and other occasions Jesus often proved to be harsh, confusing, cryptic, and judgmental—in short, rather unwinsome. To illustrate with some examples, Jesus was not particularly winsome when:
- he cleared the temple court with a whip and overturned tables (John 2)
- he pronounced woes on the rich, well fed, and jubilant (Luke 6);
- he invited people to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6);
- he called the Pharisees harsh names such as “fools,” “liars,” “snakes,” “vipers,” “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “hypocrites” and declared that they were greedy, self-indulgent, and wicked sons of the devil who “do not belong to God” (John 8; Mt. 23);
- he said, “whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8);
- he pronounced woes on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Mt. 11);
- he called the people an “unbelieving and perverse generation” (Luke 9);
- he said to one of his followers, whose father had recently died, “let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9);
- he said he came to bring fire on earth and to bring not peace but division, even within families (Luke 12);
- he referred to Canaanite people as “dogs” (Mt. 15);
- he said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan” (Mt. 16);
- he repeatedly preached on and warned of hell for the unrepentant, unforgiving and even the wealthy (Mt. 18, etc.)
- he cursed a fig tree (Mt. 21); and
- he pronounced woes on the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Luke 11; Mt. 23), and when one of the Pharisees said he felt insulted by what Jesus was saying (Luke 11:45), Jesus doubled down with more woes, culminating in the assertion that that generation would be held responsible for all of the murders of prophets in all previous generations (Luke 11:50).
This is not exactly the stuff of winsomeness.
Next, we may ask whether the apostles and biblical writers were winsome. Starting with the Apostle Paul, clearly he was winsome in many of his writings, particularly in the salutations and closing remarks of his epistles, as well as, for example, in his beautiful discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 and throughout much of the book of Ephesians. In many other places, however, his tone is stunningly harsh, particularly when correcting doctrinal errors and rebuking people for various sins. For instance, in the book of Titus, Paul condemns the legalism of “the circumcision group,” and about them he writes, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13). And in his letter to the Galatians he says about these same people, “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).
In several of his epistles, Paul strikes a very severe tone regarding believers who were either acting immorally or condoning sin. To believers in Corinth, he said, “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (1 Cor. 5:11). And in one of his letters to the church at Thessalonica, he gave a strong warning against idleness, recommending that if anyone is unwilling to work, then he should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). In that same letter, Paul recommended a severe response to those who did not heed his instructions, saying “Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14).
As for Peter, his letters are also marked by stern instructions, strong rebukes, and harsh warnings. In one of his letters he castigates false teachers in the harshest terms, warning that they will be condemned (2 Pet. 2:3). He goes on to call them “slaves of depravity” who are “an accursed brood” that “are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed” (2 Pet. 2:12). James, too, sometimes strikes a severe tone. In his epistle he refers to his readers as “foolish” and “adulterous,” and he issues an especially harsh remonstration to wealthy people when he says, “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:4-6).
When to be Winsome?
This is just a sampling of instances in which Jesus and the Apostles are not winsome but, in fact, quite the opposite—stern, severe, harsh, judgmental, and even offensive to their hearers and readers. And we could enumerate myriad similar instances of unwinsome words and behaviors of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Add to this the fact that nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to be attractive, charming, sweet, or genteel. Perhaps the closest we can come to finding a biblical endorsement of winsomeness is in Galatians 5:23, where Paul includes “gentleness” in his list of the “fruit of the Spirit” or moral virtues. But the fact that Paul himself is often quite the opposite of gentle—including in that very same epistle—shows that this trait is not, as Kant would say, a “perfect duty” for Christians—it is not the sort of moral virtue for which there are no appropriate exceptions. There is a time for gentleness, and there is a time for toughness and even severity.
Another biblical defense of winsomeness might be made based on the fact that Jesus strongly encourages childlikeness, a trait that is associated with winsomeness. In fact, Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). So isn’t this essentially an endorsement of winsomeness? First, it is important to note the context of this passage. Here Jesus is responding to the disciples’ question about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48), which suggests that his main point concerns the virtue of humility, as opposed to simplicity, much less the sort of charming naïvete that is often associated with winsomeness. Secondly, some commentators interpret Jesus’ idealization of children here as having mainly to do with the attitude of trust that we are to place in him, a readiness to believe and submit to the authority of God just as a child trusts her parents and naturally recognizes their authority. Other commentators, such as Johannes Weiss, have suggested that what Jesus had in mind when he set up children as a model in Matthew 18 is their directness, lack of self-consciousness, and their especially keen perception regarding certain matters which are often lost on adults. In any case, even if Jesus did mean to endorse winsomeness with this teaching, he cannot have intended this to be a perfect duty, admitting of no exceptions, since he himself was often quite unwinsome, as we have already seen.
So what are we to conclude from all of this? I would say that while winsomeness does seem to be an admirable trait in many contexts, it is not a trait that Scripture recognizes as a moral virtue. This is evidenced by several facts. First, there are no biblical commands to be winsome. Secondly, Jesus acts and speaks on many occasions in very unwinsome ways. Thirdly, many biblical writers, in both the Old and New Testaments, often write in very unwinsome ways. This suggests that, like so many human personality traits and modes of conduct, the appropriateness of a winsome manner or style crucially depends upon the social context or situation. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, it is indeed good to be winsome. But on certain occasions it is also appropriate not to be winsome. Sometimes it is good to be stern or severe rather than gentle and sweet. Sometimes it is appropriate to speak or write in cryptic or complicated terms rather than to be simple and childlike. And sometimes it is even okay to be harsh, offensive, or off-putting rather than charming or attractive.
Of course, this raises the critical question, when is it appropriate to be winsome and when is it appropriate not to be? Like any serious, substantive question regarding the moral life, this calls for wisdom and cannot be answered with a simple formula or algorithm. But we might be able to glean one general guideline from the psalmist who says of the Lord, “to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd” (Ps. 18:26). This passage is itself somewhat cryptic (and thus unwinsome!), but one thing we can gather from it is that God’s responses to people vary according to the purity of their own hearts. This might also explain Jesus’ own varying treatment of people, as he is typically direct and straightforward with those who approach him with pure, sincere, humble hearts. But those who are devious, presumptuous, and arrogant he treats very differently. Indeed, if we look back through the above list of instances in which Jesus behaves unwinsomely, it is usually in response to such people, especially the Pharisees and teachers of the law. So the lesson we might draw from this is that in our own dealings with people it is often appropriate and desirable to be winsome—perhaps usually so. But when dealing with the deceitful, insincere, presumptuous, or arrogant it might likewise be appropriate or even most advisable to be stern, severe, cryptic, off-putting, or even harsh—in a word, to be unwinsome. Indeed, such a response might constitute truly gracious speech, depending on the context.