Blessed Are the Meek
Blessed Are the Meek
Suppose the company you work for were to write a description of the ideal person to be its new CEO. Do you think meekness would be on the list? What about in the next presidential election? Which candidate would garner the most votes with the slogan, "Vote for me, I'm meek!" Or what about your pastoral search? How excited do you think the search committee would be about a candidate who said that his primary leadership quality was that he was meek? We don't want a meek person to be our leader. We want someone who is dynamic, powerful. So Jesus' third beatitude, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth," comes as something of a surprise. What's so great about being meek? And why do the meek inherit the earth? Part of our problem is due to a misunderstanding—we hear the word "meek" and automatically think "weak." We couldn't be more wrong.
Meekness requires strength.
One way to define meekness is "strength under control." We get a sense of this from the way this word is translated elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, translations like the New American Standard Version and the New Living Translation use the word "gentle" here: blessed are the gentle. The validity of this translation is supported by other passages where this same Greek word appears. In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul identifies this as an essential quality of leadership when he says: "the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth." Meekness requires strength. In fact, to be meek in the sense that Jesus describes here requires supernatural strength—a quality that is produced by God in the believer's life. "Meekness" or "gentleness" is in the list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23.
But what are we really talking about in terms of behavior? If meekness isn't just another synonym for weakness, what is it? The stereotype of meekness is a person who has no will of his own. We think of the meek person as someone pathologically passive who cannot help letting others take advantage of him. Biblical meekness requires strength. Proverbs 16:32 says, "Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city." Meekness isn't weakness. A meek person is stronger than a warrior, because it takes more strength to control your temper than it does to storm a city. Meekness isn't passivity either. The meek person is intentional and in control. So what does meekness look like in the real world? Specifically, what does meekness look like in the church?
Paul gives us an interesting snapshot in Ephesians 4:1-2 when he says, "I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." In blunt terms, meekness means that you and I put up with each other. It means that we will endure one another.
I appreciate the Bible's honesty on this matter. Sometimes we give the impression that life in the church is a kind of utopia. We sometimes get the idea that real Christians never get annoyed with one another, never become frustrated with each other, never get fed up with one another. When I was a pastor, I quickly discovered that I couldn't please everyone in my ministry. There were always a handful of people who were disappointed with my leadership. Some of these people, I eventually came to realize, were more than disappointed. I got the feeling they didn't like me. Of course these were always the people I obsessed about. One night I was brooding out loud to my wife about someone who wasn't happy with me. She listened patiently to my complaints—the same ones she had heard many times before. Finally she spoke: "So what if they don't like you?" she said. "You don't like them either!"
Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in the church is to "put up" with one another. It's a good thing, too, because some of us are hard to live with. I appreciate the emphasis on mutuality in Paul's command: bear with "one another." Do you find someone around you annoying or hard to deal with? Guess what? There is a high degree of likelihood that they struggle with the same issue regarding you. Paul's instruction would hardly be helpful if it weren't for the clarifying phrase he adds at the end of the verse. He says we are to "bear with one another in love." Yes, life in the body of Christ does call for us to put up with each other, but not in a grudging, mean-spirited way. There is a kind of forbearance that masquerades as contempt. There are some who display patience towards others in a way that communicates impatience. That's not what Paul is talking about—and it's not the meekness Jesus speaks of in the third beatitude. Meekness is an attribute of strength. To exercise it, I must go against the grain. But meekness doesn't merely take strength. If I'm going to bear with others "in love," I will need to have their best interest at heart.
Meekness requires humility.
The word that Jesus uses in this beatitude is often associated with humility in the Scriptures. We already saw this in Ephesians 4:1-2 where humbleness, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another are all part of the same constellation of traits. We also see this in the great invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30, where our Lord says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." I am gentle (or meek) and humble, Jesus says. So what is humility?
In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis warns that our popular conception of humility is misleading: "Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call 'humble" nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody," Lewis writes. "Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him." I think Jesus would agree, or I should more properly say, Lewis agrees with Jesus. Our Lord's invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to take up the yoke of discipleship is grounded in that attractiveness of this kind of humility. "Come to me," Jesus says. "Take my yoke upon you … learn from me." Why in the world would we ever want to do that? "Because I am gentle and humble in heart," Jesus says, "and you will find rest for your souls." There is a winsomeness about humility. It is compelling. This is one of the great ironies when it comes to humility. It captures by retreat the very citadel that pride attempts to take by storm.
Pride, of course, is the antithesis of humility. Like the fun house mirror at the carnival distorts our image, pride will take some achievement or aspect of our character and blow it out of proportion. Pride gives us a false view of ourselves. It inflates the few virtues we possess and makes us think we have others that we don't. Pride blinds us, so that we fail to see the glaring faults that are so obvious to everyone else. It minimizes the few weaknesses we are willing to admit. Worse yet, pride often prompts us to put on the mask of humility in an attempt to disguise what is really self absorption.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Catholic writer Francis de Sales makes this wry observation: "We are very apt to speak of ourselves as nothing, as weakness itself, as the off-scouring of the earth; but we should be very much vexed to be taken at our word and generally considered what we call ourselves. On the contrary, we often make-believe to run away and hide ourselves, merely to be followed and sought out; we pretend to take the lowest place, with the full intention of being honourably called to come up higher." This begs the question: if I am humble, truly humble in the biblical sense, do I know it? Is the proud person the one who says he is humble? If that is true, where can we go to get humility? And how will we ever know if we have acquired it? Well, we can be sure of this: humility doesn't come from looking in the mirror. It doesn't come from examining ourselves for signs that we are humble. The place to start is to look for the pride in ourselves—and expect to find it. C. S. Lewis writes, "If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed."
In the Bible humility is also described as a choice—a command. James 4:10 says, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." What does that look like? The description in James 4:7-9 involves three basic elements: surrender, return, and mourning. James 4:7 tells the humble person to surrender, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Next, James says to return: "Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded" (4:8). James then says to mourn: "Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom" (4:9). In simplest terms, humility is movement in God's direction. Humility involves a turning away from sin and away from ourselves, and a turning toward God.
Meekness requires acceptance.
Acceptance is a third characteristic of humility. Society's perception of a meek person is someone who is compliant—a person who doesn't fight but simply accepts things. To some extent this is the Bible's view as well, though biblical meekness carries more intention; it is not a passive acceptance. To be meek is to yield to God, to give way to God. Meekness is acceptance of God's Word and cooperation with his purposes. James 1:21 helps us see what this looks like when he says, "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly [or meekly] accept the word planted in you, which can save you." James says those who are meek or humble "accept" God's word. Clearly there is something more than mere cognition in view here. Those whom James is addressing already have a cognitive awareness of God's Word—"the word planted in you." Now that it is planted in you, he says, accept it, or yield to it. James' language seems to imply that planting the Word does not automatically guarantee that the Word will bear fruit. There seems to be a dimension of the will involved. Once it has been planted, welcome it. Open your heart to it. That is the idea conveyed by James' language.
Before I joined the faculty of the Moody Bible Institute, I served as a pastor in a farming community. Prior to moving there, I thought all a seed needed in order to grow was some ground and some rain. I was surprised when one of the soybean farmers in my congregation explained how rain, when it is followed by a dry spell, will sometimes leave a hard crust that the planted seeds can't break through. What is it that keeps God's word from bearing fruit once it has been implanted? What is it that creates hardness in us? Sometimes it is a crust of presumption. We have certain preconceived notions about what God will or won't do in our lives. We have certain assumptions about what God should or shouldn't do. To some extent, this is understandable. We believe in the clarity of God's word; it was written for our benefit; it was meant to be understood. But we will often create a mold based on our personal and theological prejudices and use it as an interpretive grid. Everything that doesn't fit the mold is pared away. We are never surprised, never puzzled, and, frankly, never challenged. Are theological systems wrong? Should we fire our theologians and burn our doctrinal statements? By no means! We need theology; our systems are helpful. But we need to realize that their greatest strength is also their weakness. A theological system can be a lens that helps us understand Scripture. It can also be a filter that blinds us to those aspects of God's truth that don't fit our model. It has as much potential to harden the heart and close the mind as it does to help us understand. The remedy, then, is not to throw out our theological systems, but to approach theology with a spirit of meekness. The solution is to humbly accept the Word planted in you. When God's Word pushes against the fortress of your assumptions, surrender. Open the doors and let God's Word have its say.
Another crust that keeps God's Word from bearing fruit in our lives is a hardening of the heart, rooted in the fear that if we let God have free reign in our lives, he will ask us to do the very things we do not want to do—those things that make our palms sweat. This interpretation of Scripture says, "God would never say that," or, "God would never do that," or, "God would never ask me to do that." These are not convictions based on knowledge but convictions based on personal preference and, ultimately, fear. For some of us, it is the fear of going to the jungle with the bugs and spiders to be a missionary. For others it is the fear of staying home. For some it is the prospect of being single all their days. For others it is the thought of being married. It's that thing that Jesus asks us to forsake that we want to keep for ourselves. It's that cross that Jesus asks us to take up, that we so desperately want to leave behind. Whatever shape it takes, in the end, it all boils down to the same thing: we are afraid that if we give way to God, he will fail us. We are terrified at the thought that if we abandon ourselves to God's Word and his purpose, we will end up the losers in the end.
It is so important for us to hear the last part of Jesus' beatitude: "Blessed are the meek," Jesus says, "for they will inherit the earth." Those who heard Jesus utter these words would've linked this to God's promise to bring Israel into the land. Those who first heard Jesus speak this sermon lived with daily reminders that the land God promised to them was in the hands of someone else. These were people for whom meekness was a daily challenge. Jesus' hearers would have listened to this promise with the ears of the oppressed. These were people who possessed wonderful promises but had no power of their own to bring them to pass. In other words, they were people like us! What is Jesus' message to these people whose dreams have been cast adrift on waves of circumstance? What does Jesus say to those whose hopes have been crushed by the whims of a providence that seems arbitrary at best? Jesus says, "Give way." Yield to God's Word. Abandon yourself to God's purpose. Let go of your own hopes and dreams, and entrust them to the captain of your soul. Let down your sail and allow God's good purpose to take you safely into the promised harbor. The day of blessing is coming—the day when God will make good on every promise. "Blessed are the meek," Jesus says, "for they will inherit the earth"
Let's close with these words of hymn writer Isaac Watts:
Is there ambition in my heart?
Search, gracious God, and see;
Or do I act a haughty part?
Lord, I appeal to thee.
I charge my thoughts, be humble still,
And all my carriage mild.
Content, my Father, with thy will,
The patient soul, the lowly mind,
Shall have a large reward:
Let saints in sorrow lie resigned,
And trust a faithful Lord.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.