Meekness isn’t weakness.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I used the word “meekness” in a sentence. Regardless if it’s written or in conversation, it’s not a word that frequents my vocabulary. I’m betting you can’t remember when you used it last either. It’s not a commonly used word nowadays, especially with our society’s affinity for strength at an all-time high. Incidentally, if you were to look at the popular definition for “meek” or “meekness,” it’s pretty apparent why it’s not referenced today. Meek is defined as “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive.” Who’d want to sign up for those character traits, right?
We view those who are meek as doormats. People to step over or step on as we climb to the top rung of society. Meek people aren’t today’s Fortune 500 CEO’s or New York Times Bestsellers. They’re the ones who get lost in the dust of the successful. On these terms, the wake of the prosperous is full of meek people. Because in a culture that’s fixated on strength and success — on “being all that we can be” and “living strong” — there’s no space for meekness. There’s no place for those who are “easily imposed on.”
Therefore, when the apostle Paul describes the portrait of a Christian in the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), I wager that “meekness” is often the one fruit that’s left to fall out of the basket without much disturbance. However, upon further reflection, I am certain that meekness is, or should be, the usual posture of those who believe in Jesus’s resurrection. Indeed, it is the fact of the resurrection and the guarantee of redemption that form the groundwork upon which all meekness rests.
Some, though, attempt to supplant the “doormat” definition of meekness by redefining it as “strength under control.” While this is nearer the mark of biblical meekness, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not sufficient to counter the mainstream perspective that “meekness is weakness.” As a result, we must hasten to survey portraits of meekness in Scripture and what bearing those portraits have on us today.
Biblical pictures of meekness.
Perhaps the most common sketch of meekness comes from Numbers 12, where we are given the account of Moses receiving impassioned censure over the fact that he married “a Cushite woman.”
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. (Num 12:1–3 ESV)
This scene is certainly a very intriguing one in the Old Testament narrative. Miriam and Aaron, prophetess and priest respectively, criticize Moses for his union with a Cushite woman, or as the King James renders it, “an Ethiopian woman” (who may or may not be Zipporah, but that’s beside the point). Now, it’s not explicitly clear as to the reason why Aaron and Miriam denounced this marriage. Some commentators note that it could’ve been the Ethiopian woman’s potential sway she had over Moses in the selection of the 70 elders. (Num 11:16–30) Or, it could be merely a problem with race. The priest and prophetess could have been irate with their leader because of the nationality of his spouse. Considering human nature, that’s certainly plausible.
However, I’m not sure the specific reason for their criticism is the point. Rather, it’s the fact that Moses is described as one who “was very meek.” What’s more, taking that into account with the rest of the passage, we’re made to see that God is honored by the meekness and humble submissiveness of his servant. God calls the three actors of this scene out of their meeting and descends to them to speak directly at them. (Num 12:4–6) And as the Lord opens his mouth, he reprimands Aaron and Miriam harshly — “the Lord’s anger burned against them” (Num 12:9) — and vindicates Moses by saying, “He is faithful in all my household.” (Num 12:7)
From this short account, we see that meekness in God’s followers is something that he honors. Moses understood that his vindication wasn’t up to his words. It was up to God’s. Moses didn’t need to defend himself in this matter, despite having reason to do so. (It was legally acceptable to marry a Cushite woman, so long as she was not of the stock of Canaan. See Ex 34:11–16.) Moses remained quiet in the face of his critics, displaying a truly meek heart.
By the same token, we need only remember the “Hebrew 3” from Daniel 3 to see another vivid picture of meekness. If you recall, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have been taken captive in Babylon, and despite being summoned to bow in worship to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, they firmly resist this command and give this reply with courageous meekness:
Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your God’s or worship the gold statue you set up. (Dan 3:16–18)
This emboldened speech in the face of a “blazing fire” that was made hotter just for them reveals the courageous meekness of God’s followers. Rather than kowtow to a tyrant’s demands, these “Hebrew 3” remain faithful to the Lord’s mission, never succumbing to demonstrating an exasperated defense of their actions in order to save their own skin. Instead, they stand in confidence on the assurance of God’s sovereignty, even if they lose everything, including their lives. And that, I believe, is what frustrates us most about the concept of meekness: being okay to lose.
Winning by losing.
We cannot tolerate losing, let alone allowing ourselves to associate with losers. That just won’t do. Therefore, the law of the day insists that any quality that’s perceived to be susceptible to losing ought to be cut off. That is to say, meekness is cast aside as being the pervading characteristic of losers. This, though, is precisely why the message of Jesus Christ throughout the Gospels was received with such disdain. The widespread philosophy in Jesus’s day was that the promised Messiah would come to reclaim the throne and establish the Kingdom of God by way of force and violence. This was the ideology of the Zealots, one that had many adherents, most recognizably the two disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. (Lk 24:13–27) Nevertheless, Jesus rejects this ideal and teaches the opposite. (Jn 18:36) His message was that God’s Kingdom would come peacefully, that is, through meekness.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:3, 5, 10 ESV)
Jesus’s declaration at the outset of the Sermon on the Mount speaks to the inversion of God’s Kingdom. Whereas our natural inclinations suppose violence and bloodshed as absolutely necessary for the establishing of kingdoms, Christ says it’s the meek, the persecuted, and the “poor in spirit” who will usher in the Kingdom. The Son of God, here, categorically declares that his Father’s realm isn’t like ours. It’s not controlled by the most forceful, nor is it established by the winners. Actually, it’s won by losing.
Defeat and deference.
If you remember, Jesus even rebukes one of his own disciples for succumbing to this very idea of “kingdom violence.” In Matthew 26, the delightfully dense Peter takes action in the Garden of Gethsemane when a mob armed with swords and clubs comes to take Christ captive. (Mt 26:47–54) Not one to think twice, Peter hurriedly unsheathes his sword and attempts to defend his Lord’s life, missing the head of the servant and slicing off his ear. What you must note, though, about this account is that Jesus immediately reprimands not the mob arresting him but his disciple defending him.
Put your sword back in its place because all who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and he will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels? How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way? (Mt 26:52–54)
I believe these are some of the most important words to remember when attempting to understand biblical meekness. For as much as we want to take matters into our own hands, Jesus urges us to let him take care of it all. Christ castigates Peter for thinking that the Kingdom of Heaven could be brought about by violence. Instead, he reaffirms that we don’t conquer, we don’t take. We’re not crusaders. That’s not how the Kingdom works. God’s Kingdom isn’t established by our defense but by Christ’s defeat, and our deference.
The meek Messiah.
From here we see the marvelous image of biblical meekness in full display, not as a concept that relegates us to doormats but one that tells us where our true victory lies. The quiet submissiveness commanded by God is bent out of an understanding of Jesus’s “once for all” triumph. Meekness is the appropriate posture for those who understand that their ultimate victory isn’t up to them. It’s already been won for them by a truer and better Victor.
Jesus is the meek Messiah. With him, all is meekness and lowliness of heart. (Mt 11:28–30) He defers his throne to take up residence with our filth. He dines with sinners and touches the unclean. He is the meek One who stands in our place. The One who never opened his mouth in the case against himself. (Is 53:7; Mt 26:63; 1 Pt 2:23) The One who shouldered all the taunts and retorts thrown at him. The One who bore all the brunt of the crowd’s abuse. By the Savior’s silence the salvation of sinners was secured. Not by force. Not by defense. Not by a sermon that acquitted his record but by humble, deferential obedience that led him “to the point of death — even to death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8) The quiet submissiveness of Christ that led him to Calvary is the good news that you can never truly lose.
The Christ who gave all gives you everything. And if you already have everything, how can you lose anything? How can you truly lose when Jesus won everything for you? What’s the occasion for spiritual superiority when you’ve never won anything anyways? All that you are and have is because of Jesus. In his divine grace and power, he has “given us everything required for life and godliness.” (2 Pt 1:3) Would we be so desperate to boast in our spiritual strongholds if we understood that the God of the universe has won the world for us already?
And so we see that biblical meekness is openhanded with its possessions, operating with the understanding that nothing can truly be lost if it’s never really owned. The high contrast of Jesus’s quiet submissiveness rails against our boisterous resistance to losing, and frees us to be “glad losers for Jesus,” as Charles Spurgeon terms it.
Oh, that we may never hesitate to be glad losers for Jesus! They who lose all for Christ will find all in Christ, and receive all with Christ.1
Modern applications of meekness.
From these vignettes, we’re able to clearly see what biblical meekness is and, moreover, how it should impact our lives as Christians. God’s people are meek people, characterized by their steady, quiet submissiveness to God’s plan for their lives. Their confidence stems not from their ability to overcome but from Christ overcoming all for them. (Jn 16:33) The gospel of God instills in God’s people a deep-seated confidence that the Lord of all is for you, not against you. (Rom 8:31; Ps 118:6) This is biblical meekness.
I reckon that meekness is actually the culmination of the other fruits being worked in you. (Gal 5:22–23) As the Spirit of God cultivates his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness in you, the result is a soul that’s okay with losing, knowing its already won. You’ll be okay when things don’t go according to plan, because you know God’s plans are better, and he’s bringing about everything according to his will. Indeed, when God chisels away the old Adam in you, you’re forced to accept your utter dependence upon his grace to work things out.
This philosophy goes against all the ideals of the day. Whereas modern thinking says to fight, the gospel says to lay your life down. Lay your all down at the feet of the One who surrendered everything for you. This ends the needless quest for pay back or comeuppance. Meekness doesn’t seek out revenge, nor does it grip its reputation with a tight fist. (Ti 3:2) It absorbs criticisms without retaliation. (Rom 12:14) Meekness liberates you to leave your reputation and vindication with God.
The gospel of meekness.
This is not something we can cultivate ourselves. This type of quality is opposite to all that’s in us. It goes against every fiber of our being to embrace meekness. Accordingly, developing a meek heart necessitates a continual relearning of the gospel. It requires you to be honest with yourself and adamant about the mission of suppressing the innate desire to fight back or put ourselves first. Those who are meek are slow to anger and quick to listen. (Jas 1:19–21) They rightly understand their limitations and imperfections. They aren’t concerned with how they’re viewed in the world because they know that all that they are is wrapped up in Jesus’s grace to them.
The meek man cares not at all who is greater than he, for he has long ago decided that the esteem of the world is not worth the effort . . . The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather he may be in his moral life as bold as a lion and as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being fooled about himself. He has accepted God’s estimate of his own life. He knows he is as weak and helpless as God has declared him to be, but paradoxically, he knows at the same time that he is in the sight of God of more importance than angels. In himself, nothing; in God, everything. That is his motto. He knows well that the world will never see him as God sees him and he has stopped caring. He rests perfectly content to allow God to place his own values. He will be patient to wait for the day when everything will get its own price tag and real worth will come into its own. Then the righteous shall shine forth in the Kingdom of their Father. He is willing to wait for that day . . . In the meantime he will have attained a place of soul rest. As he walks on in meekness he will be happy to let God defend him. The old struggle to defend himself is over. He has found the peace which meekness brings.2
Accordingly, we affirm that meekness is not weakness. Rather, it’s understanding where your true strength lies. Not in yourself. Not in your résumé or reputation but in your Redeemer. It’s an unspoken message to the world that the Messiah is in us. (1 Pt 3:15) Those who are meek are humble and gentle, relying on their Savior’s might and not their own. Meekness is peaceful freedom from the fretting and frenzy that follows the need to keep up appearances. (Ps 37:11) It’s release from the burden to be “right, rewarded, regarded, and respected. Because Jesus came to set the captives free, life does not have to be a tireless effort to establish ourselves, justify ourselves, and validate ourselves.”3 Meekness begins when we end the game of trusting in ourselves and begin trusting in God, when we stretch ourselves out on his victory.
Charles Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1893), 165.
A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Whitakers, NC: Positive Action For Christ, 2007), 87–88.
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013), 36.