Sunday, March 20, 2011

Gentle Restraint

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5.5)

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the laps of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7.9)


We don’t use the word “meek” very often these days—not in a flattering sense, that is. We don’t praise people by saying, “She’s such a meek person” or, “I wish I could be meek like him.” Somehow, the adjective picked up negative connotations as our culture grew increasingly enamored with pop psychology’s push for self-esteem and assertiveness. We take “meek” to mean sheepish, shy, passive, and too timid to make waves. We stereotype meek people as pushovers, wallflowers, conformists, and yes-men/women, i.e., not the sort of person society respects or we want to be. Thus, when we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” we’re apt to think, “How kind of God to include the meek people. It wouldn’t be fair to leave them out.” The condescension doesn’t faze us. And the most cynical of us might even remark, “It’s a good thing God’s giving them the earth. Lord knows if they had to get it for themselves, they’d be out of luck.” Clearly, I’m exaggerating—but not by much. Meekness is not something we aspire to or reward.

Yet Jesus tells us to be meek. He not only promises we’ll inherit the earth, but says we are (present tense) “blessed.” A closer translation of the original word would be “happy” or “fulfilled.” So we wonder if Jesus is using reverse logic here. Is He talking down to us, like we’re naïve children, making big promises to put us on our best behavior? No. Why should He? He just as well could warn us not to expect happiness and validation if we aren’t meek. But Jesus promises them to the meek. And since these objectives drive our self-actualization mindset, perhaps we should consider what meekness really is, because it has nothing to do with sheepishness, passivity, or conformity. Although it may appear as such, meekness is the opposite. It takes uncommon courage, backbone, and self-discipline to be meek.

Demonstrating Power

Many updated Bible translations replace “meek” with “gentle,” which reverses the negative spin while still underestimating praeis, the Greek word in Matthew 5.5’s transcription. There, it’s a cognate sharing the same root as many Greek and Latin words that mean “more or stronger than.” (The Toyota Prius is a modern cognate, coined to suggest its hybrid engine improves on traditional fossil-fuel motors.) Linguists from HELPS Word-studies—The Moody Bible Institute’s online language seminar—dissect praeis thusly:

This difficult-to-translate root (pra-) means more than “meek.” Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God’s strength under His (sic) control—i.e. demonstrating power without undue harshness. [The English term “meek” often lacks this blend—i.e. of gentleness (reserve) and strength.]

Therefore, the meek whom Jesus describes—and calls us to be—demonstrate power through self-restraint. They’re gentle by choice, not nature. They let go many of the earthly assets at their disposal to influence situations and win arguments. They exercise "God’s strength under God’s control without undue harshness." For the meek believer, not alienating others by asserting authority or personal views is far more important than vindicating oneself or winning points.

Aggression of any kind is anathema because it verifies a lack of strength and power. It’s the lowest form of weakness—true spinelessness and bankruptcy of self-esteem. That’s why the Religious Right’s overheated rhetoric about “taking the world for Christ” and “declaring war on sin” rings so hollow. It merits no response, let alone any derision. The meek, not the aggressive, inherit the earth. Pushing an agenda—right or left, regardless of the ideals behind one’s motives—cancels all claims to meekness’s inheritance. And this principle holds for every arena in life: personal, religious, social, professional, and political. In 1 Peter 2.13, 15 and 16 we read, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority… For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.” Meekness, then, is the demonstration of power by submission to others in service to God. We may disagree with our leaders and those around us. We may not like where our world, country, and communities are headed. But we don’t sink to confronting them on their terms. That brings our meekness into question and sets tongues wagging. Gentle restraint is our show of strength. We have nothing to lose. By opting for meekness, we remain happy, knowing we will inherit the earth.

Anger Issues

On the personal front, meekness reaps consistent, immediate rewards by defusing anger issues. It’s the only sure-fire method of anger management. And therein lies our key to happiness. Anger begets misery because it’s born in misery. What makes us mad? Frustration, resentment, and other symptoms of deficient meekness. We get angry because we’re ignored, disrespected, powerless, used, and abused. Yet meekness makes us stronger than any of them. Even if people and situations that enrage us persist for life, they’re only temporary. Our inheritance is eternal. We are heirs to the earth. Christ assures us we will come into our own. Thus, we conduct ourselves as dignified heirs of staggering wealth—meekly, with reserved gentility. Discipleship carries with it its own strain of noblesse oblige; as nobles, we bow and oblige rather than succumbing to provocation.

Our happiness and fulfillment are predicated on meekness, which makes anger an unreasonable option. In other words, those attempting to provoke us to anger ask too much. “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the laps of fools,” Ecclesiastes 7.9 tells us. Meekness is our best defense against provocation, even when answering challenges would seem to serve our best interests. In those instances, we bridle our tempers, remembering we are first and foremost Christ’s disciples—“slaves to God,” as Peter puts it. Lent removes us from the clamor of daily life so we can find clarity to renew our vows of discipleship and strengthen our commitment. May our desert journey lead us to meekness and may we find the courage to embrace it as our way of life.

Meekness is not weakness in any form. It demonstrates power without undue harshness, which demands uncommon courage, backbone, and self-discipline.

Postscript: “Easy to Be Hard”

Walt and I recently saw the national tour of the Broadway revival of Hair and, once again (as always), this number choked me up. How many times do we allow our passions to lead us astray? We forsake meekness to take hard positions on social or religious issues and, in the process, alienate those around us. Jennifer Warnes performs “Easy to Be Hard” on “The Smothers Brothers Show” in the late 1960s.


Gary said...

This was a good day for a perfect post.

I have had some issues in the last year with just trying to be myself -- The stereotypical gentle (meek), creative, music and art loving Bohemian type guy. It seems that the cultural Renaissance Man is kind of on the outs with a lot of people in my circle.

I don't know if it's the rise of Mixed Martial Arts popularity, the greed and power plays that brought down Wall Street, or the general sense of "Mad Max Times" that Moe on the Simpsons recently correlated to Detroit. In any event, it has been hard to be me.

The reminder that being "meek" is nothing like being "weak" fell on very hungry eyes.

I'll keep doing what I do. I know for every guy out there who thinks I probably got a lot of Purple Nurples and Swirlies in life, there are a few more brilliant people whom I have made laugh, or think, or question something serious along the way.

Cheers, Brother. As always, you speak the truth.

Tim said...

Gary, no one I know epitomizes meekness more consistently than you--so your comment touches me and makes me glad.

In answer to your questioning where our culture's slavishness to aggressive behavior originates, I'd say "all of the above" and then some. We've exalted competitiveness and winning to acts of worship and sacrificed our gentle power to them.

We need to return to Christ's principles and we surely need more men and women in the world like you. More than that, each of us must do our utmost to model meekness--to show strength without undue harshness--encouraging one another to keep at it, even though we may fail at times along the way (as you've seen me do).

Blessings, dear brother. Hearing from you brings me great joy!

kkryno said...

It is amazing how much strength it takes to be gentle. I feel that if there were more people like Gary who would just be themselves, the world opinion would have to turn around at some point. The more people refuse to buy into the social norms and set an example for others, this goal will be achieved. All we have to do is regect oafish behaviour. I guess it all just goes back to the Golden Rule; to just treat others as we would have them behave toward us. It sounds so elementary and simple, but that's the beauty of it. It's so easy!

The hard part is standing up and having the courage to be confident in our gentle strength.

Thank you for this one, Tim. It's a great reminder for us all.

Tim said...

And your name also belongs on the "if-there-were-more-people-like" list, Vikki!

You're spot-on here. The concept is so easy, but the courage to live it is often tough. Meekness tests us because of its demands for self-denial. We fall into the trap of believing if we don't shout, we won't be heard; if we don't act out, we won't be seen. And in many cases we aren't. But in just as many cases, we aren't heard or seen when we do shout and act out. It's better by far to take the meek road and stay on it--to please God rather than ourselves.

Thanks so much for adding to the conversation. It's always a delight to hear from you, dear friend!


Gary said...

I appreciate what I consider very thoughtful encouragement in both of your comments.

Tonight at dinner my family was talking about compliments. I mentioned that the best compliment I have ever received was from an old friend who had just met my mother for the first time, at my wedding reception. He said "Mrs. Lewis, I have known Gary for many years and I have never heard him say anything bad about someone else."

He obviously never heard me bark at a colleague or family member. It happens on occasion, for sure. What I try to limit is the amount of time between me losing my control, and making amends with anyone I may have targeted. It happens to all of us. Perhaps another variable of "Meek" is knowing that we all have the ability to feel frustration, stress and anger. Knowing that, and bringing us back to center to that gentle space is a key -- At least in my life.

Tim said...

"Meek" is knowing that we all have the ability to feel frustration, stress and anger. Knowing that, and bringing us back to center to that gentle space is a key

Gary, you are quickly bounding to the top of My Most Quotable Friends & Colleagues list!