Saturday, October 13, 2012

Meekness and Faith

Meekness is one of the least understood principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We often think of meekness as a synonym of humility or patience, or with other non-Christian expressions of submissiveness. But these are not the same thing. Being told that you are patient or humble is a compliment. Being told that you are meek may not be. When was the last time you complemented your friend by calling him meek? You might as well tell him he is spineless.

And yet whether we ignore it, think of it as an inappropriate synonym, or otherwise misunderstand it, Christian meekness remains a critical virtue. In fact it is one of those uncommon diagnostic doctrines of Christ. I mean by this that it is unique, among world religions, to Christianity. And it is a key component of Christian faith.  

Part of our misunderstanding comes from the fact that there are only a few references to meekness in the scriptures. And one of the most important references doesn’t even use the word meekness at all. It is found in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells His disciples to “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye meet, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:1-2.)  Let me explain.

I hope to convince you that the closest single word to meekness is forbearance. And that Christian forbearance (meekness) is possible when we let Christ be the judge, as the New Testament clearly defines His role (see John 5:22). In other words, meekness requires of us that we stop being critical of other people – even when they have harmed or otherwise offended us.

Trust me on this for now and open your dictionary. You will find that forbearance means an act of refraining. It can also mean tolerance or restraint when being provoked.

Imagine an angry driver causing a traffic jam that nearly involves you in an accident. You get flustered, prepare to lean on the horn, and then stop yourself. Maybe this driver is experiencing a medical emergency, you tell yourself. Perhaps there are circumstances I am not aware of. Your heart rate goes down. You have just exercised meekness.

This simple story is not necessarily an example of Christian meekness, although it might be. For it to become Christian meekness, it needs to involve faith in Christ. Let me give another example.

Suppose that someone steals your watch. You aren’t absolutely sure who it is, but you have a fairly good idea. It’s the fellow two cubicles down from your office. You ask around to know if anyone has seen it – making sure that your suspect hears you. But the watch remains lost. You stew over ways to confront him – or to turn him in. You get pretty upset by the whole thing.

And then you stop yourself. Maybe you misplaced it? No, you’re certain where you left it. Is it worth making an enemy over a lost watch? Probably not. Then you remember the words of Jesus about not judging, and then that very challenging commandment, “but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mathew 5:39.)

At this point your anger is mellowing, or maybe it is just simmering at a lower temperature. And then a remarkable thing happens. You turn the situation over to Christ. Yes you lost a watch. But the promises of the Son of God to those who follow Him are so much more significant than a mere timepiece that such frustration no longer matters. But faith in Christ’s promises does matter. Suddenly you feel at peace. You have just exercised Christian meekness.

You can see from these examples that meekness is not the same things as humility or submissiveness. It very often involves active forbearance. And surprisingly, it is a precursor to faith. Mormon (in the Book of Mormon) is clear on this.

“And again, behold I say unto you that ye cannot have faith and hope, save ye shall be meek and lowly of heart.” (Moroni 7:43.)

This is an interesting verse, coming as it does from a man experienced in war and the exigencies of wilderness survival. Mormon (and his son Moroni who copied this verse) just doesn’t seem to be the kind of person that gets walked on – that feels the need to submit to anybody. That such a man would think so highly about meekness should give us a clue that maybe we haven’t been thinking about meekness the way we should.

A perceptive analogy of meekness and its power was given years ago by Michael Wilcox who recounted the story of an automobile crushing machine that was kept from destroying a man’s watch by a knowledgeable control officer. When the crusher came within inches of the watch and suddenly stopped, a wise leader explained that this was an example of meekness: “great power under complete control”.

This is a wonderful example but I have occasionally heard it misinterpreted. The power of meekness does not reside in an imperfect man or woman. The power comes from Christ himself. The power of meekness comes in knowing that Christ is with you, that He will help you, that you can, in fact, turn your troubles over to Him. This is why Christian meekness is so intimately associated with faith.

Consider Isaiah’s words : “But with righteousness will he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth…And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reigns.” (Isaiah 11:4-5). Righteousness, meekness and faith – and notice the way judgment is associated with meekness. Christ’s role as a just judge is for the benefit of the meek. It begins to make sense how it is that the meek shall inherit the earth (Mathew 5:5).

Obviously the meek aren’t going to muster a global coup. Instead, they will gain the world by refusing to arrogantly judge others or to enforce equity even as they follow the Master Himself.

Neal A. Maxwell has written more on meekness than any other person. His book Meek and Lowly (the title of which was taken from the scripture in Moroni) is the most important discussion of this principle of the gospel that we have. He provides three scriptural examples of real meekness and how it is tied with faith. All three involve the relinquishing of one’s will to God.

Two of the examples are from the Book of Mormon and one is from the Old Testament. The first is of Abinadi (in Mosiah 13:9) who is in chains before wicked King Noah because he refuses to follow the king’s evil commands. “But I finish my message,” says Abinidi, “and then it matters not wither I go, if it so be that I am saved.”

The second example is of Ether who, after watching the destruction of his people (Ether 15: 34), concludes his record with these words: “Whether the Lord will that I be translated, or that I suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh, it mattereth not, if it so be that I am saved in the kingdom of God.”

And then there is the profound story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who, after refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, consigned themselves to walk into a fiery furnace. They placed their trust in God to deliver them, “but if not,” they boldly stated, “be it known unto thee O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

These remarkable words “but if not”, “it mattereth not”, “it matters not” are hallmarks of Christian meekness. These are not words spoken by weak individuals who have given up on the world. They were spoken by men of great faith who were diligent in their individual circumstances.

And it’s important to point out that none of them was involved in the work of self-promotion. Nor were they so pre-occupied with their own positions that they felt compelled to administer justice. They trusted in God, and they let Him worry about the outcome. They had faith in God.

This is a doctrine particularly alien to our time. It isn’t a mystical Eastern doctrine of fate. Abinidi, Mormon, and Daniel’s friends were all men that were “anxiously engaged in a good cause”. But neither is this a popular Western doctrine of reformed and “enlightened” humanity. When was the last time you were instructed by your boss to be meek? Leadership – at least a certain kind of leadership – is the watch-cry of our time.  And meekness seems to be the antithesis of this leadership.

And so here we are, a small group of committed Christians, trying to follow the Master’s teaching: “judge not that ye be not judged”. We are commanded to be forbearing. We are to watch without complaining when, at times, the world takes advantage of us. Yet, surprisingly, this is not to be done with a fateful resignation.

When injustice becomes so apparent that it befouls so many others, our course is clear. We are to love and serve our neighbors. In fact we are to love and serve our enemies. Only a meek individual is capable of such a thing.

How does one gain such incredible inner strength? It is really all so simple – at least in principle. It comes from faith in Christ: faith in His fairness, faith in His justice, faith in His love. Who are we to presume judgment in this fallen world anyway? And besides, why should we complain when He has promised us the world? 


Michael Wilcox’s story of the car crusher and the watch can be found in the January Ensign (1991): The Beatitudes – Pathway to the Savior. Neal A. Maxwell’s Meek and Lowly was published by Deseret Book Company (in 1987). His examples of “it mattereth not” are found in a footnote at the end of Chapter Two. On Christ’s role as judge, please refer to my essay Living Beyond Judgment (August 27, 2010):

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