The Lost Virtue of Meekness

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When as the last time you were conversing with a friend, listening to a podcast or reading a book on the topic of meekness? 

It’s been a while, hasn’t it. 

And if I asked you to name a politician who exhibited a life of meekness could you name one? What if I asked you to name any kind of leader who embodies meekness? 

If you struggle to even name one, you’re not alone. Meekness is not a virtue our culture holds in high esteem—and it is often misunderstood. We often think of a meek person as weak, mild and timid—a milquetoast. When people utter the phrase “meek and mild” it’s often said pejoratively. If we are able to think of someone who is meek we almost always think of someone who is a wimp.

I hate the fact that meekness rhymes with weakness. Ironically, when we truly understand the virtue, the two words couldn’t be more opposite. Meekness is similar to humility, but still slightly different. In its truest and most foundational sense, meekness is restrained strength—as in, someone who possesses the capability to overpower a situation or a person or a roomful of people, yet instead chooses to lay down that power for the sake of others. Someone who is meek is someone so strong that they can even overcome their own urges and resist the enticing temptations to exert power for their own advantage. To resist—now, that is strength. 

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Some have compared meekness to a horse—a mighty beast who chooses to submit to his rider.  A few years ago I listened to a sermon of Canadian pastor Bruxy Cavey where he preached on meekness. To illustrate his point, he brought Lucy, his massive St. Bernard, out on the stage to illustrate meekness. Bruxy shared that she possesses the strength to overpower him if she so desired, yet she chooses not to. St. Bernards are hardwired to use their strength in order to serve others. Of course, we’ve seen the pictures of St. Bernards in a blizzard with a small barrel fastened around their collars rescuing stranded victims in need. Some of the desert fathers, ascetic monks who lived in seclusion mostly in Egypt during the third century A.D., offered a beautiful image of meekness. Ambition, they wrote, was like a prison. To be meek meant one would become small, capable of slipping between the prison bars and walking out in freedom. Meekness: the intentional act of becoming small. 

The ultimate citizen-servant

I love the story of Cincinnatus, after which the city in Ohio is indirectly named. He was a poor, but content farmer living on the outskirts of Rome around 500 B.C. He possessed a great deal of wisdom which was known to many in the region. Occasionally, the leaders of Rome would seek him out and visit him for his advice on various topics of significance. One day urgent word came to him that the Roman army has experienced a surprise attack from a neighboring region and were overthrown. The situation was desperate. After hearing the grim report, Cincinnatus calmly looked at his wife and said, “I fear, Racilla, our little field must remain this year unsown.” He rallied other men and boys, mostly other farmers, into a ragtag group of volunteer soldiers and, quite miraculously, pushed back the attackers, and freed the Roman soldiers, ultimately saving the city of Rome from imminent attack. 

Upon arriving back into the city, Cincinnatus was a hailed as a hero. The people knew full well the owed their very lives to this man. He was paraded through the city and given a golden crown. The city of Rome declared him the King of Rome. But Cincinnatus did something quite shocking: he declined the offer. Instead, returned to his farm. He believed his cause to serve his city was completed and it was time for him to go home to his wife and returning to farming. He continued to work hard in contented poverty tilling his field until he died in obscurity. To this day he is affectionately referred to as the ultimate citizen-servant. 

We’ve heard Lord Acton’s famous axiom, “All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While certainly true in most circumstances, there are exceptions. Meek people tend to use their power and steward it well with the sole purpose of serving others, oftentimes at the expense of their own name, reputation and advancement. 

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There was a war general about 250 years ago who revered Cincinnatus. His name was George Washington. After General Washington led the American colonies to victory over the British, he was offered the chance to become King of the new nation. He, like Cincinnatus, refused. He served as president, with intentionally limited power, and then stepped down, saying his duty was now complete. Both Cincinnatus and Washington cared about a higher cause greater than themselves. They sought no other reward but service. And they knew the counterintuitive nature of power: they actually gained more power when they gave it away. 

You learn more about the character of a leader when they relinquish power than when they gain it.

What does Scripture have to say about meekness?

Scripture has much to say about meekness. Abraham was described as meek. Moses was described as the meekest person on earth (Num. 12:3). David possessed it. Paul spoke about meekness. And, of course, Jesus exhibited meekness like no one else in history. He modeled meekness by submitting to his Father, his friends and his enemies. I’ve often found it mind-boggling that Jesus, the very Son of God, submitted his power to be raised as a son of Mary and Joseph.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his listeners two things about the meek: they were blessed and one day they would inherit the earth (a reference from Psalm 37:11). We see throughout the Gospels numerous times where Jesus had the opportunity to raise in fame, popularity, credibility and notoriety—especially after miracles and healings— yet instead slipped away, told people to not share what just happened and commanded people keep secrets about what they had just experienced. Scholars refer to this as the Messianic secret. So, let’s keep it real here: can we acknowledge this is not what most of us would do in situations like these? Many, if not most, of us who are in positions of eldership and influence would have welcomed the opportunity—sought it out even. We would have embraced it, relished it and maybe even dressed it up with spiritual language that God is expanding our territory or answering our prayer for greater levels of spiritual influence and kingdom impact. And yet Jesus went out of his way, proactively working to avoid much of the attention and influence altogether.

Jesus called out this form of ambition—even ambition dressed up in spiritual language—in the cringe-inducing story in Matthew 20. The mother of Zebedee’s sons, bless her heart, came to Jesus and asked that her boys sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his kingdom—quite a bold-faced request for power and position. When the other disciples heard of this brazen request, they were indignant. The tension in the room had reached to the level of a rolling boil. Jesus, seizing the teachable moment, said: 

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus is speaking directly to power—and against those who clamor for it. Jesus was attempting to teach his disciples to embrace a leadership in the opposite direction: a posture of meekness. While some leaders lord their power over others, Jesus says not so with you. 

What does meekness require of leaders?

Meekness requires great amounts of courage, humility and faith. But it often requires an excruciatingly large amount of patience. On a practical level, the New Testament gives us examples of embodied meekness. James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19). In his Epistles, Paul wrote that husbands are to love their wives and not treat them harshly (Col 3:17), fathers are to refrain from exasperating their children (Eph. 6:4) and masters are to treat their slaves with respect, not threatening them because they both have the same Master in heaven (Eph. 6:9). 

What are leaders to make of this today? What does this mean for our leadership? 

For many of us who describe ourselves as kingdom leaders, we must hear these words from Jesus with deep humility. The world around us — and sadly, even in the church world, which is populated with celebrity Christians and power-hungry pastors — seeks to lord over others. Control, intimidation, reputation management, brand promotion and attention-hogging; these are the antithesis of the way of Jesus. Jesus says to us, even today, not so with us. 

But Jesus didn’t just teach on the topic. He modeled and embodied meekness. And he gave us the promise that if we follow his example we will be blessed and the earth will be our inheritance (a promise that, in complete honesty, continues to baffle me). As kingdom leaders, where our first call is to be followers even before we are leaders, meekness is something we must value deeply, pursue proactively and pray for purposefully. This humble approach to power is the only way we can exhibit the kind of leadership that aligns with Jesus and His kingdom. Instead of seizing it and running toward power, instead of seeking to control and manipulate others, instead of clamoring for attention, praise and notoriety, we must be the kind of leader who takes on the difficult inner work which trains our affections for the exact opposite.

Applying the virtue of meekness to your leadership

As you think about your own leadership—and the undervalued virtue of meekness—reflect on these questions: 

    • If those around me—friends, family members, colleagues, those who report to me—were asked if I was meek, how might they answer?

    • In the past three to six months, have there been opportunities to gain more power, control or authority for my own advantage? If so, how did I respond to it? What were my motives in doing so?

    • What’s the difference between ambition and selfish ambition? How are we to know the difference? Can I possess ambition while still being meek?

    • Is it appropriate to strive for meekness or is that too controlling in and of itself?

    • If I were ever described by others as exhibiting a life of meekness what would have to happen in my life?

    • What’s the difference between meekness and humility? Are they different or do they essentially mean the same thing?

    • What is the correlation between meekness and patience?

    • What might I need to lay down, give up or do anonymously or discretely?

    • How does the virtue of meekness impact or intersect with my involvement with social media?