The strength of gentleness

art 16The meek may inherit the earth, Garrison Keillor noted, “but so far all we’ve gotten is Minnesota and North Dakota.” In New York City, someone else observed, “the meek don’t inherit the earth. The big mouth does” – the big mouth and the deep pockets. That’s the way the world works.

Since 1980, as overall economic growth in the U.S. has reached 145%, median household income has climbed only nine percent, while average income for the wealthiest one percent of Americans has jumped 178%, and corporate profits after taxes have soared 239%. After adjusting for inflation, most of us are making the same income we did in 1996.1

Today the wealthiest 10% of Americans control more than half of all income, and some economists predict their share may soon rise to 60%.2 It seems to be not the meek but those with big mouths and deep pockets who are inheriting the earth. Maybe it’s time to move to Minnesota.

Or maybe it’s time to rethink being meek. Meek is not something most of us aspire to be. When I think of the meek, I think of Uriah Heep, the red-eyed, pale-faced, hand-wringing yes-man in David Copperfield who was noted for his cloying humility, fawning attentiveness, and frequent references to his own “umbleness” while scheming his way toward the top.

Things don’t improve much when I look at other versions of Jesus’ comment about blessings for the meek. “God blesses those who are gentle and lowly,” is one translation’s way of putting it. “Happy are people who are humble,” another says. The most palatable version I find is from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.” I like that one.

Seldom am I happier and more content than when walking through country fields and woods. Roads, fences, and lines on a map in the courthouse may divide the countryside into so many parcels belonging to farmers and investors and vacationing city folks. But when I’m hiking – “sauntering” is the term that better describes what I do there – I am just who I am, no more, no less. And I discover that no one owns the landscape or possesses the horizon. It all belongs to me for as long as my eyes drink it in. It humbles me. I become meek.

One definition of “meek” is “deficient in spirit and courage; submissive,” but that’s not the best one here. The first definition in Webster’s dictionary is, “enduring injury with patience and without resentment.” That speaks to me not of deficiency of spirit or lack of courage. That definition speaks to me of extraordinary strength, and it’s the one that better describes what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the meek.”

Uriah Heep may have acted meek and submissive, but there was nothing submissive about him. He was the living definition of grasping, plotting, conniving, colluding. Meekness is not about how we act; it’s about the condition of our mind and heart, our disposition to accept God’s dealings toward us as good, without disputing or resisting. You’re meek not because you cannot help yourself but because you have the infinite resources of God on your side.

Meekness is neither submissive nor subservient. It is strength under control; it is power completely surrendered to God’s control; it is spiritual strength harnessed for service. The meek don’t have time to be elated or dejected, because they’re not thinking about themselves at all; they’re busy thinking about the will of God that’s working in them and through them unfailingly for the healing of creation.

This healing of creation, this “message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19) of which we are called to be ministers, doesn’t always appear to be gentle. At first it can seem offensive, hostile, even divisive. Jesus said he did not come to bring peace but to bring a sword: to divide families and households (Matt. 10:21-23, 34-36); to divide neighborhoods and nations (Matt. 24:6-8); to divide even congregations of the faithful (Mark 13:9).

But this is only the beginning of the birth of God’s new creation (Matt. 24:8). “When my critics have had their way with me,” Jesus said, “and have rejected me and seem to have defeated me, I will complete my work of reconciliation and restore all of creation to its original integrity” (John 13:32 paraphrased).

Like Jesus, we are immersed in the power of God that is accomplishing the reconciliation of creation. That’s the news trending in the spiritual media today. And because we are immersed in God’s power, we can afford to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. We can afford to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous (Gal. 5:22-23). We can afford to be meek and gentle, for there we have God’s blessing.

Are you tired, Jesus asks? Are you worn out under life’s heavy burdens? “Learn from me,” he says, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30). If you want to experience peace amid the stresses of life – stresses which, by the way, are not going to go away but which don’t need to overwhelm you – if you want to be blessed that way, then learn from Jesus humility, gentleness, meekness. Learn from Jesus about the strength under pressure that allowed him to live fully and abundantly when the world came crashing down upon him.

How do you do that? How do you learn from Jesus to be meek and gentle? Here are three exercises to try. First, when someone serves you – a waiter, a grocery clerk, a clerk at the tax collector’s office – be understanding, not demanding. Think of that person’s circumstances, the great battle that person is fighting, and consider how you are blessed by that person.

Second, when someone disagrees with you, or when someone’s personal values offend you, don’t resist. Surrender. Rather than focus on that person’s opinion or actions, concentrate on how you value that person as an expression of God, one that’s essential to your own wholeness and the wholeness of creation.

Finally, when someone disappoints you, don’t judge that person. Do you know what angered Jesus the most? It wasn’t sin that angered Jesus. It was self-righteous people who thought they were God’s appointed judge of everybody else. “Do not judge,” he said, “so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:1-2). If you want to be blessed by God, be meek and gentle, and suspend your judgment of others that stands in the way of God’s blessing.

When life humbles us, when life brings us low, when life rages around us like a sudden storm, it’s time to be meek and gentle, to endure God’s dealings toward you with patience and without resentment, to trust in the strength of God rather than your own, and to commit your way to the Lord, knowing God will act (Ps. 37:3, 5). Then is the time to wait upon God, knowing that when you do, you “shall renew [your] strength, [you] shall mount up with wings like eagles, [you] shall run and not be weary, [you] shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).

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