What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “meek”? If you’re anything like me, you probably think of one of two things:
1. The meek shall inherit the earth!
2. Any number of negative qualities that have adhered themselves to the modern idea of meekness.
Meekness means a pushover. A pansy. A person who can’t or won’t stand strong in the face of adversity, instead running and hiding like a little mouse.
But if meekness means any of those pathetic things, then why would the Bible (which also says that God does not give a spirit of timidity) encourage us to pursue it?
I was confronted by this disparity while reading in Colossians this week. Chapter 3, verse 12 says:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
We wouldn’t struggle to define the other virtues listed here. But what’s the deal with meekness? What IS it, and why is it a thing that God wants me to be?
My first step in getting to the bottom of this was to look up where else meekness is mentioned in scripture. There is, of course, the most famous usage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Psalm 37:11 similarly tells us:
“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.”
According to Isaiah 29:19:
“The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord…”
And then there’s Numbers 12:3, which says that “Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”
All this is quite intriguing, but it still didn’t explain what it means to be meek. So the next step, naturally, was to consult a dictionary. That many-splendored well of information offered the following definition:
“MEEK: humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others.”
Aha. Now I was getting somewhere! Or was I? The explanation still makes meekness sound like a bit of a doormat. Admirable, sure… but kind of annoying, too. A goody-two-shoes. Surely the Biblical meaning must be something more.
Now it was knuckle-cracking time. Also known as, digging up Greek roots time. I got out my trowel, and quickly discovered that the word “meek” translates from the the Greek praus (prah-oos). So what does praus mean? This, my friends, is where I was in for a surprise.
In its original context, praus was a term applied to a wild horse that been captured, tamed, and trained for war.
Think about that for a minute. A word we now associate with mice (skittish, mild, timid) originally referred to a highly trained battle stallion. How did that happen? I don’t know, but with these origins in mind, we can begin to form a better picture of Biblical meekness.
The horse in question is not without energy or vigor. His will and passion have not been extinguished. What they have been is disciplined. They have been channeled, given direction. So a person who is truly meek does not lack a spine. A person who is meek has as much feeling and fervor as anyone else. But a person who is meek does not rear and buck to unseat his or her rider. They give God the reins.
“Meekness”, in many modern Bible translations, has been substituted with “humility”. I’m all for humility, and it might be a near cousin virtue of meekness. But when I contemplate praus, I can’t help but think that the qualities of patience and self-control are nearer to the meaning.
Let me follow that up with two examples of what I think that might look like in a flesh-and-blood human being.
Jackie Robinson, you probably know, was the first African American player in the history of Major League Baseball’s modern era. He debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, facing unimaginable obstacles. Not because he wasn’t an exceptionally talented ballplayer, but because of the color of his skin. “42“, a biographical film about Jackie’s life, was released back in 2013. I don’t actually remember whether the movie was any good or not, but consider the following scene:
This exchange between Jackie (played here by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodgers exec Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) immediately came to mind when I began thinking about the true meaning of meekness. The guts not to fight back. The self-control, humility, patience not to lose your cool, even when provoked with the most vile, unjust treatment. That’s Jackie Robinson for you. And that’s meekness for you.
The other individual whom I consider to be a picture of praus is writer Philip Yancey. He has written many wonderful books, several of which have made certain crowds rather ferocious. Titles like, “Where Is God When It Hurts?”, “Disappointment With God”, and “What Good is God” have been known to incite fury from atheists and fundamentalist Christians alike. For some reason, people lob a lot of vitriol at Philip Yancey. And he always seems to respond with utmost calm and consideration. This attitude has always impressed me, only up to now, I never knew quite the right word for it. Now I know. It’s meekness.
As followers of Christ, we are likely to find ourselves patronized, insulted, misunderstood. Sometimes even outright attacked. Our natural inclination, most of the time, is to bite back. We want justice. An eye for an eye. But this is not the example Christ set for us. He said,
“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
That, I believe, is what it means to be meek. And, as in everything, He gave us the perfect example to follow.