There’s a lot of self-centeredness in the world. In fact, all people are innately self-centered. It’s completely natural, and it helps us survive in the natural world. We need to actively seek food, shelter, clothing, employment, and community or we won’t last long. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when our own self-interest conflicts with another’s. Like when there’s only one pair of your favorite shoes left on sale at the mall and you’re squared off with someone else who wants them.
You see, even from a young age, we set up our Self as a little god to be served and respected and defended. Any insult or disrespect towards our Self is nothing short of a declaration of war. We see this in kids all the time. For example, my brother was the self-appointed Fairness Police in our house. Cake is cut, and if I got one crumb more, my brother was all over it. If I got an extra couple minutes playing video games, my parents got an earful. One time he gave me more presents for Christmas than I gave him; tears and tantrums erupted. “It’s not fair!” His ego, his Self-god, wasn’t honored, and he fought tooth and nail to ensure he got his proper due.
This same thing happens in adulthood. How often have we seen celebrity feuds over social media, videos, interviews, or in person? It’s comical to witness, but we’re all guilty of the same thing. God commands us to have no gods before him, which we all heartily agree with (in theory). However, Self is a god we all worship, often without knowing it. It’s ingrained in us since birth.
And it’s a lot of work! We’re always striving to promote Self, to make Self look good, to defend Self against attack. How exhausting! Self is an all-consuming god, demanding constant service. Ironic, isn’t it, that relentlessly seeking your Self is the one thing that’s guaranteed to make you miserable and probably hate your Self more and more. Self-worship breeds arrogance, pride, hypocrisy, superficiality, jealousy, gossip, resentfulness, hatred, cruelty, and greed. The end product of all this is misery, disharmony, and death. It’s rooted in our sinful flesh, but it’s not supposed to stay there.
That’s where meekness comes in.
A lot of fluffy and nebulous definitions of meekness exist, and they're all awful. None of them make you want this quality. Meekness is associated with weakness and spinelessness. Meekness seems timid, shy, and unassertive. In popular opinion, being meek goes hand-in-hand with being mild. It’s tepid, flavorless, dispassionate, and indifferent. Like the “meh” emoji, meek means “blah” to us. Nobody wants to be blah. The Bible calls this bland quality analos, a Greek word that literally means "saltless" (Mk 9:50).
How the world sees meekness is completely undesirable, but that’s not what the Bible says. True biblical meekness is awesome. Let’s explore.
The Greek word praus ("meek", an adjective) is a root word with a meaning that can only be deduced by its context. It occurs those three times in the gospels:
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Mt 5:5, NIV)
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Mt 11:29, KJV)
Tell Zion’s daughter, ‘Don’t fear! Look, your king is coming to you, meek and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the son of an ass. (Mt 21:5, SOJ)
None of these are terribly useful to define meekness, except that Jesus is described as such. Thus if we know Jesus, we can start to get a sense of what meekness really is.
First, Jesus wasn’t meek and mild, he was meek and wild! He cleared the Temple courtyard with a whip! Fierce, passionate, even at times violent! That doesn’t sound like the worldly definition of meekness. And so, meekness isn't mild, nor is it timid.
Second, Jesus wasn’t meek and weak, he was meek and strong! Who else could carry the sin of the world to the cross? Jesus certainly had the power to defend himself (“I can call my Father to immediately provide over twelve legions of angels" Mt 26:53), but he willingly allowed himself to be abused He didn’t defend himself. So meekness isn’t weakness, and it’s certainly not spinelessness.
Finally, Jesus wasn’t flavorless or dispassionate. Zeal for God’s house consumed him (Jn 2:17)! He was the original salt of the earth! No one was more potent (i.e. effective) than he was. Jesus wasn't analos, saltless, and so meekness cannot mean bland.
There are other words in scripture that relate to being meek. The Greek word prautes is the corresponding noun ("meekness"), which appears more commonly in the New Testament than the adjective. However, it's often translated as “gentleness”, like we see in Paul's famous list of fruit of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (prautes), self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23, NASB)
However, epieikeia is the typical word for “gentleness” in the Bible. Other translations stick with the more literal "meekness". So a literal reading of the same passage may be more like the King James Version:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness (prautes), temperance; against such there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23, KJV)
With these words lost in translation it's no wonder we have no idea what meekness actually means! And yet, this passage offers can see further evidence as to what it isn't. For instance, if two terms are listed beside each other, then they must not be the same thing. If I were to say, "I played soccer with my brother and Dan," the assumption is that those are two separate people, not that I played with Dan, who is also my brother. Jesus was incredibly kind and compassionate, particularly toward the hurting and broken, sinners, women, children, and the diseased. But although this tenderhearted gentleness is often associated with meekness, they’re not the same thing. Disregard for Self (meekness) isn’t the same as regard for others (compassion), though they often go hand in hand. So from this list of fruit, we can assume that meekness (prautes) is not the same as gentleness, and that it is fruit of the Spirit.
Similarly, “meek” often occurs in the New Testament alongside “humble” (Greek tapeinos), as we saw above.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek (praus) and lowly (tapeinos) in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Mt 11:29, KJV)
They seem to go together, like peanut butter and jam. But, also like peanut butter and jam, they’re not the same thing. So we see that meekness isn’t humility.
So then, now that we’ve determined what it isn’t, what is meekness?
As far as I can tell - investigating the Bible, Jesus' life, and theology in general - meekness is simply disregard for Self. That Self-god you have isn't paid any real attention when you’re meek. There’s no active opposition or hatred of Self, there’s no self-neglect or shame, meekness is just lack of focus on your Self. Self goes from being worshiped on a pedestal to collecting dust in the corner. That’s it. Meekness is selflessness in the fullest sense. And this definition seems to fit with how the Bible talks about it.
Do not let your adorning be external - the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear - but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a praus and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (1 Peter 3:3-4, ESV)
In this passage, Peter is instructing women on how to model godliness. Preoccupation with physical appearance is like polishing the golden Self god to a luster, but more important is an inner selflessness, which "in God's sight is very precious". This lines up exactly with our new definition of meekness.
Jesus preached many characteristics about the kingdom of God – each one was in striking contrast to the ways of the world: the poor will be rich; the last will be first; fools will be wise; death is the only way to truly live; and child-like faith a hallmark of maturity. So too with meekness: in God’s kingdom, the meek won’t just conquer the world, they’re beyond conquerors (Rom 8:37). The ungodly fight tooth and nail to possess the earth and ultimately fail, but in God’s kingdom the meek don’t have to fight, they’ll just inherit the whole earth, because Jesus has already won the battle for them. Only those who can get past themselves, who can “take up your cross, and follow [Christ]” (Mt 16:24) will become “co-heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). There’s no room for the Self-god in God’s kingdom.
There are certainly times we want to defend ourselves to not appear weak or foolish, but that’s exactly what God uses in his divine purpose to shame the strong and the wise (1 Cor 1:27). So go ahead, let yourself look like a fool and get trampled on. In the end, you’ll have victory over your oppressors. God will ensure it.
My favorite line in the classic movie Mary Poppins occurs when Mary is discussing her methods with her employer Mr Banks.
Mr Banks: Just a moment, Mary Poppins. What is the meaning of this outrage?
Mary Poppins: I beg your pardon?
Mr Banks: Will you be good enough to explain all this?
Mary Poppins: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.
Mr Banks: Yes?
Mary Poppins: I never explain anything.
[Mary Poppins promptly exits.]
Lay down your burden, that heavy load of constantly fighting for and defending your Self. Learn from Jesus, who is meek, and take his yoke upon yourself. As W Tozer said, “he walks at one end [of the yoke] while you walk at the other”. And Jesus’ burden – worshiping God – is much easier to bear that worshiping your Self.
Another big part of meekness is forgetting what you think about your Self and instead trusting what God says about you. You’ll like yourself much more, and, unlike that old arrogance you used to have, others will like you more too. The meek man knows he’s weak and powerless without God, that he’s sinful and broken, that he’s completely unable to save himself. The meek man comes to the end of him-Self and steps out into God. He barely considers his old Self anymore.
I’m sure you’ve met those people. They’re quietly confident. Instead of snapping a zinger back when they get insulted, they laugh and respond with a Self-depreciating joke. They get mistreated but roll with the punches. They turn the other cheek and go the extra mile (Mt 5:38-42). Forgiveness comes easy. They shine with humility, but would never consider themselves humble at all. In fact, they don't consider themselves anything.
Furthermore, the meek are completely authentic. They don’t put their best foot forward; they just walk as they normally do wherever they are. “Do your best and leave the rest,” is the motto they live by. No pretense, no hypocrisy. When the meek woman speaks, she’s always sincere. She speaks truth even when it’s not popular, but she does so with grace and tact. She seems so carefree all the time, but in fact she cares deeply and passionately about the things of God. Self just can’t compete with that sort of majesty. We all have dark corners of our heart to hide, those awful shameful secrets that would be the end of us if they were found out, but the meek woman doesn’t mind exposing her heart, looking foolish or sinful in the process. In fact, that’s exactly what she sometimes is – foolish and sinful – but she knows God loves her just as she is, and that’s good enough for her.
“Be the best you!” cries the world. Countless books, courses, and counselling sessions are sold every year to help us polish the golden Self and raise it up a bit higher, but it’s all a lesson in futility. Self-help resources are no help at all. Only seeking God will truly help you.
Meekness isn’t what the world makes it out to be - weakness, lack of passion, spinelessness - it’s simply disregarding your Self. If we somehow manage to do this (with God’s help), we’ll find life and peace like never before. Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt 6:33, ESV). Indeed, disregard your Self and you’ll inherit the earth.