Of all the Beatitudes, I’d guess that “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” is the most misunderstood, mistrusted, and neglected. I think the reason why is because we don’t understand the virtue of meekness and tend to think it indicates weakness.
Certainly, meekness didn’t fit in with the values of the Greco-Roman world of the first century, where humility wasn’t generally lauded as a virtue. Nietzsche, a great admirer of the Greeks, thought meekness was exactly the sort of false virtue that the weak would applaud because, well, it’s about the only virtue they could actually pull off. Since the weak can’t win by the standard rules, they change the rules.
I think most of us are far more Nietzschean than we’d like to admit. At least I am. When I hear the word meek, it seems too insipid, too accommodating, too spineless to be a virtue.
Yet the Scriptures call us to meekness. Besides the beatitude, Moses is held out as a model for being the meekest man on earth (Num. 12:3), Jesus tells us to come learn from him because he is meek and humble of heart (Matt. 11:29), and Paul encourages us to put on meekness like clothing (Col. 3:12). This is not something any Christian interested in following Jesus can afford to ignore.
What, then, is meekness? Well, it can’t be weakness or a lack of courage. Jesus was no pushover—he flipped tables in the temple, showed up in cities where he faced outstanding warrants, and coolly stared down governors and kings threatening him with death.
According to medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, meekness is a gentleness that restrains us from anger or from expressing our anger easily. Reformer John Calvin calls it a “mild and gentle disposition” that means you’re not easily provoked by personal injury or ready to take offense. It’s a heart that doesn’t strain or strive to exact the revenge or the payment it could and is “prepared to endure anything rather than do the like actions to wicked men.” It is humility before God, exercised toward our neighbors.
In that sense, true meekness shows a strength and courage that is hard to muster of ourselves—it makes no earthly sense. Deep in our bones, most of us agree with Omar Little, the stick-up man in HBO’s The Wire: “The game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.” We live on edge, poised to strike back, tit for tat, to defend our rights no matter the cost. It’s an anxious, irritated, and miserable existence.
By contrast, to strive for meekness means a willingness to lose what you could preserve—standing, power, a good name, or the material goods (the “earth”) in which our life consists. Meekness depends upon a deep contentment and hope in God.
Only if we are content with God right now are we willing to risk the loss of goods in the present. And only if we trust that God can deal righteously in the future will we be able to wait patiently for him in the present (Ps. 37:7). As Augustine says, “Then wilt thou truly possess the earth, when thou dost cleave to Him who made heaven and earth.” Meekness is an eschatological virtue.
And precisely for that reason, we need to appreciate the Beatitudes as what they are: supernatural blessings pronounced upon us by a gracious God. Meekness is not something we can achieve in our own earthly strength. It is something only Jesus can give—through the cross and resurrection, his definitive work of saving meekness.
In his suffering and death upon the cross, Jesus was the strong one who, in an exertion of heroic meekness, bore up under the assault of the arrogant and the proud and took on the sins of the slanderers and accusers in order to obey his Father. And it is precisely in that meekness that Jesus achieved our salvation.
On the other side of his death, he has received the good inheritance of the resurrection. This resurrection is both the vindication of his righteousness against all the lies of his enemies, as well as the firstfruits of the promised New Creation (1 Cor. 15:20). Therefore, all who look to him in faith and hope will inherit the new heavens and new earth in their own resurrection.
Only as we come to know this truth can we gain the strength to walk in the powerful meekness of Jesus.
Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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