Tonight we’re going to look at the character traits of meekness and humility. So far in the last 3 weeks, we have been talking about developing godly character (or excellence of life) through learning to recognize and cultivate and grow in different virtues. We must realize our dependence on God and his instruction in order to learn how to live a life in obedience to Christ. We’ve looked at wisdom, integrity and love, some overarching themes and ideas in studying character. We’ve pointed out the differences in the world’s view of character and these virtues from God’s view. Tonight, we’re looking at two ideas that carry much different connotations in the Bible from in the culture—in fact the culture doesn’t really esteem either of them—these traits are meekness and humility.
Illustration. Our culture exalts a hero who conquers, who refuses to submit to others, and who challenges anyone who comes against his interests. He saves the day or he solves the crime, he’s good at what he does and they need him—and he knows it. Most of our cultural heroes don’t have an ounce of meekness or humility in them, and that’s why people like them. What is meekness? What do you think of when you hear the word meekness? Meekness is a great example where our cultural definition is not at all the same as the biblical. It’s barely a desirable trait in our culture (it’s hard to find in any of the books—especially not the psychological book that put together what character is). Like last week, I’m going to look first at the dictionary’s definition, and critique it where necessary, then give you a biblical definition and biblical examples that demonstrate it.
A. Dictionary Definition
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines meekness as:
- enduring injury with patience and without resentment (synonym: mild). It’s sort of like just putting up with other people’s junk, taking it, and not holding it against them, maybe like a doormat.
- Deficient in spirit and courage (synonym submissive). Our culture sees the meek as deficient in spirit and courage, or submissive (that “bad” word).
This part of the definition flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching and godly character. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:5) that “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”—the meek are extremely important in God’s kingdom—they’re not considered deficient in spirit. Jesus is quoting Ps 37:11, “the meek shall inherit the land [God’s kingdom]” and the meek shall “delight themselves in abundant peace.” Jesus doesn’t see them as deficient at all, only repressed by the strong.
3. Not violent or strong (synonym moderate).
B. Biblical Definition
I did some research in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (which is Christian). They pointed out that the key to understanding biblical meekness is that it’s not the same as weakness. So whereas Merriam-Webster says it means “not strong,” someone who has been pushed down by the “elite,” in the Bible the meek are not at all characterized by weakness of character. We’ll see that in the Bible, meekness is strength.
Then what are characteristics of the Biblical word “meekness”? What does it mean to God and to the writers of individual books of the Bible?
First, like I said, it’s not the same as weakness, but it’s strength; the word involves the idea of self-control. Aristotle said it’s “strength under control,” a form of self-control. Some things that it’s not: cowardice, being timid, or having a lack of self-confidence.
Second, and this comes from the Greek dictionary, meekness is “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.” It’s not being too impressed with yourself, or not seeing yourself as overly important, or not being really impressed at how wise you are, or how much integrity you have or how loving you are (I’m getting at how all these qualities that make up “character” come together—we want to develop all of them, so while you might grow in wisdom, you don’t want to grow a big head about it in the process, this is where meekness comes in).
Third, other words that can be synonyms of meekness are gentleness (used most predominantly) and humility. We’ll see in some of the following examples that the word “humble” is used in some translations and meek in others. Keep that in mind as we read and think about meekness right now. In summary, biblical meekness is strength under control, it’s not being overly impressed by your own self-importance, and it can also be described as “gentleness” or humility.
A biblical example of meekness is found in 2 Corinthians 10 where Paul describes his ministry.
1. READ 2 Cor 10:1-8, 17-18.
I want to look at how does boasting relate to being meek or humble. In verse 1 Paul is humble (your translation might say meek) when face to face with the Corinthians, but he’s more bold when away from them. In verse 2, he begs not to have to be overly bold when he’s in person with them. However, in verse 8, he does boast of his authority, and some say a little too much so, but his authority is used to build them up, to bring good to them, to teach them about God—so he’s not ashamed for it. In verse 13, he doesn’t boast beyond limits though, just to the area of influence God gave him—to reach the Corinthians.
Verse 17 says, “‘let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
This verse is quoting Jer 9:24, “but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,”
So Paul is boasting in his knowledge of and close relationship with God; he wants to share the joy of it with them and with us, so that we too can know God’s faithfulness, his justice, and his righteousness. So boasting in the Lord to share his good news is a form of meekness. Then inverse 18, he says, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” Paul’s point is that his authority comes directly from God, God has commended Paul, so when Paul is accused of boasting, he’s boasting, not in himself, but in the Lord. What is the significance of Paul urging them (in verse 1) by the “meekness and gentleness of Christ”?
2. Read 1 Peter 2:23.
Here, Christ shows us what it means to be meek because
“when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Why didn’t Christ fight back when reviled or threaten people when he suffered? Christ shows us that what the world might see as weakness (not fighting back) is really strength—it’s a different kind of strength than the world is looking for. It’s strength under control. And because he entrusted himself to God alone, we see that Christ was also meek in not being overly impressed with his importance, and if anyone had reason to boast, isn’t it certainly the savior of the world?And yet, he shows us what it means to be meek, and to act in a meek manner, he shows us how to trust in him, even if we begin to suffer in our work, or we’re put down by others for taking a stance for our faith. It’s Christ’s strength that enables us, through his Holy Spirit to likewise learn to be meek.
So in the 2nd Corinthian passage, in verse 1 he says he’s appealing to them “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” He says this because it’s Christ’s authority that gives Paul his own authority and it’s in Christ that he boasts, not in himself. Christ commends him, so he is bold in his faith, and bold in Christ, but Paul’s goal is to do so out of a posture of meekness and gentleness—that which comes directly from knowing Christ. Paul takes on Christ’s own meekness and gentleness when he talks to them, he knows that he must be dependent on Christ in order to be meek at all (and this is how he keeps from being overly impressed with his own position in the church).
The second overarching theme or aspect of character we’re looking at tonight is humility. We already saw that it is closely related to meekness and can sometimes be used as a synonym for it in the Bible. What do you think of when you hear the word humility? What do you think the culture means by humility? What are some negative associations that come with the word humility? Perhaps weak, passive, or humiliation like shame and embarrassment.
A. Dictionary Definition
Before we jump into humility in the Bible, let’s look again at what the culture and the dictionary say about humility. Humility is just the quality or state of being humble. “Humble” then is used as an adjective to describe a person who possesses humility or a verb to make someone humble. So what does the dictionary say is being humble?
First, as an adjective, it means:
1. not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive. 2. Someone who reflects, expresses, or offers a spirit of deference or submission. 3. A synonym for humble is unpretentious.
I also looked up unpretentious, which basically means being free from excessive display, rich ornamentation or design, and free from taking on or displaying an attitude or mode of behavior not natural to oneself (so to be unpretentious is to not have a lot of excess and to be genuine). So being humble would take on this idea of being genuine and not being excessive, these are good.
Second, as a verb then, humble can also mean “to make humble in spirit or manner” or “to destroy the power, independence, or prestige of.” In this sense there’s the idea of knocking someone down a notch, or maybe breaking them of a free spirit.
Now the character strength of humility is an aspect that actually does turn up as a valuable characteristic in the secular psychologists’ handbook on Character Strengths and Virtues (unlike meekness). They note how pride used to be a bad thing, but in today’s age, we’ve started encouraging pride through the new movement to improve self-esteem. They note that people now think that if we just improve the way we feel about ourselves, then people will be happier and will get along better in society. But they note that this is dangerous in that it leads to building up pride, often to the detriment of humility. So they are encouraging humility, as a character strength, in reaction to the self-esteem movement.
When looking for an example of a humble person, they expressed the difficulty in finding a good example because a truly humble person wouldn’t seek fame for fame’s sake. But they came up with an example in Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous. He battled alcoholism, had a religious conversion, reordered his priorities, and became abstinent. He used his life lessons to start the 12-step approach that placed an emphasis on humility themes, like admitting limitations, making amends, and relying on a higher power. But, in his life, he still struggled between having low self-esteem on one hand and arrogance on the other, which was compounded by his coming to near-celebrity status in AA, an organization which was meant to be “anonymous.” He understood humility, but he also understood also how hard it was to “attain” this virtue, and he wrestled to put it into practice in his lifetime. Bill Wilson was a man who was made humble by alcoholism. He didn’t start with humility, but he had it forced on him in his struggle.
B. Biblical Definition
How does the Bible view humility?
- In Proverbs, it’s a virtue that comes from a proper reverence for (or fear of) the Lord. Humility is an opposite of pride.
- There’s an aspect of someone being afflicted by God and tested (e.g. the proud are humbled), or also seeing someonelose prestige or status (like a reversal of status—either from exalted to humble, or from humble to exalted).
- There’s also the idea that someone can humble him- or herself (e.g. Hezekiah humbled the pride of his heart, and Jesus says in Mt 18:4, “whoever humbles himself as this child, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”). This means to become humble in attitude (in a favorable sense).
- There’s the aspect, like meekness, of being unpretentious (or free from excess and being truly genuine). This is someone who doesn’t let success or her position in life go to her head (like moving up the corporate ladder, making a lot of money, or being a mother blessed with many children—we can’t let any of these go to our heads).
Let’s look at Jesus’ parable (which is a story meant to teach a lesson) of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.
1. READ Luke 18:9-14.
In this parable, we see two men: first, a Pharisee (a religious ruler of the day) and second, a tax collector (a wealthy Roman businessman who would make his living off of charging exorbitant taxes to the Jews). Right off we should expect the religious ruler to be the humble one and the extortionist to be the one thinking highly of himself but, after much reading of the New Testament, we learn that the Pharisees are never really painted in a good light by Jesus, so we come to expectthis Pharisee too to be the object of Jesus’ lesson. Verse 9 lets us know that this parable is for those people who trust in themselves for their own righteousness and who treated others with contempt (or for people who made it a practice of humbling others. Again, we might think this would be the tax collector who humbled others, or destroyed their power because of his job of charging exorbitant taxes). Notice that both men pray to God. Just because the Pharisee trusted in himself doesn’t mean he skipped the act of going to the temple and putting himself before God. He had the proper external acts of being a religious leader, or in today’s vocabulary “a good Christian,” but as we saw last week, “his heart was far away from God.”
What are the differences in the two men’s postures of prayer before God? The Pharisee stands by himself, while the tax collector stands far off, wouldn’t lift his eyes to heaven (he didn’t feel worthy) and beat his breast (OT sign of extreme sorrow).
What are the differences in the two men’s prayers? The Pharisee thanked God he wasn’t like others, listed how good he was and what actions he did to be considered good—his tithing and his fasting. The tax collector, on the other hand, just prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” He called God by name, spoke of his dependence on God and prayed for mercy for his sins.
Verse 14 gives the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach in this parable, when he says, “this man[the tax collector] went down to his house justified [made right before God], rather than the [Pharisee]. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” See how this ties in with verse 9 about how this was told to those who treated others with contempt? He’s saying that if you treat others with contempt (exalting yourself in the process), you will be humbled (or made low); but the one who already humbles himself (alone), this one will be exalted in God’s kingdom.
We see two uses of the word humble being used. First the Pharisee will be humbled, meaning that he will lose prestige and status. He was in need of someone else to humble him. Second, whereas, the tax collector starts with an attitude that is humble (in a favorable sense). He had much in life, but before God, he knew he had done nothing to deserve God’s favor. The tax collector came before God, already humble. He himself didn’t depend on his worldly status (his jobs, his friends, his relationships) and position, but he willingly gave that self-righteousness up in order to come before God. He gave up his worldly position, knowing it didn’t mean anything before God. (God didn’t care how hard he worked.) His posture and his prayer before God both showed his humility of heart. He didn’t let the success of his job go to his head.
Jesus gives this parable, to teach and instruct his people, but also to show the reversal of the world’s idea of exaltation and God’s idea of it. In God’s world, only the one who is truly humble will be exalted. And there’s no better example of this self-humbling than Jesus himself. In Phil 2:8, we see that Christ humbled himself (God himself became humble); Christ became obedient to death on a cross. He gave up his status (God on high—not that he lost it, just that he came down from heaven and took on humanity—as an act of humility). There’s a reversal of status even here. He became man, something that he wasn’t previously, in order to redeem and save sinners. Christ humbled himself, so he teaches us also how to be humble before God. We can’t boast or brag in our accomplishments (just as Paul in 2 Cor 10 didn’t boast in himself, but in the Lord).
How do we come before God in a posture of humility, then, and of meekness? (How do we apply these lessons to our lives?)
First, we have to recognize God for who he is. He is God on high, Christ is seated at the right hand of God, he is exalted and worthy of praise. And he is also humble and meek. He took on humanity to save us: you and me. It’s not just an abstract concept but a real event that took place 2,000 years ago. Christ became man, he suffered death, and he was obedient to the cross. He died so that we could have life and so that we could follow him and know how to follow him. Having life doesn’t just mean going to heaven and being saved—he came so that we could truly LIVE, right now, in the joy of following God.
Second, we have to look to Jesus for the power to be meek and humble. In Matt 11:29, Jesus says to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me [we learn from Jesus], for I am gentle[this is the same word for meek] and humble in heart [Christ is meek and humble, he’s saying that right here], and you will find rest for your souls.” We find rest by trusting all the details of our lives to Jesus. Trusting him to guide us through trouble at work, or difficulty in our marriage, or trouble relating to a friend. We have to trust that he is sufficient enough to care for all our troubles. His meekness and humility are why we take his yoke (which just means to bind ourselves to him). We take Jesus’ yoke, because otherwise, we’re just bound to the world, and the world is a much tougher way to go. It may seem easier, but it’s not. Jesus says “my burden is light.”
I want to close with two final verses found in the New Testament that show us how we learn how to follow Jesus in this way. In 1 Peter 5:5, Paul says “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud [those who trust in their own success, their own value gained from living the “good life”], but [God] gives grace to the humble.” God gives this grace to the humble, so we come before God as humble. We have to pray for his Holy Spirit to teach us how to be humble, and we have to look to Christ to see his example of being humble, and bind ourselves to him: to his meekness and humility, as a whole way of life.
Also, in Col 3:12, Paul says to believers: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another.”Humility and meekness are character traits, that Christians are commanded to put on. So we need to learn about them, so we can learn to wear them, to put them on, to clothe ourselves in them. When people look at us, they should see, not what clothes we are wearing (not our Tori Burch shoes or Gucci purse), but they should see our meekness, our humility. And it’s God’s grace that helps us look this way. So pray for God’s grace, pray for his mercy, pray to better understand Christ’s humility and meekness, so that they can be made your own.
Remember that you can’t just work harder to be more humble or meek, we need God’s grace. You have to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:15), you have to “let [his] word dwell in you richly” (v. 16), and by “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Discussion Questions: (Leave your thoughts in the comments below)
- What do you find confusing about the virtues of meekness and humility?
- How does the visual of “clothing yourself” or “putting on” meekness and humility help you understand building character? Give examples of how you can do this.
- How specifically do you struggle with being meek or humble in your life? Give examples.
(Didn’t find what you were looking for? Leave a comment and let me know what Bible Study format would be helpful for you.)