When simple terms like gentleness, humility, and meekness take on modern cultural definitions rather than culturally sensitive biblical ones, we will end up creating God in our own image. We will also likely create faith communities that reflect cultural values rather than biblical ones. We do not have to become Jewish nor import their culture into our world. But neither should we export our culture into the text and think we are being “Biblically faithful.” Jesus and the apostles were not white Americans from Nebraska in 1954. Gentleness, humility, and meekness can become grossly distorted in our day if we do not at least understand what the terms meant to the people of the day, before we try to live out an ethic that may have no biblical foundation at all.
A tendency exists within all of us to adapt the scriptures to suit the sensibilities of our personality, upbringing, class, and culture. We all do it. It is a very human thing to do. Only God is 100% objective with no prejudices. The rest of us are pilgrims in the text. We do the best we can. However, adding stereotypical religious and cultural mindsets in that mix does not help the cause. We tend to read what we already believe rather than believe what we read with understanding of culture and context. Proof-texting is a horrible practice. It should be scrupulously avoided. You can “prove” [sic] anything you desire “from the Bible” with an out-of-context proof-text. Without interpretive diligence, culture and personal preference imperceptibly migrate into doctrine and dogma. Since the essence of idolatry is to form God after our own image and thought, we need to be alert to, and do our best to avoid, this tendency.
While we understand that language is never static and that pure objectivity is not possible, none-the-less, words had (and have meaning) for those who used them. So let’s try to sit in their shoes before we try on a pair of our own!
Gentleness is frequently understood and experienced in terms of personality, temperament, degree of quietness, external demeanor, or habits of speech. Often the external demeanor that many would interpret as gentleness can be façade for cowardice and fear. Some appear gentle because of inability to, or fear of, dealing with issues and people! Some only appear gentle because they have not been provoked in public! I once dealt with someone in a congregation who had the reputation of being the kindest, sweetest, humblest person in the community. However, when I once very mildly challenged her, I got a “legion-level” demonic manifestation. My wife and I set her free that day. The point is, a “persona” or personality attribute does not define gentleness, humility or meekness. I am not going to turn this blog into a piece on the matters of the demonic and deliverance, but I will say this: Often the “biggest” entities like the deepest and stillest waters. A quiet external demeanor in a person means absolutely NOTHING in the gentleness category.
The Greek term is best rendered as “sweet reasonableness.” Gentleness recognizes the impossibility of cleaving to all formal law. It anticipates and provides for all cases that emerge and present themselves for a decision. It recognizes the potential damage that can be done in the assertion of legal rights (justice) lest they should be pushed to moral wrongs. It does not urge its own rights to the uttermost, but denies them in part or in full to rectify the injustice of justice. It is a grace that moderates truthfulness and a passion for justice and doing the right thing.
This definition brings gentleness out of the realm of personality, style, and feeling. It is the quality that is frequently lacking in Christians—especially legalists. Legalists demand exacting justice and conformity to the letter of the law, untempered by mercy or consideration of the weakness of the offender. I have seen many individuals who appear sweet and gentle in their temperament, but when provoked, wronged, or violated, manifest the cruelest, demanding, legalistic spirit imaginable. This is not biblical gentleness.
There is hardly a more abused biblical term. Humility is frequently equated with a spineless, doormat-like, self-deprecating, self-aware, introspective, cautious, conservative spirit of inferiority. The Greek root word, tapeinós, connotes a groveling, slavish, cowardly servility. It was morally contemptible and almost universally interpreted negatively. Aristotle viewed it somewhat positively but admitted it was hard for men to be it. In classical Greek, humility (in the positive sense) was defined as modesty: an unassuming diffidence not unlike magnanimity (from a Greek word meaning largeness of soul). Many Christians would accept this definition as biblical humility. It is not. Magnanimity is self-aware. It is a human virtue that despises genuine biblical humility because biblical humility acknowledges moral indebtedness to God and is rooted in God awareness: confidence toward God.
The New Testament uses the word in a uniquely Christian context. No Greek writer before the Christian era used it. The correct biblical definition is a deep sense of moral littleness before God. New Testament humility is not about largeness of soul; it is about littleness of soul before God. The ultimate act of biblical humility is confident faith. It is abandonment of confidence in self and utter confidence in God: relational trust–the definition of faith. Failure to trust God because of an inferiority complex, insecurity, fear, timidity, or some other psychological maladjustment is not biblical humility. There are few things more offensive than phony Christian humility generated by the legalist.
Humility has nothing to do with external diffidence, mildness of speech, or a lack of personal psychological wholeness. A lot of psychological dysfunction masquerades in the church as humility. J. Konrad Hölè has a poignant insight into church dysfunction: “The only thing worse than not recognizing something that is dysfunctional is thinking you need more of it to produce change.” If our definition of humility is erroneous, more of this so-called humility will not help us individually or the Church corporately. The Revelation has some unpleasant things to say about the timid, the insecure, and the fearful (see Rev. 21:8). They will always view the faithful, the bold, and the confident as proud and arrogant and will accuse them of lacking humility. The problem is often not your arrogance. It is their insecurity and fear.
When considering meekness it is hard to avoid the effeminate stereotypical image portrayed in religious art and elsewhere. Aristotle defined meekness as the state between utter irascibility and lacking gall. Imagine an “emotion scale” with anger for no reason on the left, and never getting angry for any reason on the right. Biblical meekness would be the middle point on the scale of emotion. Meekness is getting angry for the right reason, at the right time, in the right way. This definition makes the following incidents (and others like them) in our Lord’s life a demonstration of meekness, perfectly consistent with Greek thought and God’s character. They are acts of meekness:
- Driving out the moneychangers (John 2)
- Calling Peter satan, to his face (Matt. 16:23)
- Insulting the Judeans by saying they were lying murderers like their father the devil (John 8:44)
- Calling the Judeans names (illegitimate offspring of snakes)13
- Disappointing the rich young ruler (Mark 10)
We rarely think of meekness as the presence of passion or emotion, let alone anger. Individuals raised in an atmosphere where expression of legitimate emotion was forbidden, do not realize how deeply conditioned they are and how their interpretation of scripture has been affected by their upbringing. For them meekness is the absence of emotion, a passionless, passive, external gentility—the “shut up and put up treatment” (often illegitimately projected on women in the husband and wife relationship). This is not biblical meekness.
Living out our faith in communities of human beings means we will always be enrolled in the school of the Spirit. No two people, no two circumstances are ever identical. So let’s not project cultural assumptions about these terms onto one another in judgmental ways. Let’s practice love and forgiveness–costly love and costly forgiveness–while we all learn more deeply and accurately what these three terms mean and how to live them out under the lordship of Jesus.
Copyright 2019. Dr. Stephen R. Crosby. www.stevecrosby.org. For video and audio resources, sign up as a student here. You will find a mix of both free resources and those with cost. This blog is taken and adapted from your book: The Silent Killers of Faith. It is available here.
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