Marvin Milquetoast Misses the Mark

Caspar Milquetoast, a weak man for every season. H.T. WEBSTER/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), but we still have problems thinking of meekness as a virtue. In the Atlantic, Rhoda Feng says, “If you overhear people discussing your meek temperament, you’re likely to infer that they don’t think too highly of you (‘spineless’ and ‘lacking in self-respect’ have become near-synonyms for the word).” [1]

The Christian viewpoint is very different. Moses was the “meekest man who ever lived” (Numbers 12:3), yet he confronted Pharaoh! Jesus was meek (2 Corinthians 10:1), but no more powerful man ever lived! The Biblical definition of meekness is “strength under control.” Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, a powerful warhorse, was described this way. He could carry Alexander into the heat of battle and yet was so “meek” a small child could safely sit on his back.

There is another quality of meekness to focus on today. The lexicon says meekness is “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness.” [2]

On his way to Rome to face martyrdom, Ignatius of Antioch said of the bishop of Philadelphia: “I am impressed by his forbearance; he accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking.” [3] The bishop didn’t need to command obedience or impress people with his authority. Instead, he understood the value of meekness.

Have you been in a room full of “stuffed shirts”? (Men parading about trying to impress one another.) It’s no wonder this is the fourth of Paul’s Five Virtues that he encourages the Colossians to “put on.” Apostle Paul tells them to “put on the new self” (3:10). That includes: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12).

Feng summarizes an article by Glen Pettigrove, a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Auckland, entitled “Meekness and Moral Anger.” Pettigrove observes:

Self-control, however, is a necessary but insufficient condition for meekness. Philosophers have distinguished between 1) meekness and servility and 2) meekness and resignation. Those who are truly meek act out of both self-control and benevolence (attentiveness to the wellbeing of others), while those who are servile act out of fear of incurring punishment. We wouldn’t praise someone for merely acting meek when the true cause of his action is despair (e.g. indifference to the welfare of oneself or others). So we arrive at one definition of meekness: “Agent M manifests the virtue of meekness when he or she characteristically responds in a calm and kindly fashion to aggravating treatment.”

If we are going to be genuinely meek, that should describe our Christian behavior this week!

  [1] Rhoda Feng, The Atlantic, November 9, 2012

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 861). University of Chicago Press.

[3] Ignatius to the Philadelphians. Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed., p. 177). Baker Books.

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