Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.
A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity.
When you see someone getting away with wrongdoing, or building their success on sin, how does that make you feel? How do you respond when you are the injured party?
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
According to David in Psalm 37, the likely responses to other people acting wrongly or unfairly are anger and ‘fretting’, that is, futile worrying and frustration. That’s certainly how I feel in those situations. I’m angry that other people are getting away with things they shouldn’t, and I’m even angrier if I am the one who has been hurt by their actions. I’m frustrated when there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop it, or to give them a taste of their own medicine. I’m worried that they’ll go on and do more and worse.
In place of this frustration, worry and anger, and instead of retaliation or revenge, Psalm 37 tells us to be still before the Lord and to wait patiently for him. If we give in to our natural responses, David says, that will lead us into sin. What we’re told to do is hope in the Lord, and wait for him. Because it is the meek who will inherit the land.
Jesus confirms this in the Sermon on the Mount, saying ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’
What is meekness?
The Greek word for meekness in Matthew 5:5 is quite often translated ‘gentleness’ in the New Testament. Gentleness does indeed capture one important aspect of this quality: meekness is not violent or aggressive; it is not arrogant or self-serving. But meekness is not identical to gentleness. As Psalm 37 indicates, meekness specifically concerns our responses to wickedness and injustice.
To understand what meekness entails, we have only to look at Christ himself. Jesus did not retaliate when they hurled insults at him, he made no threats when he suffered, and instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). When Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek against those who have already hurt us, or to hand over more to those who have already taken advantage of us (Matthew 5:39-40), he is teaching us what it will mean to follow his own example of meekness in the face of unjust suffering.
This is not the same as pretending that wickedness doesn’t matter or that injustice didn’t happen. It’s not okay for people to mistreat us. It’s not. But with meekness, we can recognise that it is okay for us to bear those hurts now while we leave it to God, praying and trusting that he will set them right one day. Meekness doesn’t promise an immediate reward, but there is a promise for the future: ‘the meek will inherit the earth.’ Sometimes God hears our prayers and sets things right here and now, but even when he does not, we know that one day, all the wrongs will be righted, all the injustices set straight, and those who have borne them faithfully, patiently, meekly, will receive their inheritance.
Meekness does not deny that we have rights, but it does mean that we will not always insist on our rights. It means that in some situations we may choose to waive our right to fair treatment, or our right to be free from harassment or bullying. It means that we will not seek retaliation or revenge, though if we can act to prevent others from being hurt in future, we should certainly do so. And although we may feel righteous anger at the sinful actions which have harmed us, meekness will mean we take care that this does not tip over into vengeful anger, by bringing it to the Lord as the psalmists do.
Meekness and suffering
So, is Jesus telling us that Christians must be doormats? Is he saying that we must turn the other cheek in an abusive situation? Are we really to give up fighting for justice and righteousness in this world? By no means! Jesus was no doormat and certainly no friend to injustice or wickedness. There are three important things to remember here:
First, while we may choose to waive our own rights, we are not free to waive anyone else’s. You may choose to swallow an insult or let an injustice go on your own behalf but you cannot compel that choice for anyone else. Indeed, as God’s people we should be actively seeking justice for the weak and vulnerable, and advocating righteousness in all situations.
Second, we are not to seek suffering for its own sake. There is nothing godly about provoking people to lash out against us, and there is nothing to be gained by suffering for our own wrongdoing (1 Peter 2:19-20). Meekness should not be mistaken for the lie of low self-esteem that we deserve to be mistreated.
Third, we are free to remove ourselves from situations where we are being harmed. No one should be compelled to remain in an abusive relationship. No one has to continue working in a place where they are bullied. If you are living in a country where Christians are persecuted, and you are able to leave, then there is no Christian requirement to stay. You may choose to do so, but you are free not to.
The promise of meekness
Meekness does not come naturally to any of us. It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and the product of wisdom (James 3:13). It is only because we have been forgiven that we are able to forgive. It is because Christ has suffered for us that we can bear our own suffering. Meekness is an embodiment of the gospel of grace: we will not inherit the earth by fighting for our rights, demanding justice or seeking vengeance. Rather, by meekly enduring through this life, we will receive our glorious, gracious, eternal inheritance.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Questions for Reflection:
1. How does Jesus demonstrate this kind of meekness throughout his earthly life?
2. In what sorts of situations are you most tempted to retaliate or to stand on your rights? What would it mean for you to respond meekly instead?
3. How does the eternal perspective of Matthew 5:5 help us to be meek in the present day?
who sent your precious Son
to patiently suffer injury and bear injustice for our sake:
grant that we may follow his example of meekness.
Give us grace to swallow insults and set aside our rights.
Teach us never to retaliate nor seek revenge.
Instead, may our eyes be set on our eternal inheritance
and our hearts trust in your everlasting justice,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.