“Get ‘em, Philip. Jump on him!” Bryant yelled, begging for reinforcement from his younger brother. With one giant leap across the living room floor, Philip launched a courageous attack on his father who held Bryant in a half-nelson face down on the floor while Steven was pinned between his calves. Neither Bryant nor Steven had been able to mount much resistance, so they called Philip to the rescue. My adorable little platoon had organized a gutsy assault against their father, desperately hoping that this time they would prevail.
Alas, not happening this time…
So began every evening from 5 to 6pm when my husband returned home from work to our boys who anxiously waited for him by the front window. While I made dinner and periodically protected my glass china hutch doors from utter annihilation, the boys sparred in the living room with their dad. They were absolutely convinced they could take Bob. If they’d only known! What they didn’t understand at 4, 7, and 10 years of age was that Bob was highly trained in self-defense tactics and they didn’t stand a chance against his expertise.
They still tried anyway.
Bob’s life is one that exhibits strength under control. He has the courage, training, discipline, and ability to assert himself physically against others, yet chooses not to. When people meet him for the first time, often they are shocked to learn of his training because he is so mild-mannered. He rarely talks about his experience, and never broadcasts his capabilities. His sons know, however, and they deeply respect him.
In the old days, the term used for strength under control was “meekness.” The Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 defines meekness as, “softness of temper; mildness; gentleness; forbearance under injuries and provocations.” Sounds like someone exhibiting a great deal of self-control in the face of torment or attack. Our new millennium culture does not value meekness; it values self-assertion, violence, and revenge. It’s no wonder. The last hundred years the world has offered up the evils of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein as portraits of leadership. Hollywood has offered its own violent expressions such as Don Corleone, John Rambo, Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, and scores of others.
Being that language constantly changes to reflect the natural shift in cultural values, it’s not surprising that the definition for meekness has morphed as well. Here is how our culture defines meekness: “Shy, compliant, spineless, unresisting, weak, wishy-washy, and yielding.”
If my definition of meekness includes spineless, weak, and wishy-washy, how could I ever view Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:29 as something to which I should aspire? Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (KJV) Many people view Jesus as weak, not meek, because they think he didn’t stand up for himself. There’s even an old hymn written by Charles Wesley entitled, “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” that rings cowardly and passive to our new millennial ears.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30 have been a bit of a conundrum to me recently. I was meditating on them for days last week and just couldn’t reconcile them in my heart. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle (meek) and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (NASB)
When I’m all twisted up with anxiety or agitated in spirit to the point that I can’t rest, the last thing in the world I want is to be yoked to something or somebody that is passive. That’s just another burden. I want intervention! I want Jesus to intersect my anxiety with a supernatural solution that brings me peace and freedom. Why would Jesus, who didn’t stand up for himself, think he could bring me freedom by imprisoning me in an ox yoke?
Yep. When I was in high school I played on the tennis team. I wasn’t much good at it, but I did love to play. Despite being awful, I often asked my coach for extra assignments to practice after the team had finished for the day. Once I spent two hours tossing a tennis ball into the air trying to teach myself to lob the ball to the perfect height for an effective overhead serve. It didn’t help. My serve still sucked seaweed.
Driving out of the parking lot to go home that day, my coach saw me practicing alone on the court. She stopped her car and watched. Finally, she turned off the engine, got out of her car, and stood behind me. While holding both of my hands, she moved me through the proper tennis form needed for what I was trying to do. Words would never have communicated what I needed to learn so she didn’t speak; she simply repeated the action over, and over, and over again. My coach essentially “yoked” herself to me in order to train me to be more effective.
My serve improved instantly.
I know it seems counter-intuitive; like an oxymoron. Putting someone in a yoke intended for “work” will give them “rest?” Yes. By forcing someone to walk in tandem with another who has already faced what they are facing, they will become trained and their load will become easier to bear. Training in tandem with Jesus distributes the burden of troubling circumstances across many shoulders so that none is overwhelmed. The yoke that appears to enslave, then, becomes the yoke that actually sets free.
So, where does meekness fit in?
Meekness is about control and it’s about context. Meekness asks: Am I directing my life, or am I allowing God to direct it? Am I co-operating in tandem with Jesus, or am I straining against him? I will not rest completely unless I am confident that God can direct my life better than I can. Confidence in him comes from training by him. Training comes by walking in tandem with him. Walking in tandem requires my surrender to his pace, his gait, his will, and his way.
Meekness willingly surrenders my agenda to God’s greater perspective. Meekness is a settled understanding that God has my best interest in mind and will move to see that he accomplishes it for me. I don’t have to become belligerent and assert myself because I know God will step in when necessary and act on my behalf. Meekness allows the Holy Spirit the opportunity to do what all my ramped-up anxiety can never do.
I doubt many people who know the history of General Robert E. Lee would describe him as “spineless, unresisting, weak, wishy-washy, or yielding.” He was one of America’s bravest soldiers and one of the South’s greatest heroes. He was also a patriot who was known for his meekness. General Lee once said, “I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weaknesses, that our only hope is in God.” General Lee understood his personal and professional limitations and tapped into God’s unlimited power to make up his deficiencies. This is strength under control.
Jane Hampton Cook served as the White House webmaster during the presidency of George W. Bush. She is also an American history aficionado. Jane recently told me that she “admires leaders who speak with passion and authenticity about America, above and beyond their own capabilities.” “Some of our best presidents,” she continued, “are the ones who genuinely care about people as individuals and portray an attitude of ‘life is not all about me.’”
This is meekness at its finest; it views life through a larger context that just personal need and/or desire. Meekness provides the opportunity to live my life in a larger context, to serve other people, to understand my own limitations, and to experience the absolute thrill of watching the sovereign God of the universe step in and make up for my deficiencies.
Our boys are now in their twenties. Despite the years that have passed, they continue to challenge Bob whenever they are together and I continue to protect my china hutch. Bryant has picked up some of his own techniques from others along the way and poses a serious threat to Bob now. Like a pack of wolf pups, three grown men dog-pile their dad still hoping that this will be the day when they take him. None has overcome Bob yet, but they are inching ever closer.
Philip relentlessly pursues Bob and continues to learn by experience in match after match with his dad. The last time I watched Philip go after Bob, I saw it – that familiar glint of strength under control. Only this time it was Philip’s restraint I saw, not Bob’s. I think Philip truly could have taken his father, but deliberately opted not to. In a surprising turn of events, Philip exercised his own meekness out of respect for his father.
I wish our culture valued meekness and the respect for others that it produces.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5 (KJV)
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.