Is Meek Weak?—Pastoral Reflections on Gentleness
What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the title “pastor”? My guess is it’s not “gentle.” The Iron Giant notwithstanding, our popular heroes are not known for their meekness. They tend to accomplish great feats through sheer might, skill, and force of will. They excel in hubris, not humility.
I always thought I was gentle. When reading through lists of virtues in the New Testament, gentleness never caught my attention. As a young man I prayed regularly against lust. I fought pride. I strove to ward off sloth. These deadly sins comprised a three-headed monster I knew I must oppose. But somewhere along the way, while I engaged in a frontal assault against my Cerberus, a sneaky little sin slipped out of my heart and attacked me from the rear. He goes by many names: harshness, brashness, and domineering are some of them. He is neither meek nor gentle.
So how did this sneaky little sin catch my attention? A dear brother did something brave; he told me I could be harsh and intimidating. So harsh, in fact, he wasn’t sure he could serve with me on our church’s elder body. His words stunned me. I couldn’t believe it. Yet I couldn’t not believe it. This brother is wise, godly, and I knew he wanted the best for me and for the church we both love.
MY SIN DECEIVED ME
We needed to dig deeper. I asked him to pick out a couple elders from our church with whom he felt comfortable sharing this information. The four of us sat down to talk and pray. He told them his concerns. He did it humbly, confessing his own weaknesses along the way. But as we talked, I better understood ways I had led conversations that made others feel little. I realized how I often provided minimal guidance while expecting maximum results. I learned that while, for the most part, my lust, sloth, and pride were in check, harshness was having a heyday.
I wondered how I missed seeing this sin for so long. After all, I prayed regularly, read the Bible daily, and preached at least once a week. I had been set apart by a local church to address the sins of an entire congregation, so how could I have so carelessly missed seeing my own sin?
The short answer is, I don’t know, my sin deceived me. The nineteenth-century theologian, Archibald Alexander, noted: “In all sin the mind is under a delusive influence. Right thoughts and motives are for the moment forgotten or overborne.” He’s right; I’d been deluded into thinking directness (a more palatable word than harshness) was simply part of my leadership style.
As the weeks went on, the Lord reminded me sanctification is a process, even for pastors. Not only this, I found in the sharp words of my dear brother the power of Hebrews 3:13, “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” His exhortation led me to examine my heart afresh.
SCRIPTURE REFRESHED ME
Just as important, his rebuke led me to read the Scriptures with fresh eyes. For example, when I remembered Moses previously, I first thought of a profoundly bold leader who overcame deep insecurity to lead God’s people out of Egypt. This is true. Moses was a fiercely intense defender of justice. But that’s not all he was. As I came face-to-face with my own harshness, I saw Moses as a man personally and powerfully transformed by the glory of God. Thus, Scripture describes him as, “very meek, more than all the people who were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).
Before, when I meditated on the fruit of the Spirit, I fastened upon my need for joy, faithfulness, and self-control. But now, gentleness called out to me from the text, urging me to set my heart on this particular piece of the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 6:22-23).
Previously, each time I went to 1 Peter 5 to examine the role of elders in the church, I especially observed how they need to be willing servants, not greedy for gain. But now what stands out to me is the fact that they must not be “domineering” over the sheep in their care (1 Pet. 5:3).
How many times had I read 1 Timothy 3, pondering the qualifications necessary to hold the office of overseer? Faithfulness in marriage, sobriety, and respectability each demanded my attention. But I can no longer read this passage without seeing the phrase, “not violent but gentle” shining forth in neon lights.
OUR CHURCH DOESN’T NEED A MEEK PASTOR
Leading a church, even with a plurality of elders, isn’t easy. A good pastor has to be prepared to receive a barrage of criticism. It goes with the territory. Moreover, there can be the expectation that pastors must not only know where the church needs to be, but must have the vision, confidence, resolve, and tough-mindedness to get it there. And sometimes, because of our sinfully clouded minds, we pastors fail to see how fostering the virtue of meekness will further this cause. We know America doesn’t need a meek president, the army doesn’t need a meek general, and the company doesn’t need a weak CEO. So, perhaps without admitting it, we resolve our church doesn’t need a meek pastor.
But the church isn’t a country, an army, or a company. If God wanted it led by politicians, generals, or CEOs he could have made that happen. Instead, in his wisdom, he entrusted the future of the church to elders whose distinguishing mark is a personal recognition of weakness: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). If Jesus saved the world by making himself nothing (Phil. 2:7), then surely it is incumbent upon every elder to take his posture.
As a husband, I so appreciate Dave Harvey’s words about meekness in marriage: “Meekness has nothing to do with being weak or passive. Meekness is power harnessed by love. . . In marriage, to be meek is not to be weak or vulnerable, but to be so committed to your spouse that you will sacrifice for his or her good.” These words are just as apt for the pastorate.
Meek is not weak. The pastor who feels the need to power his church to greatness through the exercise of his own gifts underestimates the power of the gospel. The pastor convinced he must be the most insightful, the most incisive, the most forceful, or the most commanding has missed the most basic of spiritual truths: God delights to use the meekest of men because they are the most obviously dependent upon him. This does not mean a good pastor is quiet, reticent to lead, or skeptical of his own judgment. Not at all! Yet it does mean a pastor is “quick to hear, slow to speak, [and] slow to anger” (James 1:19).
I’m still not as gentle as I ought to be, but I’m aware of my temptation to be harsh, and I know such awareness makes me a better husband, father, and pastor. I know one day soon my ministry will be over. People will gather at my funeral where I hope they’ll talk a lot more about Jesus than about me. But to the extent that I’m remembered, I’d like to be remembered as man who modeled meekness.
MOVING TOWARD MEEKNESS
None of us is as meek or gentle as we ought to be. But what should you do if you think you may have a real problem here?
- Find someone who will speak to the truth in love to you, and ask him or her, “Am I gentle?” It helped me simply to know this is an area I really need to focus on. Knowing may not be half the battle, but it’s a start.
- Meditate upon some key texts of Scripture: Proverbs 15:4; Matthew 5:5; Galatians 5:23; Ephesians 4:1-3; Colossians 3:12; 1 Timothy 6:11; James 1:21. Even more than that, consider the character of Christ. Paul said every Christian is “being transformed into the same image” of Christ, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This means we are coming to share in his meekness, too (2 Cor. 10:1; Matt. 11:29). It’s hard to spend time with verses like these and not walk away with a greater desire to be gentle.
- Consider how others perceive you. If your words, tone, and countenance come off as harsh and unfeeling, reconsider how you communicate with others. Part of loving another person is going out of your way to make sure they know you care about them. Sometimes a lack of gentleness is simply a failure to make clear how you truly feel.
- Pray God would make you gentler. Surely this is a prayer God delights to answer. He loves his sheep more than you do, and for love of them he will work gentleness in the hearts of under-shepherds who truly long to exhibit the meekness of Christ.
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Archibald Alexander, Practical Truths (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1998), 59.
Dave Harvey, When Sinners Say, “I Do,” (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2007), 130.