Have you ever glanced in your rearview mirror on the freeway and found it filled by a tailgater? Maybe driving an oversized truck, shaking his fist at you, weaving back and forth and flashing his lights– all to get you to move out of his way?
How would you respond to someone acting like this? Would you pretend the tailgater is not there and continue on your way? Or tap the brakes to get him off of your tail? Perhaps you could wait until he tries to pass you and then speed up until he loses his chance?
Imagine how you would feel if you tried any of these tactics. Through experience, I know I feel increasingly stressed and angry when preventing someone from passing me.
And how would the tailgater feel about you blocking his path? Rage likely. So getting in someone’s way hurts you and that person. Everyone loses.
Now how would it feel if you quickly changed lanes and let the tailgater pass? There may be a moment of “Oh no! I am losing the imaginary race,” but it would be followed by a pleasant feeling that comes with a small kindness. The tailgater would also feel a momentary thrill as vehicles in his path scatter before him. Everyone wins. So it is with meekness.
Meekness for skeptics
Someone once said that “the world regards the meek as nice but quaint people, as those to be stepped over or stepped on.”1 Not so. Meekness is the way believers should treat people. It involves sacrificing power and control to serve others and allow them to shine. But meekness is more than self-restraint. It is the presentation of self in a posture of kindness and gentleness.”2 For the natural man [or woman] is an enemy to God… and will be forever and ever unless he yields… and [becomes] submissive, humble, patient, full of love, [and] willing to submit to all things.3
Buddhists and other ancient religions happen to agree with the Christians on this one.
Of all the people I have known in my life, few showed meekness more than the Harvard professor and innovation writer Clayton Christensen. After a stroke, he had to relearn English one word at a time. I once heard him ask an audience to remind him what the word was for the “large gray animal with the horn.” He talked about how discouraging it was, as a supposedly intelligent academic, to not even be able to talk. Clay said that as he focused on his health problems, he became more focused on himself and entered a deep sadness. He did not come out of it until he realized that God never said, ‘You guys who have problems focus on yourselves.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter what your problems are. Help others.’ So Clay swallowed his pride and meekly reentered the world to serve.
Clay has an endless number of stories about yielding to the needs of others: helping a neighbor unload a moving van, an elderly woman clean out a filthy fridge, a student decide where to live, and the list goes on and on. Even the humble speeches I listened to were acts of kindness.
Like Clay Christensen, the meek focus on others and know how to give good gifts. Not the expensive gifts but the ones that people really need: a conversation when you just want to go to sleep, a dinner invite when someone might see your less-than-perfect home, a board game with a child who needs attention – even if you find it boring.
Charles Francis Adams was a Massachusetts state Senator and an Ambassador to Britain under Abraham Lincoln. After agreeing to go on a fishing trip with his son Brooks, Charles wrote: “Went fishing with my son, a day wasted.” The son Brooks had a different perspective on the day. In his journal on that same day he wrote, “Went fishing with my father today, the most glorious day of my life.” Brooks talked about that day for over 30 years. Even though the father did not recognize it at the time, giving in made all the difference.4
David Bednar once said, “The Christ-like quality of meekness is strong, not weak; active, not passive; courageous, not timid; restrained, not excessive; modest, not self-aggrandizing; and gracious, not brash. A meek person is not easily provoked.”5
Why are the meek not easily provoked?
An American man living in Hong Kong went to the gym one morning near his apartment. He selected a treadmill for his workout but could not get it to turn on. While inspecting the machine, the American found that the wire plugging into the wall was frayed and likely dangerous. So he found a gym employee and pointed out the frayed wire. The employee began screaming at the American while gesticulating wildly at the treadmill. The American could not speak Chinese and had no idea where the anger was coming from. He later told me that he probably would have been offended if he had understood anything, but instead the American wondered what was going on in the employee’s life and if there was any way to help.
The meek are more focused on the offender’s needs than on the offensive behavior. It is difficult to be offended when you are not thinking about yourself and how someone’s behavior or words impact you. Meekness requires that you ask the question, “Is there something I can do to help this person?” It’s not easy when someone is upset or criticizing you but often the people screaming at you are really crying out for help… like a five-year-old around dinnertime. If you can do what you can for your enemy and forget yourself for a moment, it will be easier to take bad news.
The meek also assume the best intentions instead of taking offense. When they see an article in a local newspaper titled, “Children make nutritious snacks,” they do not write angry letters decrying cannibalism or child labor and calling for the writer to be terminated. They wait for more information or assume the children are preparing healthy snacks for the community..
How are the meek strong and courageous?
Because of a prophecy that Jerusalem would be destroyed, Nephi followed his father into the desert on a journey to a promised land.6 One day in the wilderness, Nephi’s father said that he had “dreamed a dream” and that Nephi and his brothers had to travel back to Jerusalem to secure a record of their people inscribed on plates of brass. Nephi’s brothers complained because their father had asked them to do a “hard thing,” but Nephi agreed to go without hesitation.
During Nephi’s successful quest to obtain the brass plates, he traveled many days through the desert, lost all of his family’s vast riches, was threatened, chased through the streets by killers and beaten with a stick. Nephi is clearly meek and submissive because he immediately followed his father’s request and then continued to look to the Lord until the job was done, but can Nephi be described as weak and timid? Absolutely not. Is it weak to turn off the television in the middle of a close game because your spouse needs help. Is it weak to pull over and offer to help someone having car trouble? No.
Submission takes more strength of character than stubbornly seeking your own goals and priorities. It takes courage to say yes. And my experience is that it takes extreme courage to yield without complaining.
What if I am overwhelmed already?
I once asked my daughter to help me move groceries from the car to the kitchen. She cheerily responded, “Sure Dad,” and then ran into the house and disappeared. The meek do not say yes to every request for help and then let people down because they cannot keep up. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day, conflicting responsibilities or some other roadblock. The meek do what they can but sometimes have to say “I want to help you but cannot. I wish I could.”
Is submission always the answer?
No. Of course not. The meek give the gift that is needed, which is not always the gift requested. If someone tries to convince you to lie, cheat, steal or any other kind of sin, resist his or her advances forcefully. Say no kindly if you need to. Otherwise, go with meekness – especially when you feel like God wants you to do something.
Will people take advantage of a more submissive you?
Try looking at this question another way. Don’t you want to bless the lives of as many people as possible as frequently as possible? Don’t you want people to find great advantage in their relationships with you?
If you met Jesus Christ along the way and asked him for a sweater because you were cold, he would give you his sweater and his overcoat. If you asked him to drive you to the bus stop, he would drive you all the way to your destination. People feel exploited when forced or tricked into giving against their will or giving more than they want to, but the meek do not give grudgingly. They sacrifice freely and more than they have to. And the meek find that their capacity to serve and their joy in service increase over time.
The perfect example of meekness
Jesus Christ is our meek exemplar. He is the Savior and king of the world, but he tenderly washed the feet of his disciples: fisherman, business owners and tax collectors who were not too different from you and me. When accused and condemned before Pontius Pilate to be crucified, did Jesus provide a brilliant defense spoken with power and authority? No. He stood before the temporary political appointy and let him talk. As David Bednar said, “Jesus showed a disciplined response, strong restraint, and unwillingness to exert his infinite power for personal benefit.”7
And before suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to the Father saying “not my will, but thine, be done.”8 This is the ultimate expression of meekness.
So when someone comes into your life and tries to make you do something good that you would not have chosen for yourself, go for it and enjoy the ride. And don’t do it grudgingly. Throw yourself into it like it was your idea. The task might be difficult, embarrassing or scary, but meekness is one of the secrets to joy in this life. It is a kind of superpower. The scriptures promise that the meek will find peace in this life and one day shall possess the world.