Leading Question: When Paul asked the Corinthian believers if he should come to them with a stick or with love in a spirit of gentleness (1 Cor. 4:21), how did he expect to find the right answer?
The word translated “meekness” or “gentleness” in the fruit of the spirit list is a tantalizing one. Here are some biblical passage where the word or one of its near relatives is used:
Numbers 12:3: “Now the man Moses was very humble [devout] more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (NRSV). The KJV has “meek.” But the Hebrew word could also mean “oppressed” or “downtrodden” and is often used in connection with “poor” or “afflicted.” It may be a simple description without any laudatory intent.
Matt. 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (NRSV). The New Living Translation has “gentle and lowly.” The German Die gute Nachricht (= GNB/TEV) has “those who refuse to use force.”
1 Cor. 4:21: “Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” Gentleness can involve correction and growth as is suggested by the follow verse:
Gal. 6:1: “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”
Based on classical Greek background, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible gives three alternative meanings for the use of the word in Matthew’s list of beatitudes:
1. “Blessed is the one who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.”
2. “Blessed is the one who has every instinct, every impulse, every passion under control. Blessed is the one who is entirely self-controlled.” Barclay notes that the New Testament understanding of God and humanity would suggest that the last word be “God-controlled” – blessed is the one who is entirely “God-controlled.”
3. “Blessed is the man who has the humility to know his own ignorance, his own weakness, and his own need.” – William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, Daily Study Bible, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1958), 91-93.
1. To what extent is the word “meekness” a positive one? Barclay’s alternatives are attempts to rejuvenate a word whose older meaning (meekness) has become problematic in our day and age. Is there anything salvageable about the word “meekness” so that it can with honor belong to the fruit of the Spirit?
2. Jesus the example: Matthew 11:28-30. The New Living Translation uses the phrase “humble and gentle.” NRSV simply reverses the two: “gentle and humble in heart.” In what way is the example of Jesus one that is attractive for moderns, both men and women? Do we want Jesus’ kind of gentleness?
3. A steady presence in the church: Eph. 4:1-3. “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It may be that the use of the work “meek” in the Sermon on the Mount has linked up subconsciously in our minds with Jesus’ command to go the second mile and turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38-42), resulting in the stereotype of the spineless Christian. Is it possible to see the “second mile” and “other cheek” mandates as arising from strength, rather than from weakness and coercion?
4. Practical stuff: How can we more effectively enrich our lives with “gentleness”? What methods can help nudge us toward our goal?