September 6, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Scott R. Swain
Posted On September 11, 2018
Dr. Scott R. Swain is president and professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. Dr. Swain is an ordained minister in the PCA and has published a number of books and essays on the doctrine of God, theological interpretation of Scripture, and modern Protestant theology.
Thank you, Steve, for that very kind introduction. It’s good to be here today; look forward to see some of you, also, during the lunch hour, talk about potential study at RTS–Orlando. But I want to look for just a few minutes this morning at James 3:13;
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Let’s pray.
Great Father of glory, great Father of lights, You are the source of every good and perfect gift, including the gift of wisdom and the gift of meekness. We pray that You would grant this morning that we would receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save our souls. And we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You, one God in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Meekness is a virtue. Meekness is a virtue that’s a form of temperance and as a form temperance, meekness is concerned with the moderation of anger. Anger that arises at a sense of injustice, anger that arises when we either have been wronged or perceive ourselves to have been wronged. And it’s a virtue that is in short supply today. We live in a middle of a culture that sees red. We live in a culture that is characterized by resentment, by the ability to be easily provoked. We live in a culture that is quarrelsome. Exhibit A, social media. A New York Times documentary called The Outrage Machine recently chronicled what can happen when an online mob gets a little misinformation in a hashtag and talks about how it destroyed a woman’s life because a false story had been told about her. Or if you consider public discourse today, political discourse, right? We are so characterized by anger and hostility on both sides of the political spectrum that we can no longer deliberate wisely. We can no longer communicate effectively.
And unfortunately, we see this often times inside the Church, as well. How many times have we seen the inability for godly leaders to come together to address and controversial issue because there are no adults in the room, there are no calm and cool heads that can talk through issues and reach a godly solution? And then we see it in our families, as well. How many families have been broken due to outbursts of anger? How many children have been scared because parents are unable to temper their tongues and lash out at children and impact them for the rest of their lives? Yes, we are a culture, and, sometimes, we’re a Church, that has anger issues.
But the virtue of meekness is one that Scripture widely commends. Psalm 37 councils us not to fret ourselves when the wicked flourish, but instead councils us to calm ourselves before the Lord and promises that the meek will inherit the earth. Psalm 45 celebrates a King, a beautiful King, the most handsome among the sons of men, who rides out for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness. Zephaniah 3:12 prophesies a day where the Lord will overthrow the proud and haughty from among His people and will establish among them a people who are lowly and meek, and who make their boasts not in themselves but in the Lord. Matthew 5:5, Jesus repeats the promise, the benediction of Psalm 37, and says, “the meek will inherit the earth.” In Matthew 11, the one who is the very Lord of heaven and earth, the Son of God, incarnate among us, describes himself as meek and lowly in heart. And then of course, as He rides into Jerusalem on the last week of His ministry, the language of Zechariah is taken up as He comes in as humble, riding on a donkey. Paul, James, and the other apostles council us to put on meekness, and, indeed, the entire council of God proclaims that in Christ, the meek and lowly servant, through His death and through His resurrection, God has established a domain of meekness over which Christ the Lord rules.
Meekness, Scripture says, is essential to the well-being of any community. It’s essential to the reception of divine wisdom. In James 1: 21, it says that we are to, with meekness, receive God’s instruction in His word. And then Paul, in 2 Timothy 2, says that meekness is not only essential to the reception of divine wisdom, but to the communication of divine wisdom to others. And Paul councils those who would be a servant of the Lord to minister, to interact with those who are their opponents with gentleness or meekness. Meekness is one of the essential virtues that is dedicated to the preservation on the unity of the community. How does Paul, in Ephesians 4, say that we are to preserve the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace? By clothing ourselves with, among other things, meekness. And then, of course, meekness, according to James, is essential to that godly life. He says, “Let your pattern of life exhibit the meekness of wisdom.” Let it exhibit that you have been trained by divine wisdom and therefore trained in meekness. That others may see your good works and as Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Well, I want to spend a few minutes this morning looking at this topic of the meekness of wisdom. What does it mean to be trained in the meekness of wisdom that James commends? And I want to address this topic by looking at two questions. First, what is meekness and then, second, how may we cultivate meekness? So, first, what is meekness?
A few things meekness is not, meekness is not a personality type. Both the loud and the quiet are called to exhibit meekness. Meekness is not stoic lack of emotion. In fact, Christianity, uniformly, has rejected Stoicism when it comes to its teaching on emotions. No, meekness, is not a lack of emotion, but it is a moderation, a temperance of emotion. Meekness is not weakness. It’s not a timid, lack of agency. In fact, meekness is a certain kind of agency, and as we’ll see, in the person of Christ, it’s a kind of agency that is fruitful in establishing a harvest of righteousness. And the finally, meekness is not “niceness”. And I put that in quote because I know we all want to be nice, but there is a kind of “niceness” that is unwilling to rock the boat, that’s unwilling ever to speak a contrary word in order to keep the peace, unwilling to risk its own reputation by exhibiting anger, rightly, in a situation. Now that’s not meekness either.
Well, if we want to understand meekness, the best way to understand it is by situating it among the habits and the virtues. Habits, of course, are certain dispositions of thinking, willing, or feeling, that are usually acquired over time, through practice. We can get muscle memory in playing sports, but there’s also a kind of spiritual muscle memory that comes, and these habits that refer to good habits are called virtues. Now, classically, there are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. And then there are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Scripture talks about all seven of these virtues in different ways. When it comes to meekness, meekness is a form of temperance. Paul says in Titus 11:2 that the grace of God that has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, is a grace that also trains us in virtue. Specifically, there he says that it trains us in the virtues of godliness, justice, and temperance, of which meekness is a form.
Now with temperance, it’s interesting if you think about it in comparison to godliness and justice. If godliness is a virtue that concerns our relationship to God, and if justice is primarily a virtue that concerns our relationship with our neighbors, temperance is a virtue that concerns our relationship with ourselves and specifically with our appetites. And most commonly, temperance is described in terms of our appetites for things like food, drink, and sex. And the idea is not that these appetites are bad. In fact, God gave them to us; but the idea is that, as a result of sin and the blindness that comes to us through sin, our appetites are no longer ruled by wisdom, but because of our self-indulgence, we have become slaves of our appetite. And so, one of the things God, by His grace in the Gospel, does for us is teach us to temper our appetites, not to suppress them. In fact, one of the characteristics of false religion is that it tries to suppress these or rules these out completely, in an appearance of godliness, in an appearance of false-virtue. But grace teaches us how to moderate these appetites wisely in light of divine wisdom for glory of God, for the good of our neighbors, and for our own good, as well.
Well, meekness is a form temperance, and it’s a form of temperance that concerns the moderation of anger. A few things to say here; first, meekness is distinct from self-control. Self-control is a good thing, we should all exhibit self-control. But self-control is our ability is restrain our appetites under the force of temptation. Meekness, however, is a virtue that lives in someone who has trained their appetites, and so that they don’t face temptations in the same way. For example, if you’re pushing your baby down the street in a stroller and you come across a Doberman Pinscher being walked by its owner, do you want that Doberman to have a bit and bridle and the owner to be restraining it by a leash to keep it away from the baby? Or do you want a Doberman who is trained to walk beside the owner, no threat to the baby? Clearly, you want the latter. Self-control trains the passions with bit and bridle. Meekness is a training of the passions, specifically of anger, that has been tamed and trained.
Meekness, furthermore, is the moderation of anger, it’s not the absence of anger. Historically, meekness is described as a middle road, as a mean between prideful, sinful anger and a kind of lazy apathy. There is something known as righteous anger. God calls us to love what is good and to abhor what is evil, right? There are certain situations where an angry appraisal of a situation is the right emotion to exhibit. There are certain situations where anger should motivate us to act, to seek, to reverse some kind of injustice. And where it should motivate us to somehow communicate our anger, whether verbally or through our facial expressions. And always, of course, in the effort to win others over to the cause of justice preeminently. But when necessary also, to refute those who oppose what is right.
Of course, when it comes to the cause of the Lord, then quietness in the face of His dishonor is a failure to exhibit righteous anger. Indeed, quietness in the face of injustice against our neighbor, is a failure to exhibit righteous anger, as well. We see in Scripture a number of examples of righteous anger. I think of Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai, having received the tablets of the Law, only to discover Israel has already broken the second commandment. He was angered because of the dishonor of God’s name that had been exhibited in the violation of the covenant. When we think of Jesus Christ, when He entered the temple in the last week of His ministry and found the money changers, and it says He burned with anger. Quoting Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” No, this is righteous anger.
Meekness is not the enemy of righteous anger, but the servant of righteous anger. What meekness moderates is prideful anger and keeps us from lazy apathy. Meekness helps us to avoid either overestimating injustice in any given situation, being easily provoked, easily outraged, but it also, preserves us from a kind of lazy apathy in a situation where we’re always cool with that. Meekness helps us moderate our speech, it helps us to not become quarrelsome people, but it also preserves us from becoming just empty flatterers who only ever say nice things, even in the face of falsehood and injustice.
Last thing to say in terms of categorizing meekness, is that meekness really can’t be understood as an isolated virtue. Meekness is a virtue that operates in conjunction with others and I want to mention two. Meekness is, what we might call, the little sister of humility, and with humility, meekness is the daughter of the fear of the Lord. It’s the little sister of humility and it’s the daughter of the fear of the Lord. Meekness and humility are often paired together in Scripture. Zephaniah 3:12, Matthew 11:29, and 2 Corinthians 10:1, where Paul says I’m coming to you in the meekness and humility of Christ, or don’t you want me to? Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:12, where Paul encourages his churches to clothe themselves with not only meekness, but also humility. But what’s the relationship between these two virtues?
If humility is proper self-regard, neither too high self-regard nor too low self-regard, meekness is proper self-restraint. And why is it that these two go together? Well, isn’t it often that those who think too much of themselves are easily angered? Right, isn’t those who think too much of their intellect, who think too much of their opinions, who think too much of their position within a community, aren’t they the ones who most easily fly off the handle, opposed to someone who has a humble self-estimation? They’re more likely to endure injustice; they’re less likely to consider themselves a victim of injustice when they are not. So, humility and meekness go together, and, indeed, meekness, in some ways, follows from humility. Proper self-restraint follows from proper self-regard. But meekness and humility are the daughters of a more preeminent virtue: the fear of the Lord.
If meekness is proper self-restraint —which follows from humility, which is proper self-regard— both follow from the fear of the Lord, which is proper God-regard. You remember what the Proverbs say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”? Well, if meekness is the fruit of wisdom, then the fear of the Lord is also the beginning of meekness. The fear of the Lord teaches us to humbly acknowledge that the Lord alone is God. He is holy, holy, holy. The fear of the Lord teaches us to stand in His presence with reverence and awe, acknowledging that our God is a consuming fire. The fear of the Lord also teaches us that we are not God. And again, the problem with pride is often the failure to acknowledge that we are not God. Our cause is not the most important cause in the world; our name, our reputation, our intellect, or our influence are not the important things in the world, God’s is. And the fear of the Lord reminds us that there is a God and you are not Him.
But —and here’s the secret to the fear of the Lord being the beginning of meekness— the fear of the Lord not only teaches that there is a God and you are Him, but the fear of the Lord does not teach us that we are nothing. The fear of the Lord teaches us that God takes thought of us, to use the language of Psalm 8 and Psalm 40. The Lord of glory is a God who delights in giving dignity to His people. I think of Psalm 8 in creation, God crowned humanity with glory and honor. You think of what He’s done, and how much more so in the work of redemption; in clothing us with Christ through union with Christ, in declaring us sons and daughters on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, in making us joint heirs with Christ. No, God’s glory does not come at the expense of the creature, the God of glory dignifies His creature. How does this lead to meekness? Well, as we said already, proud and self-important people are the ones who are easily angered and easily offended. When they don’t receive the respect they deserve, they fly off the handle. When their opinions are not validated, when their advice is not heeded, they rage, they resent, they seek revenge.
The humble, however, are not easily angered. They’re not easily offended, because they recognize that their true dignity is both given and guarded by God. And when they are wronged, they entrust vengeance to the Lord. They are able to pursue reconciliation with their neighbors; they are able to forgive those who sin against them. Because they know that God will maintain their cause, they are free from having to maintain their own cause, and can live for the glory of God’s name and for the cause of their neighbors. Well, if this is what meekness is and if meekness is such a wonderful ornament for the Christian, then the question is, how may we cultivate the virtue of meekness?
Well, the first thing to say is that meekness, like all other Christian gifts and graces, is, to use the language of Tim Keller, “Received, not achieved.” Meekness is a gift that comes from above, and this is what James will go on to say in James 3. He speaks of the wisdom that comes from above. It comes from the Father of lights, from whom every good and perfect gift, generously, are bestowed upon us. Meekness comes to us from the Father, it comes to us in a supreme embodiment in the meek and lowly Christ, who is the incarnation of divine wisdom. Again, think again of Jesus’ self-description in Matthew 11, where He describes Himself. He invites us to come to Him and learn from Him, because He is what? Meek and lowly in heart. Remember how He’s described as He travels to Jerusalem? Humble and seated on a donkey. You remember how Peter describes Him in 1 Peter 2, when He was reviled, and He of all people had the right to revile in return, He did not revile, but entrusted Himself to the One who could vindicate His cause. Yes, the meek and gentle Christ bore all the wrath of sinners, against God, on Himself and did not revile in return, and He did that to bear the curse of our anger.
But remember what Psalm 45 says about this King, the One who rode forth in truth and meekness and righteousness, He rode how? Victoriously. The One who sowed His body in death, in meekness, has reaped a harvest of righteousness in His resurrection from the death, in His ascension to the Father’s right-hand, in His enthronement on God’s own throne. The meek and lowly Christ has, through His death and through His exaltation, established a domain of meekness, over which He reigns as Lord. And therefore, He can speak the promise, with full assurance to those who believe it, that the meek will inherit the earth. The Gospel says, among other things, meekness wins, because Jesus, the meek and lowly servant of God, has conquered through His death and resurrection.
But that’s not all. The meekness that comes from the Father, the meekness that is supremely embodied in Christ, within the domain of weakness that He established through his death and resurrection, it comes to us in the Spirit of meekness, given to us through union with Christ. This meekness is a divine gift, a gift that we are called to actively appropriate. When we think of gifts, we can sometimes make two mistakes. On the one hand, we think we don’t need divine gifts and we can think that our sanctification is a matter of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but of course we know that is wrong. Another, perhaps subtler error, perhaps more prevalent in Evangelicals today, is to say, “Well, if meekness is a divine gift then the proper response to a divine gift is to let go and let God.” If God is active, if God is the Giver, then receiving a gift properly means not doing anything. But of course, if you look at the New Testament, that’s not how it describes the proper appropriation of the gift of meekness.
Now again, think of the metaphor that Paul repeatedly uses to describe, not only our appropriation of the gift of meekness, but all the fruits of the Spirit: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” And it’s really a beautiful image there, the image of clothing, of getting dressed. The idea is God has clothed you with Christ, signified in baptism, as many have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. And the very symbolism of baptism symbolizes something done to us; it’s a work of grace. We don’t baptize ourselves, someone else baptizes us. You are baptized into Christ and you’ve put on Christ, the clothing of Christ. But, though who have put on Christ, by God’s grace, we are called what? To actively put on that clothing ourselves, to appropriate the gift that has been given.
There is a whole field of psychology now that discusses what it known as Enclothed Cognition. Psychologists recently did a study where they took just an ordinary, white lab coat and they divided up two groups of people in the study and they gave everyone in the groups lab coats. One group they told them this was a painter’s smock, the other group they told them this was a doctor’s lab coat. Then, they gave them the same tasks to try to complete. Guess who carried their tasks forth with more precision and care? The one who thought they were just like a doctor. Now if that’s true on a basic human level, how much more is it true when we talk about union with Christ, which is not an idea in the mind, but it’s a spiritual reality, given to us by God the Father, through the Son, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit? As many of you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, therefore, put on meekness.
What one article I read on this topic says, “The lesson of Enclothed Cognition is not just that what you wear says something about you, but that what you wear says something to you.” It doesn’t just say something about you to others, it says something to you about who you are and what you are called to be. How much more so of our baptism, of our union with Christ, of our clothing with the graces and virtues of Christ? And then meekness is cultivated furthermore, in the soils of faith, hope, and love. And we don’t have time to look at this in length, but I encourage you later to look at Psalm 37. Psalm 37, at least for the first half, is really a council in meekness. Instructing us to put off anger and fretfulness, and instead trust in the Lord with all of our hearts, to delight ourselves in the Lord, to wait patiently on the Lord. All virtues with which we’re very familiar with: faith, hope, and love. And it’s the person who learns to trust the Lord during adversity, who hopes in Him, who delights in Him, who is able to quiet their spirits, the Psalms says. To become one of these people of whom it is said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
And then, finally, let us consider the example and encouragement that comes from the meekness of Jesus Christ Himself. Basil of Caesarea says, “Everything the Lord did was an example of humility.” Well, as everything He did was an example of humility, everything He did was also an example of meekness. When we want to see what it looks like to be a truly virtuous human being, Jesus Christ, as He is revealed in Scripture, is the ultimate standard. When we look to Christ, we often think how far we fall short of His example and, indeed, on a daily basis, we are people who exhibit a lack of meekness, right? We lose our tempers, we say harsh words, we fail to be righteously angered when we should. But the good news is that the One who is the example of meekness is also the supreme fountain of meekness, from whom we are called to draw freely and repeatedly on His grace.
Then let us remember that this One who is the example of meekness is the One who has, through His death and resurrection, established a dominion of meekness over which He rules as Lord. He has promised that the meek aren’t the ones who are going to lose in the end, aren’t the ones who are going to be brushed aside, but they are the ones who are going to inherit the earth. And so, brothers and sisters, in light of the example and encouragement of Christ, let us heed the apostle’s exhortation to put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Let us show forth, by our excellent way of life, the meekness of wisdom for the good of the world, for the growth of the Church, for the glory of the Triune God who is the Giver of the gift of meekness.
Transcripts are lightly edited.