Blessed Are the Afflicted, for They Will Inherit the Earth

Perserverance in Difficulty

Christians often say “meekness isn’t weakness; it’s power under control” (a definition I think we owe to the early twentieth-century Olympic runner and missionary Eric Liddell) and take pains to point out that being meek is not the same thing as being a doormat.

But the fact is there’s a reason people in the world tend to equate meekness with weakness and doormatness: it often looks like it.

The British folk song “The Ballad of Accounting,” written by Ewan MacColl in 1964 and sung with the appropriate tone of bitterness, sums up how a posture of meekness often comes off to those who share in the affliction but don’t share the posture:

Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?
Did you shuffle up the pavements just to let your betters pass?
Did you learn to keep your mouth shut, were you seen but never heard?
Did you learn to be obedient and jump to at a word,
jump to at a word, jump to at a word?

Meekness is not in itself a negative, but it implies a negative state: rightly understood, meekness is an attitude of submission in the midst of affliction.

What Meekness Really Is

The biblical concept of meekness encompasses three basic ideas, always within a context of affliction or hardship when evil seems to be winning:

1. Humility and trust toward God, expressed in waiting on him.
2. Gentleness toward people.
3. Patience/endurance in a difficult circumstance.

As a response to suffering, meekness–especially its “gentleness” aspect–makes absolutely no sense unless there is a reason to trust that a Higher Power is in control and that a greater purpose is being worked through the current state of suffering. But because those two things are true, the results of meekness can be incredibly powerful.

Gandhi knew the secret of meekness; so did Martin Luther King, Jr. They patterned their responses of nonviolence and submission after the example and teachings of Jesus, whose third kingdom blessing essentially assures us that the reasons for meekness are true: there IS a Higher Power, and a Great Purpose IS being worked out.

In fact, if you will endure affliction, oppression, and injustice with an attitude of submission to God and gentleness toward your fellow men, the end of your endurance will be inheritance. You will make it through to the other side.

Those who cannot respond in meekness cannot endure: they flare up, flame out, and burn themselves out in their zeal.

So meekness is not, as the Ballad of Accounting would suggest, simply a matter of licking a conqueror’s boots. The attitude of submission is not actually to the conqueror: it’s to God. The gentleness shown toward people flows out of that response to God. Because we’re not at war with God in our suffering, we needn’t be at war with our brothers and sisters either.

The Old Testament Promise of Inheritance

Jesus’s kingdom blessing that the meek will inherit the earth was not actually new to the Jewish people, though to a generation struggling under Roman oppression, it was certainly salient.

In Jesus’s day, the people of Israel were IN the land, but Rome controlled it and them. Various factions, including the militant Zealots and the religious Pharisees, eschewed the idea that meekness in the face of occupation would accomplish anything good. For many, the way of violence, hatred, and taking-matters-into-our-own-hands seemed the more truly blessed.

Jesus’s blessing reassured his Jewish listeners that yes, an attitude of submission to God and gentleness toward men WOULD result in inheritance–again, not a new idea. In fact, the promise is a direct quote from Psalm 37. Reading that entire psalm–with its series of parallel promises as to who will “inherit the earth” (or the land) sheds a lot of light on Jesus’s meaning here.

The psalm begins by acknowledging the apparent triumph of evildoers, but urges God’s people to keep their trust firmly in him:

Do not be agitated by evildoers;
do not envy those who do wrong.
For they wither quickly like grass
and wilt like tender green plants.

Trust in the LORD and do
what is good;
dwell in the land and live securely.
Take delight in the LORD,
and He will give you
your heart’s desires …

Be silent before the LORD and wait
expectantly for Him;
do not be agitated by one
who prospers in his way,
by the man who carries out
evil plans.

Refrain from anger and give up
your rage;
do not be agitated–it can only
bring harm.
For evildoers will be destroyed,
but those who put their hope
in the LORD
will inherit the [earth].

Psalm 37:1-4, 7-9

Meekness and Action

Although meekness can look like weakness, it does not necessarily imply inaction. Jesus was not inactive when he healed his attacker’s ear or called out for the forgiveness of his executioners. Moses, called the meekest man on earth in the Old Testament, was not inactive when he confronted Pharaoh, led the people out of slavery in Egypt, and governed the recalcitrant children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness.

But for both these men, their response to evil was not anger, bitterness, violence, or strife. They did what David urges in Psalm 37:

  • They trusted in the Lord.
  • They did what was good.
  • They refused to be agitated and distressed by the apparent triumph of evil, remembering that Goodness is always stronger and longer lasting.
  • They delighted in God.
  • They deliberately refrained from anger and gave up rage.
  • They put their hope, actively and constantly, in God.
  • And the result was inheritance. Their attitude of meekness in affliction enabled them to endure–and therefore to reach the finish line triumphant.

Running with Meekness

The power of this kingdom blessing can’t really be overstated. I think of a time in my own life when it seemed to me the enemy was winning. I was suffering personal blows that were manifestly unfair. Not only was the pain overwhelming, but the injustice of it all would rise in my throat and nearly choke me.

The temptation was very strong to become angry. To become bitter. To doubt God and blame others. To lash out against life, against the Lord, against those around me who were causing hurt.

And at times I gave in–of course I did. But this kingdom blessing offered a different path and a promise: that if I would walk in meekness, in the end, I would inherit the earth … I would be given the desires of my heart … I would last when the works of the enemy burned up like grass. Embracing humility, trust, and gentleness in the middle of intense trial allowed my heart to endure.

The race of life is at times incredibly hard. The temptation to burn ourselves out in anger and bitterness can be huge.

Jesus, like David, doesn’t pretend everything is easy and fine. But he calls us to a hard way that turns out to be the only way that will allow us to thrive in times of hardship: a way of love and humility that will cause the fire to refine us instead of destroying us.

And he gives us a promise.

If you endure, you will inherit.

If you don’t quit, you’ll win.*

If you wait on the Lord, your trust will never prove to be empty.

He will give you the desires of your heart.

*Thanks to Misty Edwards for this line (Twitter @mistydedwards)

(This is Part 24 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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