So far, I have written about two ways to fight for devotional time: developing a discipline of devotion and focusing your mind. These practices both require that we intentionally stop, or at least put aside for the moment, many urgent tasks and diversions in order to make them happen.
The first positive practice of actually doing devotions is to read God’s word with open honesty. You must treat the Scriptures like someone you’re just getting to know. It would be wrong to try to make this new acquaintance just like yourself. You must get to know them for who they are before you know how they might relate to you.
Similarly, we have to come to the Scriptures humbly. They are God’s word, not ours. And we should not expect to know what God wishes to tell us before we read them. One of the great themes of the Scriptures is that we make God in our image, and we don’t listen to what he says. As we begin to read the Bible, we must be as vigilant against this human failing as possible.
Although this may seem like a simple point, it is perhaps the most transformative along with being the most important. The most likely way to get nothing from reading the Bible is to read it self-righteously. For example, it is usually best to assume that you are most like the worst human character in the story. Otherwise, we imagine ourselves as agreeing with God, looking over his shoulder at the idiotic, piddly humans who are much worse than the two of us (us and God).
This is not the intention of the writers. For example, well after the apostles had become heroes of the early church, they caused themselves to be portrayed as foolish followers of Jesus who didn’t understand his teachings and never seemed to have faith or understanding in the moment. Portraying themselves honestly in this way was intentional, as we then identify with them as dense, foolish, faithless and weak. It may feel uncomfortable, but by identifying with the person who is failing in the story, we put ourselves in the position to learn the lesson either they did learn, or that they should have learned. It makes us a true pupil—a real “disciple,” which means a “learner.”
Although this is not a very technical idea, it is the most important attitude when coming to read the Bible. If you have this attitude correct, over time, you will read the Bible for great benefit. If you get this one thing wrong, no matter what technical concepts you understand about interpretation, in the end, you will learn nothing.
So read with humility. For the God of Scripture loves to give grace to the humble. He loves to teach the inquisitive and make the simple wise. The right attitude will make all the difference. Learn to read the Scriptures with both humility and faith.
The second hardest part of doing devotions is concentration and thought. Most people do not have a mind trained for thinking and concentration. Our minds function similarly to our bodies in that when we are out of shape, it’s harder to perform anything strenuous. Additionally and unhelpfully, our lives and homes tend to be filled with all kinds of convenient distractions.
Therefore, to have a profitable devotional time, the next step after simply having one is to achieve something like concentration—focus. This can be aided with controlling your environment and the use of mild stimulants, like coffee or tea. Stay away from things like cocaine.
In order for many people to achieve concentration and focus, they need to repeatedly go to a quiet environment in which they have removed obvious distractions. Often, this has to be done fairly early in the day before distractions multiply. Early is often the best time to concentrate because you have the most mental energy you will have all day. Putting this together with a concentration aiding beverage can help you focus. Journaling can also aid with focus. Although journaling has some liabilities, it has two benefits. First, manual writing tends to keep you focused on creating the content you are writing. Second, writing things down allows you to go back and look at what you have written days, weeks, months or even years later. I recently went through a ten year prayer journal I used from 2010 through 2019. It not only was encouraging to see what God had done in those ten years, but it allowed me to carry forward things God had been shaping over that decade into the next. It gave continuity to my pursuit of God, the change he was praying into my life, and a sense that he has been working in me.
Aside from these aids, there is no substitute for the work of concentration. Some people can concentrate nearly effortlessly for an hour to 90 minutes. This is often the case if you have a job that requires long periods of concentration that keeps your mind in this kind of shape. For some of us, concentrating for ten minutes may feel like active work. The most important thing is to start with where you are and to do what you can do.Push yourself without injuring yourself. Just like if you started running after months of sedentary living, you shouldn’t try to run two miles your first time. You’ll probably both fail and hurt yourself.
Similarly, if you have not been spending time concentrating, push yourself about 30% longer than comes natural. For some people that will be ten minutes. For others it will be 25. Just make sure you stretch yourself. Over time, you’ll be able to build yourself up to concentrating longer just as you would increase weights in the weight room if you were getting in shape.
Again, doing devotions brings natural benefits along with the spiritual benefits. By pursuing a sharp mind for God you will end up with a sharper, more disciplined mind for everything. Your devotions won’t just develop you spiritually; they will sharpen you mentally. You will literally become smarter over time—a clearer thinker. I have discipled many people who have said that their faith made them much smarter than they were before. That is not because faith in itself makes us more intelligent—some ways that people believe can decrease their curiosity and make them functionally less intelligent over time.
But there is an educational and intellectual development to knowing God. As we exercise our mental abilities in pursuing him, he matures and shapes our minds for his service. And as you see the good results of this pursuit, you may find within yourself the growing conviction to minimize and remove the things in your life which distract you and dilute your concentration.
If we listen to Jesus’ call to love God with all our minds, and if we grow in our powers of concentration as we pursue deeper devotion to him, then he grows and sharpens our minds as we give our minds to him.
Last Sunday, March 15, we talked about what to take back from COVID-19. The primary thing we can take back for good from the destruction of this pandemic, other than an increased discipline of love for our neighbor, is an increased discipline of devotion to God. To this end, this post is the first of a four-part series on fighting for devotional time.
The most important part of doing a devotional is the act of doing it rather than not doing it. This is the main obstacle to start and remains the main obstacle as you proceed. Once you start reading God’s word, you will find benefit in it, and you will know God and his wisdom better. The challenge we face in disciplining ourselves to do this good in devotion to God is three-fold.
First, we have to escape the obstacle of the urgent. There is always something screaming for our attention: kids, work, cleaning, entertainment, and so on. Most growth and self-care requires putting off the urgent for the needful. The urgent thing will not thank you for doing this. It will complain. To persevere, you must know you are doing the right thing for yourself, and for all the urgent things in your life that will get a better version of you after you do what is needful. This is true of sleep, eating well, and exercise, too, but doing what is spiritually needful is the most important of all.
The second obstacle is that the Flesh, often embodied in our habits and nervous system, wants to be pleased by doing something that brings pleasure with no effort and, especially, with no concentration. Mental concentration on something that will cause growth is really hard for most people. It’s like going running. Your body and mind are actually working against you. It’s easier to sleep longer, watch something, play a game, or look at memes. We are pre-programed by the Flesh to save energy and to do what’s easy. You have to choose to overcome this, and then to take time and concentrate on God and his word.
Third, an obstacle we may not be aware of (nor want to admit to ourselves) is ouruneasiness with coming to God himself in any real way. We talk about wanting to know and seek God, but deep down we know he is truly terrifying to the sober soul. We know that our life deserves to be evaluated as a “big damnable disappointment,” and no one else knows that better than God. We certainly don’t want to be around the One that knows our failure and wickedness best, nor do we want to go through the consistent experience of acknowledging that truth as we come to him. Coming to God can feel like a death—because it is. That is exactly why you need it. The death is the death of our lying, self-deceiving pretensions. When we come to God, we know somehow that this is Someone to whom we cannot really lie. Even the lies we tell ourselves don’t work for very long if we take up the practice of being honest with God.
These three obstacles are each areas in which we have to first show devotion to God and his goods in order to start a discipline of devotion.
First, we have to value God more than the urgent and the approval we get for tending to urgent things. We have to seek his love and approval rather than the approval of people and things that want something from us NOW!!!
Second, we have to value God and be devoted to him over the ease of amusement. The word “amusement” literally means “not to think.” A first step of devotion is to decide God is worth thinking about enough to escape the amusement of immediate entertainments.
Third, in coming to God in devotion, we have to be more devoted to his truth than to maintaining our lies. We have to be more interested in the growing pains that his truth will bring than in our stagnant comfort. We have to be more interested in the nakedness of honesty, than in the makeshift garment of our self-deception and self-justification. We have to be more interested in knowing the living God, than in having a false version of ourselves with which we can distract the world around us.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:5)
“I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the Lord.” – Zephaniah 3:12
“…the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” – Psalm 37:11
The lexicon definition for meek is something like lowly, gentle, humble, considerate, kind, mild and friendly of disposition, “the older sense of strong but accommodating.” In the book of Numbers, Moses is described as the meekest man on earth. This is a man who had led battles, presided over divine judgment, stood up to the most powerful emperor of his time, and had done many other things that most people would not consider meek. Jesus also, the Messiah, as he came into Jerusalem rode on a donkey. The book of Zechariah prophesied this, and showed that it meant to demonstrate that our king would come to us meekly. That even in his triumphant entry while here on earth the first time, Jesus was meek. And yet, there are numerous places where Jesus is bold. He turns over tables in the temple. He asks the Pharisees how they think they can escape the damnation of hell. He confronts people that seek to manipulate him or silenced him.
So what should we make of meekness? How important is it in a culture that sees assertiveness as critical to health and maturity? I believe that meekness actually represents a family of virtues we are meant to pursue by faith, and that meekness is the opposite of a family of vices that destroy faith, dishonor God, and greatly harm people.
Take the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:5. The first question studying Scripture is, “What is the immediate context?”. The Beatitudes begins a section referred to as the Sermon on the Mount which covers Matthew 5-7. Jesus also gives a similar set of teachings in Luke 6:21-26, which includes four Beatitudes and four woes. In Matthew’s Gospel, he says that those that are blessed are “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” He says that you are blessed “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” In this context, none of these descriptions require us to interpret the state of the listener as financial poverty. In some ways, it would be strange to interpret these characteristics as particularly characteristics of financial poverty. It is important to remember that class is not of nearly as much interest in the Bible as in the minds of people who lived after Karl Marx, and other writers during and since the Industrial Revolution.
These can all be seen as characteristics of spiritual character. Yet, what holds them all together? They are not all passive. They are not all weak. They’re not particularly subject to circumstance. It may seem too simple a description, but one could say that these are people who “love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves.” Then you would add something like a strong dose of humility, as well as being on Jesus’ mission of reconciliation.
“Meekness” here then doesn’t primarily mean “of too low a status to own land.” And it doesn’t seem to mean the opposite parallel of “will inherit the earth.” There seems to be a different reason why these people would inherit the earth. In fact, there could be a warning to the poor here. If your poverty of spirit, or meekness, is only a product of your station—the necessary fact of your financial poverty—it may not be part of your character, it may only be part of your situation. If your environment forces a behavior on you, you may find if that environment changes, the behavior changes also; it may, in fact, reverse. If you were powerful, would you still be meek? If everybody had to move on your command, would you still be “poor in spirit”? If you didn’t need people to show you mercy, would you still be merciful? Are you really like Jesus?
Is meekness “low position”?
There is a way in which meekness is a kind of “behaving as though you are of low position.” In Luke 14:7, Jesus comments on people sitting in more and less important places at a dinner party. He says in verse 10: “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he will say to you, ‘friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” Here, Jesus explains the natural consequences of self promotion versus assuming a lower position for yourself. It is reminiscent of Philippians 2:3, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Fundamental to humility (which is part of meekness) is behaving as though others are more important than yourself. This treats them with honor and sacrificial love—while attacking the flesh that is brewing our selfish ambition and is how our vanity easily becomes conceit. However, this would not mean that meekness is to be in a low position, but that meekness chooses a low position in the humble service of others.
If not “low position,” is meekness being a pushover?
Besides being poor, the next most common American fear related to meekness is that we will have to be unassertive. Among many modern Americans, especially in the middle and upper classes, being assertive is seen as fundamentally necessary for good health and keeping oneself from being taken advantage of by others. However, this is the common fallacy of presuming that a virtue is a vice. Fundamental to knowing virtue and vice is having the wisdom to apply them to a particular situation. Meekness includes the virtue of knowing when to be deferential. Being a “pushover” is a vice of being deferential when we shouldn’t. One version of this is sycophancy, defined as “being obsequious, fawning or differential toward someone important in order to gain an advantage.”
In the lexicon definition above, the old English definition defined meekness as “strong but deferential.” Meekness, by this definition, is deference that does not come from weakness but is chosen in the presence of strength. This is consistent with the biblical usage.
What is the opposite vice to the virtue of meekness?
If being a pushover, or sycophant, isn’t the opposite of meekness, then what is? In traditional moral theology, the opposite of meekness is wrath. Wrath can be defined as “consisting and exciting oneself about something at which one is displeased.” It assumes a kind of self-centered view, and a selfishness of spirit. It leads to a lack of restraint and an outflow of rage. The selfishness of wrath is also displayed in disrespect and irritability. Wrath is distinguished from “zeal” when the exercise of emotion is truly focused on the purposes of God and true virtue. The expression of zeal is called “just anger,” and it is displayed in Scripture when Jesus cleared the temple, or when Moses returned from Mount Sinai to see the people worshiping the golden calf. Rightly conceived, just anger flows from true charity and love informed by a zeal for the glory of God, and comes forth in a desire to set things right and to reconcile people to God and each other—which is the end goal of love and worship. Read here for more.
So what is the real meaning of biblical meekness?
Throughout Scripture, meekness is used in a range of contexts. In a couple of passages, as in Psalm 34:2, the emphasis seems to be on being in a low station. In others, as 1 Peter 3:4, it means something more like proper modesty. In contexts like Zephaniah 3, it is either parallel with or a close synonym to humility.
Psalm 37 is perhaps the most important text, because the beatitude in Matthew 5:5 is nearly a direct quotation of Psalm 37:11. The only difference is that the translators use the word “land” instead of “earth.” However, in Hebrew, it is the same word. In Psalm 37, there are also two other verses that claim that people will inherit the land. Verse 9 says, “those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” Verse 22 says, “those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…” Verse 29 says, “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” And verse 34 says, “he will exalt you to inherit the land…” “You” in this context refers to “the righteous” from a couple verses earlier. So, in the Old Testament parallel passage that contains five references to “inheriting the earth/land,” the universal parallel of “meek” is a kind of righteousness willing to trust God and wait for him. In fact, if one goes through the first 10 or 12 verses of the Psalm, it is easy to come up with a profile of those who are referred to as “the meek.”
There are those who are meek because they are: trusting the Lord, doing good, delighting themselves in the Lord, committing their way to the Lord, hoping in the Lord, seeking righteousness, waiting patiently for the Lord, etc.
And there are those who are not meek, because they are: envious of evil, fretting at evil even if it succeeds, wickedly scheming, releasing their anger and wrath, plotting, gnashing their teeth, etc.
So how should we define meekness? First, I believe that meekness is something like a family of virtues. Meekness is closely associated in its contexts with the fear of the Lord, spiritual patience, faith, humility, gentleness, deference, temperance, forbearance, prudence, hopefulness, and more.
If love is something like the center hub of how we conceptualize the virtues, meekness is something like the umbrella under which we express the virtues. It at least must exist in the presence of many other virtues, and seems to be something like their controlling principle. Meekness is motivated by a fear of the Lord, a willingness to wait on the Lord, and a humility before the Lord. It is motivated by a fundamentally God-centered heart. Faith and a love for the glory of God is fundamental to expressing meekness from the heart. Then, it is the application of principle for gentleness, deference, temperance, forbearance, prudence and the other improvisational and situational virtues we express towards others. How do we love others with these virtues? We express them with meekness.
A close relationship with gentleness and humility.
Last, it is important to focus strongly on the relationship of meekness to both humility and gentleness. Meekness, as opposed to wrath, is always humble and self-forgetful in nature. Wrath is always arrogant and self-centered in its perspective. Without a God-glorifying and God-centered view of who and what we are, meekness is impossible because humility will be absent. But even in the presence of that theology, meekness, like humility, is a practice of the heart. It must be continually chosen, and wrath continually put to death. In faith, and by the present power of the Spirit, the virtue must be chosen and the vice shunned. And when we fail, faith demands an open repentance: that we should have chosen the virtue and shunned the vice, that we are ashamed we didn’t, and that we endeavor with the help of God to do differently in the future. And we make, in meekness, whatever restitution we can to build trust again with the person we harmed.
So when should we be hard, strong and unyielding?
As said above, charity and love, motivated by a zeal for the Lord, may demand from us responses that do not seem “meek.” The Bible confirms that both Jesus and Moses, as well as people like Nehemiah and others, rose up and did ferocious acts and marshaled strong defiance and resistance among God’s people. John and Peter in Acts 4, for example, are not obviously “meek” when they tell the ruling authorities of Israel that they will not obey them, because they must obey God, nor is the apostle Paul when he confronts military men and rulers.
However, these actions are still chosen with meekness, and even expressed with meekness. That is, they are chosen by men who consider whether virtue allows them any other choice. If you read the most defiant moments of God’s holiest men, you will often still find palpable meekness. David will not raise his hand against Saul. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (their Babylonian names) answer directly to the king, but not with taunts. They, and Daniel, do not show more disrespect than is necessary through their disobedience to the Eastern Kings. The apostles are very direct with the rulers that they face, but not overly bold.
Jesus seems to have no love for aggressive confrontation, and is always seeking a meek and peaceful interchange. He only turns up the heat when the obstinance of his adversary leaves him no other choice, if the truth is going to come down upon them. And he brings that truth down upon them so that the wrath that would otherwise descend can be escaped.
Even Moses, who came down very hard on the people for worshiping the golden calf can be defended in this way. All that he makes the Israelites do can be seen as a meek deference to the glory of God and a necessary medicine to their orgy-filled idolatries. Even more, when God tells Moses that he plans to destroy the people, Moses intercedes for them and begs for their survival. He even begs for God not to send them up out of the desert if he will not go with them himself, and so, Moses begs for the presence of God among the people. He is their true and perfect advocate, even in their worst sins. He is meek. He is never thinking about his own position in himself. None of these men seem to be doing that. They are all concerned with God’s glory, what is good, the truth, what love demands. Doing nothing out of selfish ambition and the conceits of vanity, in meek humility, they consider all others better than themselves, and the glory of God the greatest pursuit of all humanity. May we submit to this same work of God in our own hearts and actions, becoming like Jesus in his ferocious meekness.
For further study
A list of verses that contain the Greek word translated “meek”: Numbers 12:3; Psalm 24:9, 33:3, 36:11, 75:10, 146:6, 149:4; Job 24:4, 36:15; Joel 4:11; Zephaniah 3:12; Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 26:6; Daniel 4:19; Matthew 5:5, 11:29, 21:5; 1 Peter 3:4
A very close cognate word for “meekness” or “humility/gentleness”: Esther 5:1; Psalm 44:5, 89:10, 131:1; 1 Corinthians 4:21; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23, 6:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 2:25; Titus 3:2; James 1:21, 3:13; 1 Peter 3:16
Every field of knowledge has its own words meant to help people communicate and make that communication more effective. However, these technical descriptions can also make the field more difficult for outsiders to understand. They also can leave the impression on insiders that they know what they mean when in reality they are repeating jargon they don’t really understand.
This is especially a problem in religious faith. Churches and parents can easily adopt religious language that they hear repeated without really knowing what it means. This keeps their faith shallow, makes their attempts to share the gospel dramatically less effective, and confuses the church’s children into disinterest in the spiritual convictions of their parents.
For example. two of the most important concepts in the Christian faith are glory and grace. You will read these words in the Bible and hear them in churches and spiritual conversations. It is easy to convince yourself that you understand these words clearly – even if you don’t. Further, these words — grace and glory — are often not found together in many modern churches. To many Christians, the words seem to have cross purposes rather than beautiful and clarifying union. Yet if you misunderstand these two concepts, you cannot understand the gospel, or the message of salvation in Jesus, at the level of depth that produces full freedom and transformation. The gospel won’t change you that much, because you won’t know God that well.
So, let me try to give fairly brief clarifying explanations of the meaning of these two words.
Luke 22:35-38 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.
As we come to the end of the Gospel of Luke, one of the passages most people would rather skip over quickly is Luke 22:35-38. This is because in it Jesus commands his disciples to buy swords, which are no doubt instruments of violence. This passage is confusing to most modern Christians for a variety of reasons. First, why does Jesus command this? He seems to be something of a pacifist, and within a few hours, he will reproach Peter for actually using a sword on the high priest’s servant—likely one of the same two swords mentioned in this passage. Further, the commentaries on this point are puzzling. Virtually all of them interpret the passage in strange ways that strike me as cop-outs. This modern commentary by Robert Stein (1992) is typical of most that are presently in print:
“And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned…The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).”
Or to go further back, this is from John Calvin, who I often find very helpful:
“And yet he does not call them to an outward
conflict, but only, under the comparison of fighting, he warns them of the
severe struggles of temptations which they must undergo, and of the fierce
attacks which they must sustain in spiritual contests. That they might more
willingly throw themselves on the providence of God, he first reminded them, as
I have said, that God took care to supply them with what was necessary, even
when they carried with them no supplies of food and raiment. Having experienced
so large and seasonable supplies from God, they ought not, for the future, to
entertain any doubt that he would provide for every one of their
Over the years, some commentators have even sought to show that when Jesus says “that is enough” in reference to the two swords, he is not saying, “Two will be plenty,” but “Enough talk of swords. Literal swords isn’t what I mean! Quit talking about literal swords.”
I disagree with all these approaches for a number of reasons. Let me list a few, but that is not my main interest. My main interest is how and why we accept certain interpretations of scripture.