Faithfulness and MeeknessJune 2010
by Tim Keller
In the list of spiritual fruit in Galatians 5:22-23 “faithfulness” and “meekness” are listed next to each other. Faithfulness has to do with the keeping of promises, and the courageous declaration of truth. The Greek word prautas, which is translated “meekness” or “gentleness” in Galatians 5:23 means mildness and gentleness in dealing with people. It can mean to be teachable (James 1:21) or just modest, generous, humble, and considerate toward others (1 Corinthians 4:21; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; James 3:13; 1 Peter 3:15.)
Many Christians today point to Jesus’ thunderous denunciations of the Pharisees (e.g. Matthew 23) as the paradigm of what it means to be faithful to the truth. There Jesus bluntly denounces the sins of the religious leaders. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of meekness there. Yet at the end of the famous parable of the prodigal son we see the father lovingly imploring the elder brother to come in to the feast.
British expositor Dick Lucas once preached a sermon on that text entitled “Jesus Pleads with his Critics.” The point of his sermon was striking. Since the elder brother represented the Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking (Luke 15:1-3,) the appeal of the father to the elder brother is really Jesus pleading with the religious leaders who were going to kill him. He was speaking strongly but tenderly to them, urging them to repent. Here are both faithfulness and graciousness combined.
The most remarkable example of faithful-meekness, however, is Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Here is Jesus saying that what his executioners were doing was sin, because it needed forgiveness and atonement. Yet he added, “They don’t fully know what they are doing in their blindness.” This is amazing. We don’t see Jesus saying, “Father, smite them for what they have done!” nor “Father, forgive those murderous, foul, despicable fools.” Instead he speaks with generosity of spirit toward the people who are wrongly killing him.
The rest of the New Testament leads us by example and direct exhortation to follow Jesus in this. In Galatians 6:1 we are told to not allow people who are “caught in a trespass” to simply go on sinning, but we are only to correct erring people with ‘gentleness.’ 2 Timothy 2 is another case in point. Paul tells Timothy to “keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God,” (v.14) yet in the same chapter says, “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone…those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance…” (v.24-25.)
What does this mean? It means that while there are certainly seasons and situations in which faithfulness means strong speech it also means that an attitude and tone devoid of evident graciousness cannot be the default mode of the Christian. If you are always denouncing and declaring, and never speaking tenderly and generously to those who are in error, you aren’t combining faithfulness and meekness.
There are plenty of Christians today who interpret any effort to speak the truth with meekness to be—by definition—a lack of faithfulness. But Paul says that the two must be combined, and when they are combined it is a sign of supernatural grace in your life.
There are many people today (of a more conservative temperament) who believe that the main problem in the church is a lack of faithfulness—a lack of forthright speaking of the truth. There are also plenty of people (of a more liberal temperament) that think the main problem is bigotry and prejudice and they believe that Christians should not “condemn” anybody.
But the fruit of the Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus himself—always combines faithfulness and gentleness. No one has a temper or personality that safely balances these traits, however. Those of us of a more meek temper should be careful not to overly disdain the “faithfulness” crowd, since it is always possible that we are slipping into cowardice and compromise. But those of us of a more confrontational temper should also be careful not to overly disdain the “gentleness” crowd, since it is possible that we are slipping into pride and self-importance. Let us examine ourselves.
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