Hugh Halter: "The Art of Subtle Wooing: Winning the World Through Meekness" (Excerpt, Chapter 6)
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Inherit the Earth
As with all of Jesus’ new concepts about kingdom people, there seems to be an order to heavenly principles that is the exact opposite of earthly logic. The poor in spirit really do get heaven; those who mourn on earth really will receive God’s comfort. And now Jesus tells the crowd that the meek will inherit the earth.
If you’re like me, you may have wondered, “What’s the big deal with that promise?”
And it all comes from a story any Jewish person would have identified with regarding the most important part of their national/religious heritage. Way back in Exodus, God’s people were to “inherit” the Promised Land. It was a physical place that was beautiful and had everything the nation would need. But it also held deep metaphorical meaning for life with God.
In the middle drawer of my desk is a small ziplock bag that has a handful of white gravel in it. If you looked at it, you might ask, “Why in the world do you have that?” Well, it’s a clump of dirt I scooped up just inside a 30-foot wall that separates Palestinian Bethlehem from Israel a few miles outside Jerusalem. This clump of dirt is in part why we experienced the horrors of 9/11. It has caused continual global unrest throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and most strategic points of the world. The fight for a mere 100 miles of land has caused fear of terrorism, holy wars, and divided political factions in the United States over our support or nonsupport of certain countries.
Apparently land matters. The dirt in my desk holds significance. We in the West like land, but most of us would never allow generation after generation of our own children to face violence over a few thousand acres. If someone said, “I’m going to kill your family if you stay here, and by the way, we’ll compensate you so you can relocate,” almost all of us would start packing the minivan. But to others, who believe that their claim on certain areas of land (both Jewish and Palestinian) was given to them by God directly, leaving would feel like walking away from God at best and contributing to the end of your people at worst. In the Middle Eastern mindset, giving up their territory is simply not a viable option.
Jesus the humble and meek, who climbed down out of heaven to come and build a home in our neighborhood, is the answer for both the conflict in the Middle East and the wars fighting within every human heart. Jesus wants His people, His apprentices, to win—to see people changed and converted to His ways—but the methods of winning are just as important as the win itself because they can’t be separated. We win with meekness.
Winning the World through Meekness
Meekness is strength under control, power under restraint. It’s the ability to be self-effacing. It is not shyness or insecurity; it’s the opposite, actually. Meekness is a black belt in martial arts disarming a drunk through words instead of violence. Meekness is a trait the world has observed in people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Billy Graham, people who have incredible power but who have learned to harness that power through humility, servanthood and kindness instead of arrogance, power or control.
One of the best pictures of Jesus’ meekness is found in the story of a Roman centurion who was thrust into the last three days of Jesus’ life. Like other centurions before him, this man was accustomed to hearing new Jewish would-be messiahs call out Roman powers. But this man, Jesus, didn’t seem to be calling for a vote or running for election. He simply and comfortably talked about issues of the heart and about a new kingdom of God and of heaven.
As the crowds following Jesus continued to grow, Caiaphas, the high priest, became uneasy and asked the centurion to lead the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane. In a knee-jerk reaction to Christ’s arrest, Peter did what any good Jew would expect and lopped off the ear of the high priest’s servant (see John 18:10). The soldier surely expected a Roman-Jewish throwdown, but it didn’t happen. Jesus not only kept the riot from breaking out, but actually put the guy’s ear back on, essentially saying something like, “Hey, sorry, man, our bad . . . here you go, it’s all fixed.”
This rugged soldier likely felt strangely curious about Jesus’ inner strength and exterior gentleness. After he took Jesus to the powers in charge, he watched as hour by hour they brutalized Jesus in every conceivable humiliating way. He saw Jesus take the abuse without whimpering or pleading for relief. Each fist that pounded his face, each time spit splattered against his mouth and eyes, each insult was met with a determined but quiet gaze. Then came the execution.
Spikes tore through His flesh; a crown of daggers dug into His skull; jeers of past worshippers mocked Him. And then words that he could never have imagined would come from a man . . . any man: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). A few moments later, he heard Jesus say, “It is finished” (John 19:30). At this moment, perhaps the skeptical Roman warrior bent down, took off his helmet, and dropped his sword as he proclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
This, my friends, is the epitome of the power of meekness to reach the world. Jesus in His power could have come down off the cross and proven His might, then forced allegiance from his torturers and belittled the ignorant. But instead, we see Jesus, our example, teaching us how to “win” the world. And as Jesus now tries to teach us what being His apprentice will mean, we’re going to have to try our hand at life his way. For He said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29 KJV).
The Power of Posture
Words tell people what we think, but our actions, our facial expressions, our touch, or our general “posture” tells people what we actually feel. And this is the power of Jesus to win the hearts of people. When the woman was caught in adultery, Jesus postured himself as an advocate for her, kneeling down beside her as she was stooped over under the condemnation of the pious. When Jesus quietly allowed Mary to pour valuable perfumed oil over His head while skeptics belittled her, He was communicating His compassion for this woman. When he turned tables over by the temple, the sound of crashing trinkets and the look on his face communicated far more powerfully than the words people heard him mutter. As He reclined at Levi’s table, laughing and enjoying dinner with the outcasts, people picked up on his inclusive love. Most starkly, the fact that Jesus lived in the neighborhood for 30 years without letting people know He was their Savior, their Messiah, their God, and instead just lived with them, celebrated with them, and mourned with them, is astounding. His voice and words would someday, in the right timing, cut their hearts to the core, but His ability to draw a crowd and win the crowd was based on His beautiful posture, his nonverbals. And we would do well to live the same way.
In the book of Philippians, Paul encourages us to be like Jesus, who—though being all-powerful—intentionally chose not to force the issue with us or force dogma down our throats. Instead He chose to live among us, love us, show us and teach us about how to live life in His new kingdom. It’s incredible that in the three years of His ministry recorded in Scripture, we don’t see Him aggressively trying to convert anyone. He just seemed to wait for them to come to him. This is the power of godly posture.
To me, this is all the proof I need that God doesn’t want us to stick up for him, confound the unchurched with our right doctrine, or belittle them with attempts to be morally superior. Jesus is teaching us to stop trying to convert people and begin wooing them to His kingdom way of life through the meekness of our way. Meekness will cause us to be dignified and in turn dignify the spiritual journeys of others. Meekness will compel us to respect others, listen to them, and acknowledge the things that turn them off about Christians, especially if they’ve had a few run-ins with fundies. Meekness by its very definition communicates to people an authentic belief that we aren’t any better than they are—really!—and that we only know what we know and have changed because God pursued us, saved us, helped us, and loved us.
Yes, Jesus did teach about the need to be born again spiritually. He did confront people with their need to repent of sin. And so will we . . . if we win their hearts through the power of meekness. With meekness, evangelism and our heartfelt desire to see our friends find Jesus become like one homeless person helping another homeless person find a warm bed for the night.
Exchanging Aggression for Meekness
So here’s a real switcheroo. Evangelicals need to learn that the earliest and most prolific communities of Jesus followers, who saw literally thousands of their friends come to faith in one day and who turned entire cities around for Jesus, were not, as a general rule, aggressive toward the culture. Instead they simply waited for people to come with their curiosity and questions. In 1 Peter 3:15-16, Peter said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
We should ask ourselves, “Is anyone asking me about my life or my faith?” If not, I think Jesus would say, “Then you’re not living out the level of love I called you to in this life.” Often we think people’s lack of spiritual response is because they just don’t want to find God. More often, I have found, the real problem is that we just don’t live enough like Jesus yet. Think about this. In early New Testament times, the most religious people, the Pharisees, were highly evangelistic, sometimes sailing across far seas to win one convert. But here is what Jesus said to them in Matthew 23:15: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”
Conversion isn’t just about helping someone find faith. Yes, it includes this, but when people focus all their efforts on getting people “saved,” they communicate only a small part of the Good News. All too often we are like egomaniacs wanting to turn converts into evangelists, like a giant pyramid scheme where the main goal of the corporation is to multiply and get more warm bodies in the door. But Jesus does not need any more arrogant soul-winners who go out to make more arrogant soul-winners. Jesus wants us to point people to who He really was—a man of humility and love—then allow that image to change them in whatever way God wants. It is not a cookie-cutter operation. The Good News is that every person has a story, and the way Jesus enters each story is highly unique and individual. The process may take years to complete, with fits of starts and stops and doubts along the way. God never meant for us to sign people up with a quick prayer, a contract, and a pat on the back. He intended for us to love and journey with others in their walk toward and with Jesus. This isn’t about a duty to be performed; it is about a relationship to be explored.
Jesus’ own apprentices at first didn’t get His lesson about approaching others with humility. In Luke 9, the disciples were in a fight over who was the greatest dude among them, which Jesus basically dismissed by saying, “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (v. 48), which probably didn’t sound like a lot of fun to them. Then Jesus sent word to the Samaritans that he was coming through town, but the Samaritans didn’t respond favorably. So what did these self-focused, power-hungry apprentices do? They asked Jesus, like the tough guys they wanted to be, a question I can only hear in my head as sounding like one of the Sopranos: “Yo, Jesus! You wanna we should call down fire on dose blasted pagan half-breeds?”
And they asked this right after Christ’s little lesson on humility.
You have to wonder if Jesus hit His forehead and thought, “Oy veh!” There’s no biblical record of that, but Luke does record that Jesus rebuked them for their attitude of assumed superiority (see Luke 9:51–56).
On one of my plane trips a few years ago, a young 20-something guy sat next to me. We were just getting settled, and I made the mistake of mentioning the smell of the Subway sandwich that he had just tucked into his seat-back pocket. I said, “The smell of the fresh bread is making me hungry,” to which he replied, “You know, bread is a powerful metaphor for the life of Jesus. Did you know that Jesus called Himself the bread of life?” He kept going, but as I realized that he was trying to “convert” me, I thought I’d play along and act the role of any good pagan.
I cleared my throat and earnestly asked, “So what part of Jesus do you think the cold cuts and soggy lettuce represent?” Stammering for some theological response, he made some mention of how they probably didn’t have lettuce back then but might have substituted olives, which of course represented something Jesus-y. For the next hour, I kept working him over pretty good, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore and told him I was a pastor. He looked mortified. “So you were just pretending?”
“So how’d I do?”
“Well, quite frankly, you lost me at hello with the ‘bread of life’ hook. It not only was pretty lame but actually got lamer as you went on. Not only would you not have converted me, but if I weren’t a pastor, I probably would have requested a seat change, preferably with someone in the mental health profession who could be of more help to you.” He laughed, then relaxed a bit. From there we actually had a good talk about what an effective “witness” really looks like.
When Jesus called His followers to be witnesses, He was asking them to allow their lives to tell the story of His life. He wanted their actions, their community, their values, their love and kindness, and their visible transformation to be the most powerful way to communicate God’s heart to the world.
In 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, Paul says, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” Witnessing is about being read, not reading yourself aloud (on a soapbox) to others. It’s much more about visible witness than about verbal witness, especially these days when people are generally jaded, often for good reason. Postmodern people believe what they see, not what they hear. There’s always plenty of time for talking heart-to-heart about the central Good News, but first we need to let “the letter of a life well-lived” be so radically loving that others will invite us to share our thoughts, rather than us forcing our opinions on them.
To the small church in Thessalonica, Paul reported that their love in action “rang out” (1 Thess. 1:8) throughout the entire countryside like an echo—something that reverberated everywhere. You don’t have to keep beating the world over the head with the Good News. When we live the Gospel well so that people can “read it in our lives,” it is like a musical note played so clearly that it keeps reverberating and spreading from person to person in the most natural way. Like kindness, it keeps being paid forward.
What exactly was the message that was being echoed from the Thessalonians? It was positive gossip about their transformation, their faith, how they turned away from idolatry to serve God. Some may assume it was their doctrine—that their message of Christ’s godhood, life, death, resurrection and return was what bounced all over the world. But it wasn’t. Paul specifically tells us it was their communal reputation, how they lived, that caused such a buzz on the grapevine. The message of the Gospel made sense as it lined up with the life of the Gospel.
There’s a great scene in Acts 16 where a woman is walking behind Paul, proclaiming Paul’s message to people. I think of her as the really overzealous Christians who come up after you preach a message so they can preach another message to you. She was proclaiming the Word. You would assume Paul would be thrilled that he had some fellow “proclaimers” at his side. But, well, read for yourself the story and what he does:
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her (vv. 16–18).
I think it’s funny Paul put up with this irritating “proclaimer” for several days. My guess is that he, like many of us, wondered whether he should challenge her or just let it go. Well, he eventually cracked. He turned around and essentially said, “Geez, lady, get the freak out of my space! You’re killing me!” More accurately, he recognized that the spirit within her is not from God but is either a demon or from her own pressing need for attention. Just because someone is thumping the same Bible we read, using “Christian phrases” to impress themselves and others, doesn’t necessarily mean they are honoring Christ.
If someone you meet doesn’t respect you, don’t talk about your faith. Just love and show. And don’t be surprised if you have to love a lot more than you thought you would before they give you the time of day. The wall between Christ followers and those fed up with religious hypocrisy is thick and high. They’re weary of our rhetoric, judgment, exclusiveness and hypocrisy. The walls won’t come tumbling down with a few good deeds. The wall of assumptions will only come down as entire communities band together in unity to live like Christ before the world. This may mean turning from idols of materialism, individualism, consumerism, and religion.
I’m sure I’ll get emails from people challenging me about the need to say more about the Gospel and to say it more often, but I believe the evidence is overwhelming that the problem of the church’s decline and decay is not because our doctrine is hidden or inaccessible. We’ve got a street cred problem, a posture problem. We’ve been preaching our brains out for a hundred-plus years in churches on every corner. We have 24-7 television, radio and internet preaching, teaching, and training that is in plain view of anyone who is willing to just watch or listen. But they don’t. I recommend an experiment. Most churches in America see one or two adults a year, at best, come to faith in Christ, so we’re not risking much to change things up a bit.
Consider as a community the challenge of not saying anything about Jesus to your sojourning friends unless asked. No Bible verses or doctrine for an entire year. Instead, replace that religious fervency with service, blessing and an invitation to join a community where anyone can be real and relaxed and loved and cared about. At the end of the year, measure the results. You will not only find that your “street cred” increases but also be blown away at how often you get to talk about your faith.
Jesus Saves . . . We Don’t
I have learned so much about God from doubters and others who are not Christians, sometimes in surprising and shocking ways. Listen deeply to others with whom you are sojourning in faith. Just because you may have been walking with Jesus for 20 or 30 years does not mean that your friend without faith or friend of a different faith will not also have spiritual truths to teach you. By taking a sincere posture of back-and-forth sharing of what you are both learning about God in your daily lives, you’ll be earning a relational right to be heard.
Meekness will be the inner quality of a true apprentice, and it is a quality without which we can’t help people to see and find God.
Hugh Halter is a church planter, pastor, consultant and missionary to the United States. He is the national director of Missio and is the lead architect of Adullam, a congregational network of missional communities in Denver. He is the co-author, with Matt Smay, of The Tangible Kingdom, The Tangible Kingdom Primer, and AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church.
This excerpt is taken from Sacrilege: Finding Life in the Unorthodox Ways of Jesus (Baker). Copyright © 2011 by Hugh Halter. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
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