What is True Meekness?

Neal A Maxwell said, “Meekness is both misunderstood and even despised.” I think it is despised because it’s misunderstood.

The meanings that are typically attached to meekness are often negative. But when I hear the Savior referring to Himself as “Meek and Lowly in Heart” it causes me to consider that perhaps my current understanding of meekness is distorted.

So what is meekness? What is true meekness? This is a question I’ve been trying to answer for a few years. My inquiry has lead me to interview others, conversations with acquaintances, and searching many talks, books, and articles all in an effort to understand true meekness.

If Neal A. Maxwell was still living, I would have loved a chance to sit down with him and talk to him about his views on meek and to share them with you. It is a subject he seems to have given a lot of thought to. But in all my searching so far, this is one article that I have found to be very valuable and helpful in defining true meekness.

I’ve only included a portion of the article here. A more complete version can be found in the 1983 March Ensign.


Meekness—A Dimension of True Discipleship

Neal A. Maxwell

Meekness is one of the attributes of Deity. Instructively, Jesus, our Lord and exemplar, called attention to Himself as being “meek and lowly in heart.” (Matt. 11:29.) 

God, who has seen billions of spirits pass through His plan of salvation, has told us to be meek in order to enhance our enjoyment of life and our mortal education.

We need to learn so much, and yet we are free to choose! (See 2 Ne. 2:27.) How crucial it is to be teachable!

Meekness, however, is more than self-restraint; it is the presentation of self in a posture of kindness and gentleness, reflecting certitude, strength, serenity, and a healthy self-esteem and self-control.

There is, of course, much accumulated stereotyping surrounding this virtue. We even make nervous jokes about meekness, such as, “If the meek intend to inherit the earth, they are going to have to be more aggressive about it!” We even tend to think of a meek individual as being used and abused—as being a doormat for others.

Granted, none of us likes, or should like, to be disregarded, to be silenced, to see a flawed argument prevail, or to endure a gratuitous discourtesy. But such circumstances seldom constitute that field of action from which meekness calls upon us to retire gracefully.

Granted, there are some things worth being aroused about, as the Book of Mormon says, such as our families, our homes, our liberties, and our sacred religion. (See Alma 43:45.)

Let us consider meekness further.

When we are truly meek, we are not concerned with being pushed around, but are grateful to be pushed along. When we are truly meek, we do not engage in shoulder-shrugging acceptance but in shoulder-squaring, in order that we might better bear the burdens of life and of our fellow beings.

Meekness can also help us in coping with the injustices of life—of which there are quite a few.

Besides, there can be dignity even in silence, as was the case when Jesus meekly stood, unjustly accused, before Pilate. Silence can be an expression of strength. Holding back can be the sign of great personal discipline, especially when everyone else is letting go.

Furthermore, not only are the meek less easily offended, but they are less likely to give offense to others. In contrast, there are some in life who seem, perpetually, to be waiting to be offended. Their pride covers them like boils which will inevitably be bumped.

Meekness also cultivates in us a generosity in viewing the mistakes and imperfections of others.

Assertiveness is not automatically bad, of course, but if we fully understand the motives which underlie some of our acts of assertion, we would be embarrassed. Frankly, when others perceive such motivations, they are sometimes embarrassed for us.

Granted, the meek go on fewer ego trips, but they have far greater adventures. Ego trips, those “travel now and pay later” indulgences, are always detours. The straight and narrow path is, after all, the only path which takes us to new and breathtaking places.

Meekness does not mean tentativeness. But thoughtfulness. Meekness makes room for others.

Among the meek there is usually more listening and less talking.

It is quite understandable, brothers and sisters, that we admire boldness and genius, as we see these qualities combined in some of the great figures in history. A merciful God has let such individuals make their significant contribution to humanity, such as in the political and economic realms. But I cannot help but wonder what more God might have done with such individuals if they had been sufficiently and consistently meek.

I am not trying to fault these individuals, for each has significantly added to the measure of freedom so many mortals have enjoyed. Rather, I am suggesting how important to genuine and lasting greatness the virtue of meekness is, its absence constitutes a limitation—even upon those whom we judge to be great by worldly criteria.

Granted, we admire boldness and dash, but boldness and dash can so easily slip into pomp and panache.

By contrast, the meek are able with regularity to peel off the encrustations of ego that form on one’s soul so relentlessly and persistently, like barnacles on a ship.

The meek are thus able to avoid the abuse of authority and power—a tendency to which, the Lord declared, “almost all” succumb. Except the meek.

The meek use power and authority properly, no doubt because their gentleness and meekness reflect a love unfeigned, a genuine caring. The influence they exercise flows from a deep concern: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41.)

How anxious we ought to be to emulate the manner in which God wields power! Especially in this world of push and shove and shout. If we become too efficient at pushing, shoving, and shouting, then we are too adapted to this world—polishing skills which will erelong become obsolete.

Meekness permits us to be confident, as was Nephi, of that which we do know—even when we do not know the meaning of all other things. (See 1 Ne. 11:17.) Meekness constitutes a continuing invitation to continuing education. No wonder the Lord reveals His secrets to the meek, for they are “easy to be entreated.” (Alma 7:23.) Not only are the meek more teachable, but they continuously receive, with special appreciation, “the engrafted word,” as the Apostle James said—and, as Joseph Smith declared, the flow of pure intelligence—all from the divine databank. (James 1:21; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 151.)

If we are meek, we will handle our critics more wisely than did some of these predecessors:

“Now there was a strict law among the people of the church, that there should not any man, belonging to the church, arise and persecute those that did not belong to the church, and that there should be no persecution among themselves.

“Nevertheless, there were many among them who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists.” (Alma 1:21–22.)

Meekness will permit us to endure more graciously the cruel caricaturing and misrepresentation that accompanies discipleship—especially in the rugged last days of this dispensation.

Meekness permits us to be prompted as to whether to speak out or, as Jesus once did, be silent. But even when the meek speak up, they do so without speaking down.

I stress again that meekness does not mean we are bereft of boldness.

A meek, imprisoned Joseph Smith displayed remarkable boldness in rebuking the grossness of the guards in Richmond jail:

“Silence, ye fiends of the infernal pit! In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die this instant!” (History of the Church, 3:208.)

Isn’t it interesting that, in a world wrongly impressed with machismo, we see more and more coarseness which is mistaken for manliness, more and more selfishness masquerading as individuality?

In spite of all these advantages of meekness, will the world mistake meekness for something else? Yes. But we must not let the world call the cadence for our march through life any more than we would let the world set the direction of that march!

Some may still say, however, “Does not meekness invite abuse and dominance by the unmeek?” It may. But life’s experiences suggest that sufficient unto most every circumstance are the counterbalancing egos thereof; force tends to produce counterforce.

Please do not think of meekness, therefore, in the stereotyped ways. You will see far more examples of those in desperate need of meekness than you will ever see of the truly meek being abused.

Genius unmodified by meekness? History amply attests that such can be a curse! Expertise wrapped in overmuch ego? It is so difficult to utilize. Boldness and swiftness unrestrained by gentleness? Such traits are as likely to trample on people as to lift them!

Yes, there are real costs associated with meekness. A significant down payment must be made. But it can come from our sufficient supply of pride. We must also be willing to endure the subsequent erosion of unbecoming ego. Furthermore, our hearts will be broken in order that they might be rebuilt. As Ezekiel said, one’s task is to “make you a new heart and a new spirit.” (Ezek. 18:31.) There is no way that such dismantling, such erosion, such rebuilding can occur without real cost in pain, pride, adjustments, and even some dismay. Yet since we cannot be “acceptable before God save [we are] meek and lowly in heart” (Moro. 7:44), the reality of that awesome requirement must be heeded! Better to save one’s soul than to save one’s face.

The attainment of your full possibilities will depend…on your developing adequately the eternal and cardinal attributes, including meekness!