πράος / וַתְרָנִי

Meekness is a virtue easier preached than practiced.  That is certainly true of all of the virtues, but the virtue of meekness presents special difficulties that make it especially hard to practice well.  With most virtues, we have a good understanding of what they mean, it is merely the practicing of them which is difficult.  We may know that moderation requires that we discipline our hungers and longings, but may be unable to practice that discipline when faced with large amounts of food and drink, thus allowing others to mock us (if they choose) as gluttons of some kind or another.  We may know that sexual purity is a virtue, but find ourselves drawn to one or another kind of immorality.  Still, in most cases, we know the target we are aiming at.  We know what temperance and moderation look like, we know what is expected of those who are moral and upright and blameless individuals, and if we do not always do what is right or avoid doing what is wrong, we at least know when and where we fall short, as loath as we are to admit this to ourselves and to others.

Yet when it comes to the virtue translated as meekness, we are not so fortunate.  We may pay lip service to the meekness and humility of biblical personages like Jesus Christ and Moses, but somewhere in our heart of hearts we rebel against it, perceiving meekness as some sort of weakness, however often we are told that the two are not to be equated.  Whether we look at the Hebrew anav or the Greek praus or their various other forms, we are faced with a challenge that is distinct from that of most other virtues.  If we know what we are aiming at when it comes to most virtues, and have a strong motivation to at least pay lip service to these virtues when we do not practice them, when it comes to meekness, there is an undercurrent of hostility or resentment, one that we perhaps cannot admit, but one which comes out all the same.  This resentment to what is demanded of this virtue comes out when we engage in behavior that contradicts the virtue even without our being aware of it, such as when we are consumed with the need to defend our own personal legitimacy or some office which grants us a feeling of dignity or honor that we feel we deserve but that we often find to be lacking in the treatment we receive from others.  I speak as someone who is more than usually prickly about such matters [1], so I do not say this to mock others but rather to discuss something which I know all too well from my own life.

What does the virtue of praus or anav mean.  We can read in Numbers 12:3, for example, that:  “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.”  We can also read this virtue praised in the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-26 as follows:  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.  And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”  We may read, and cringe a bit, at passages like 1 Peter 3:8-9, when we read:  “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”  When we read the word praus or anav in one form or another translated in the Bible or alluded to in a passage that asks us to be humble or gentle or tender-hearted or some similar such expression, what is the Bible getting at?

As it happens, one of the difficulties we have with this virtue is the fact that English does not have a good term that corresponds to this virtue, meaning that translators are forced to pick a word that gets some sense of it (often not very well) because the whole idea cannot be expressed concisely.  Rather than being, as meekness is often defined, a matter of timidity or weakness or depression, this virtue described in the Bible as the Hebrew anav or the Greek praus is one that is restrained strength that is not spent defending one’s own personal dignity but that is devoted to the will of one’s Lord and Master.  Not many people have this particular virtue.  Not many people are strong, but kind and understanding with those who are irritating and frustrating.  Not many people hold their tongue and refuse to speak up when their good name is being dragged through the mud.  Not many people suffer in quiet and dignified silence.  Not many people, when push comes to shove, really trust that God knows what He is doing when it comes to what He wills and what He allows.  We may say that we do, but God allows some pretty horrible things to happen in this world, and if we have suffered these sorts of horrors, we are not the sort of people who are quick to trust others again.

If it is hard to practice this virtue, and it is definitely a hard virtue to practice–perhaps impossible without divine assistance–we should at least know what target we are expected to aim at.  For one, in order to have strength that is controlled and restrained, we need to have strength to begin with.  For our restraint and our refusal to show that bumptious tendency towards defending our own personal dignity and honor to be genuine humility, we must have the capacity for self-defense.  It is the refusal to strike out to defend that which is in the eyes of God as not worth defending that is humble and meek, not the inability to do it, after all.  And as well as having strength that is restrained we need to trust that God will be just in the world to come if not in this present life, and sometimes in this life as well.  Strength that is under restraint and control and an absolute trust in God in the face of life’s traumas and trials is by no means easy, but we can at least know that we are aiming at the right target when we think of humility.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/06/25/if-i-was-half-a-man-i-wouldnt-sleep-alone/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/08/31/in-the-integrity-of-my-heart-i-have-done-this/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/11/30/dignitas-in-extremis/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/14/i-am-not-the-terrible-person-some-people-say-i-am/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/02/22/apologia-pro-vita-sua/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/05/book-review-the-apologia-of-robert-keayne/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to πράος / וַתְרָנִי

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    So meekness is the actionable strength of restraint–self-control–cored in humility; having the Godly discernment of knowing what things to let go, even at great personal cost. Moses took a lot of hits from the people he led, that’s for sure!

    • Yes, that’s right, and yes, he did. The words used to describe this virtue in English are sadly all too inadequate. I find it somewhat odd that recently this issue of not having the right words for things has become such a frequent refrain in my blog.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    Isn’t that the truth! I often, of late, have found myself scrambling for words to describe what I’m trying to explain as well. The English language is very constrictive. I love digging into the Hebrew words from which the English ones were translated, and nearly always find very rich, far more complete, definitions.

    • There are 800,000 words or more officially in English, but they aren’t always the right words. It is easy to think of things or to feel things for which the English words are lacking, and one has to plunder other languages to express oneself. Hebrew certainly does a good job at conveying rich and complex meanings.

  3. Catharine Martin says:

    I can’t begin to tell you how many French idioms and phrases cannot be translated directly into English. They simply wouldn’t make sense. The best one can do is try to describe it. I’m certain the same must be true for other languages.

    • Yes, the same is definitely true in Spanish and English as well, and in Hebrew and Greek as noted above. Every language has its own characteristic way of looking at the world and at least some insight into something that other languages would not even think to categorize.

  4. Pingback: Why Should It Matter Who The Messenger Is? | Edge Induced Cohesion

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