Ambition that’s humble and willing to yield

I want to look at James 3:13-17 again, but from the positive side:

13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

If Harvey’s theory is true, and this passage is really about ambition as much as it is about wisdom, then James is saying ambition should be characterized by being honorable, humble, pure, peace loving, gentle, sincere and impartial. Godly ambition is willing to yield, full of mercy and full of good deeds. That’s certainly not the traditional view of ambition. Let’s unpack the implications over a couple of posts this week.

When I think of humility coexisting with ambition, I think of Jim Collins. In Good to Great, he suggests that the best companies were not run by superstar CEOs, but humble men and women who were homegrown in the company. The defining factor was not a lack of ambition, but a lack of ambition for themselves. They didn’t seek out the media or even to be out front speaking to their staff. Instead, they were ambitious for the company, for the cause. Collins noted that they were determined, even stubborn about seeing their company succeed.

Ambition and submission are seldom said in the same breath. We think of ambition as elbowing people out of the way to get to the top. But there is another kind of ambition: James says it’s “willing to yield.” Aspirations to advance God’s kingdom should look as countercultural as God’s kingdom itself is. With God, the ends don’t justify the means. Since God’s kingdom is not just a future hope but a reality here and now, it must be advanced in God’s way and with God’s methods. That means an inverted value system where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. That’s exactly how God’s kingdom expands, because it is so contrary to every earthly system and every earthly instinct in us. The great in the kingdom of God are those who are considerate of others, who serve and who “turn the other cheek.”

Mother Teresa is the example that comes to mind. She certainly was humble. But her ambition to bring God to the poor led her to confront presidents. She was determined. Her ambition to bring the kingdom of God into some of the darkest places was marked by servanthood and a hands-dirty style of leadership. I remember that her death was upstaged by the death of Princess Diana. But when history defines greatness, Teresa will win hands-down over Diana.

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