Jesus tells us that there is this type of person in the world who is "blessed." He says, "Blessed are the meek... (Mt. 5:5)," and we are confronted with this small, four-letter word. Our tendency is to conflate meek with weak. To assume that meekness equates passivity. This is not what I see in the Bible, or more specifically, in the life of Jesus. He was meek, but he was not weak. Interestingly, his accusers may have assumed weakness on his part at times. They mocked Jesus, suggesting that if he was truly God, he could come down from the cross and save himself. They mistook Jesus' meekness for weakness.
Like those who crucified Jesus, our culture doesn't have much of a category for a meek person. This is a problem, because it is a character quality the Bible advocates as a virtue. There is a controlled and very intentional element to meekness. It is not an apathetic. It is not weak. It is not passive. It requires a significant amount of humility and self-control. Meekness requires a significant amount of strength.
What does it mean to be meek?
Meekness is the inward attitude that finds its counterpart in the outward behavior of gentleness. They are related, and a deficiency in one will naturally point to a deficiency in the other. If you are looking for the outward evidence of meekness, it would be gentleness. Gentleness has to do with the way we conduct ourselves toward others and the manner in which we treat them. This is seen most prominently in the life of Jesus, when he stood before his mockers as they shared their false testimony, offering no response or justification. Responding with gentleness toward those who are brash and rude requires strength. It is not weak. It is strong.
A meek person possesses an inward contentment that is intentionally and patiently submissive to the adversity of life, without needing to seek justification or retribution. They do not resent God in the face of the difficulties they experience, whether at the hand of another human or the result of natural disasters. They trust God and the goodness He wants to bring through His wise and loving purposes.
Meekness is not passive or weak. This sort of trust and confidence in God requires a great deal of strength.
Why do people perceive meekness and ambition to be at odds?
Every virtue has a corresponding vice and if left unchecked can lead to character problems that are inconsistent with the gospel. In the same way that meekness can be associated with weakness, ambition and strength can often be associated with pride. Misguided ambition leads to an inflated view of ourselves and the pursuit of selfish gain. But that does not need to be the case.
In the end, the reason people assume meekness and ambition are at odds is because of a misunderstanding of a Biblical and gospel-saturated definition of these words. When we understand that ambition for the things of God leads to self-denial rather than self-promotion, and that Biblical meekness requires great strength rather than passive weakness, we begin to see how they can fit together.
How do we balance gospel-centered ambition and meekness?
When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a confluence of these two qualities. Jesus was very ambitious. He came to save the world. What could be more ambition than that? He came to do the impossible - to make guilty sinners into righteous men and women. He came and brought the Kingdom of God with him. Jesus calls us to continue His mission of making disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). When our ambition is directed toward the things of God - the advancement of His Kingdom, the love of others and the worship of Him, then our ambition is pointed in the right direction.
Jesus also maintained meekness and humility while on earth. Based on the example of Christ, Paul gave the Philippians this exhortation:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8 ESV)
Jesus joyfully submitted to the will of the Father. Even through deep anguish, he was meek and humble in the face of suffering (Mt 26:38-44). Jesus was meek, but he was far from weak. We are called to exhibit these same qualities. Jesus frees us to do so, both in his example and his work on the cross. Through the gospel, Jesus gives our ambition a God-oriented purpose, and through the gospel, Jesus gives us the confidence and strength we need to face our adversity with meekness.