- an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment: Too much ambition caused him to be disliked by his colleagues.
I’m an ambitious person. For whatever reason, I’m driven to succeed. I want to be the best. And not for my own fame or notoriety (primarily) – if I can succeed in church planting and justice work, it will mean that lots of people will be helped and blessed. I want to do well in helping others do well.
Here’s my question for dialogue: is this mentality something to applaud or something to confess?
Many would probably applaud it – what’s not to like about seeking excellence, especially for the benefit of others?
Yet I think there’s something dangerous, insidious and subversive in this kind of ambition, particularly because it can hide behind good deeds.
Ambition for doing good has the potential to be selfishness and pride dressed in holy clothing.
I say this because I know my own heart.
Church planting – a good, people-blessing enterprise – has at times been an idol I’ve put my hope in rather than God. At times I have secretly hoped it would put me on the map, make me a big deal, build my kingdom. (Writing that for all to see helps me to realize how silly it is.)
Paul similarly described some who preached the gospel – a good thing – as doing so out of “selfish ambition” – because they wanted to get him into trouble. (Philippians 2:17).
Elsewhere, when Paul talks about being “ambitious to preach” himself with a noble motive (Romans 15:20, TNIV) – he doesn’t use the same word/idea he did in Philippians 2. Translators decided that “ambition” was the best way to render it. I’m not sure it is, given the way our culture defines the word – as the pursuit of achievement or distinction for oneself. The American brand of ambition seems to be inherently selfish.
So what do we do with ambition for good things? Can ambition be redeemed in the kingdom?
The words of Jesus come to mind: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:32-33)
Here’s my paraphrase of what Jesus is saying in the terms of this conversation about ambition: Make God your number one ambition. The pagans are ambitious about everything else – food, clothes, careers. But not you. If you seek after God and make it your primary ambition to know him and love him, everything else – food, clothes and careers – will fall into place.
Perhaps there is room in the kingdom for ambition to do good, but only insofar as that ambition is judged, measured and held in check by a primary ambition to know and love God.
What do you think? Please join the dialogue!