Ambition for good: something to applaud or something to confess?

Charles Kiser —  November 1, 2011 — 9 Comments
  1. 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!

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

9 responses to Ambition for good: something to applaud or something to confess?


    I agree. Ambition is in many ways a two edged sword. Most of what we call “advancements” in the Western world are due to somebody being motivated to work hard enough to produce something good, and often ambition is part of that motivation. Without some amount of ambition some people are content to sit back and ride the coattails of others and be takers and not givers, which is a pretty selfish place to be.

    But the flip side is… to whom does the glory and accolades of such achievements go? If we see our achievements solely as a product of our own talent and skills, we rob God of his due as our creator and giver of all our abilities. This is a pretty selfish place to be as well.

    The honor and prestige of achievement (even when it is for good) is addictive and must constantly and authentically be deflected to God. I find that easy to say but hard to do!

    One way to measure our ambition might be to ask ourselves how willing are we to do our good work anonymously.


    Agree 100%

    I view ambition as a value neutral impulse that can be used for righteous purposes or unrighteous purposes. Similar to sex. Sex can be a beautiful blessing, or it can be a curse to individuals & a bane to society at large. Does that mean that sex is dangerous? Yep. Does it need to be handled carefully? Definitely.

    I guess the best metaphor is fire. Fire can heat up an engine, or it can burn the house down. Depending on how it is used & channeled makes all the difference. In this case, channeling the impulse into selfless ambition rather than selfish ambition is what’s most imperative. Selfish ambition can lead to pride, jealousy, and a host of other ills. But selfless ambition can save the world.

    It makes me smile that the Kingdom has an ambitious Church planter like you, CK. I wish I had more of that impulse myself! To use for good


      Great metaphors, Philip.

      You may be right, but let me process: is it really value neutral?

      I immediately thought of something else that Dave Ramsey says is value neutral: money. But is it? At its heart, money = power. Is power value neutral in the kingdom? Seems like Jesus would rather give it up than exercise it. Power can corrupt.

      I wonder if it’s not the same with ambition. Ambition is a form of power; or at least the pursuit of power. As such, ambition can corrupt. Does the logic follow?



    Great thoughts, and I confess I also struggle with keeping ambition in balance. A wise man in our church recently shared with me a test he gives himself often, especially if he senses his motives might not be pure – he simply stops and askes himself “Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it for God or is it for you?” If he realizes it’s for himself and not for God he redirects his actions and thoughts.



    @Phillip – I watched an old movie the other day and the following scene appeared: the time had come for a father to have that “talk” with your adolescent son. He started off by speaking of “desire” and then “love”. He made the distinction between the two, saying “desire” without “love” is evil. And “love” without “desire” will wither up and die. Reading your comment about “sex” reminded me of this scene. I would suggest that “ambition” without love can be as evil as “desire” or “sex”.

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