Editorial: October 2011
Shakespeare said, "I charge thee, fling away ambition; by that sin fell the angels." Then, what kind of ambition does success require? Without ambition nothing happens. Businesses do not start, social problems go unaddressed. Churches do not get planted, the lost are not reached, the church has no impact. Without ambition people become lazy. If you undermine ambition, you rob people of their desire and will to do something great with their lives. You want people who are motivated, but they have to keep their personal ambitions secondary to the goals of the team. Bad ambition is when their goals are put ahead of the team's. Christian leaders have to temper their calling to honour God with their family and church, while being careful not to get submerged in one aspect at the cost of everything else.
The wrong kind of ambition is destructive. God's agenda is to shape us by engaging our ambition. We have dreams and desires for impact and aspiration to do things. Often we assume that God's responsibility is to come alongside of us and make our ambitions a reality. But God may delay the fulfilment of those ambitions, or even deny the satisfaction of certain ambitions; He has a more important plan that requires the reorientation of our ambitions for His glory. "The Lord frustrates our plans, shatters our purposes, lets us see the wreck of all our hopes, and whispers to us, 'It's not your work I wanted, but you.'"
After following Jesus for some time and recognising His powers, the disciples debated with each other, "Who is the greatest?" They jockeyed for power. Who would be the closest to Jesus? Who would get positions of honour? When Jesus heard His disciples arguing about greatness, He reminded them of the nature of His Kingdom. "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all" (Mk.9:35). Jesus did not tell them to stop pursuing greatness. He redefined it: the last will be first. Those who lose their life for the sake of the Gospel will gain it. The ambitious self-seeking spirit of James and John (Matt.20:20-28;Mk.10:35) looks especially black and ugly, seen against the backdrop of Jesus' determined progress to the cross.
To follow Christ means that we must suffer with Him before we can reign with Him. For the Christian, the cross must precede the crown. How slow are we to grasp the message of the cross! The request was that James and John might have the seats of highest honour on either side of Christ in His Kingdom. Jesus must have been deeply grieved by this self-seeking spirit. Their request was especially inappropriate at this time, coming right after the prediction of His passion. The other ten disciples were moved with indignation, possibly regretting that they had not thought of this first! The Master took advantage of the occasion to give a much needed lesson in humility. Rulers of the Gentile nations lorded it over them (Matt.20:25), but Christ's disciples were to be different. Whoever would be first must be a servant. Christ was their example. They came asking for thrones. They had not learned the lesson that the cross must come before the crown, and that suffering comes before glory.
"You cannot be anything if you want to be everything." Oswald Chambers said, "In our natural life, our ambitions are our own. In the Christian life, we have no aim of our own, and God's aim looks like missing the mark because we are too short-sighted to see what He is aiming at."
T. S. Eliot wrote, "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They do not mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them... or they do not see it, or they justify it... because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
Much of what God is doing in our lives is to work out and rework our ambitions. Sometimes our ambitions are too grand for our gifts and so need to be realistically downsized. Sometimes our ambitions are too low because we fear failure, or ultimately fear failing God. Godly ambitions are good because they have been honed by God for His purposes. God will be most glorified in and through us if we seek to develop according to who we are and not just try to pattern ourselves after someone else. D. L. Moody said, "The world has yet to see what God can do with one man that is totally committed to Him." This should awaken an ambition in us to do great things for God. In the body of Christ God has kept men and women of exceptional gifting. God has blessed and gifted people significantly for the benefit of the whole Church and His mission. When we pursue only our ambitions, we lose sight of this. But they are 'mountain peaks' not meant to be envied. You stand in awe, and thank God that people like that exist. This should make you desire to use the gifts you have been given for God's glory. Comparison leads you to selfish ambition. It leads you to competition and contrast. Unintentionally you will be walking down a road where selfish ambition begins to drive what you do. "Most people would succeed in small things, if they were not troubled with great ambition." "You may get to the very top of the ladder and find it has not been leaning against the right wall."
It is hard to find this perspective today in the church. Self-promotion and worldly definitions of significance seem not only to be tolerated, but even expected and encouraged. John R. Stott said, "Personal ambition and empire building are hindering the spread of the Gospel."
In John 12, Jesus described those who believed in Him, but did not confess it for fear of the Pharisees. "For they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God." The issue is not that they were seeking glory. It is where they found glory. They loved the wrong kind of glory. "However high we reach, we are never satisfied."
Seeking glory is the foundation for ambition. But glory of God is first. We should move Jesus Christ to the centre of our life. Godly ambition pursues God; selfish ambition pursues favourable comparison with other people. In other words, it is not about God, it is about whether I look better than other people. "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward"(Col.3:23). We are performing before the audience of One. Many people think that we cannot pursue both humility and ambition at the same time. We can become so modest that we aspire to very little. In fact, humility acts as the guardrail of our ambitions. It keeps our ambitions moving on the right track towards the glory of God.
G. K. Chesterton put it well, "What we suffer from today is (a new) humility in the wrong place... The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether."
Ambition that pleases God is focussed on God. It is the desire to do great things for God because He is worthy of great things. It is confident that even falling short in our goals does not thwart His purposes because we stand in His redeeming grace. That kind of ambition God can use to make a difference in the world. It is our ambitions, our aims, that keep us going forward. God's call upon our lives and our desire to serve His people is the engine that should drive us to make enormous changes and sacrifices.
"The fruit of the spirit is not push, drive, climb, grasp and trample. Don't let the rat-racing world keep you on its treadmill. There is a legitimate place for blood, sweat and tears; but it should have its roots in the call of God, not in the desire to get ahead. Life is more than a climb to the top of the leap." Os Guinness in his book The Call has written, "Calling is the truth that God calls us to Himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to His summons and service."
Moses and Jeremiah were reluctant leaders. They did not seek power or influence; at times, they actively resisted God's call into leadership. But God put a 'fire in their bones' that they could not extinguish. They remind us that calling is a result of God's grace, not a selfish desire for acclaim.
Peter says that elders ought to lead willingly and not under compulsion (1Pet.5:2). Paul affirms those who aspire to leadership (1Tim.3:1). When ambition is sparked by our communion with Christ, it can be a righteous energy that drives us. It inspires us to take risks, and try new approaches. But any fuel that can accomplish so much good carries inherent dangers as well. Ambition, like an uncontained fire, can also be a source of great destruction. It is necessary to have the discernment to check whether our ambition is a blessing or a burden. As we work, we are worshipping God-living gratefully, practising His presence, praying without ceasing, enjoying the task at hand, and giving Him glory.