To Strive for Great Things: Is Ambition OK?

Posted by on Oct 9, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

J. Oswald Sanders starts his classic book Spiritual Leadership by contrasting 1 Tim 3:1 To aspire to leadership is an honourable ambition with Jeremiah 45:5 Are you seeking great things for yourself? Seek them not. There is a creative tension between the two sentiments. Is there a place in the life of a Christ follower for ambition?

If you listen to some worship songs, or pay attention to the names of many Christian groups, ambition seems the new norm. We are going to be planet shakers and kingdom builders and our lives are going to count like no other has. Our church will be the centre from which world revival will flow, and God is undoubtedly relieved that we have opted to be part of his team – for we intend to make a difference.

Now it isn’t always put as crassly as that, but it doesn’t take too much scratching beneath the surface to realise that this is the subtext of much of what churches say and claim – certainly in the evangelical and charismatic sectors of the church in which I most commonly move. And is it wrong? Does it reflect an honourable ambition?

In a sense there is nothing surprising about ambitious claims. From his study of evangelicalism, David Bebbington concluded that it has a quadrilateral of priorities, biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. The last was his reflection on the fact that evangelicals are busy people. They express their faith in action, and try to make a difference for God. Presumably this has been one of the reasons for the success and growth of the evangelical movement.

No one can accuse evangelicals of being lazy. We aim for church growth and get enthusiastic about new projects and risk limited resources because we long for results. An old hymn asks: ‘Must I go and empty-handed, Thus my dear Redeemer meet? Not one day of service give Him, lay no trophy at his feet?‘ Though the tune is long out of favour, the sentiment is not. We view it as an honourable ambition to attempt great things for God, even as we expect great things back from God (to slightly paraphrase pioneer missionary, William Carey). We would hate to have no trophy of achievements to present at the end of our present life.

But there are some inherent risks in this. There is only a small step between wanting to see things achieved for God and wanting to be the one who achieves them. And we want to achieve them because that makes us feel important. Is there a place for that kind of ambition – ambition for a noble cause, but ambition that gives the same adrenalin buzz as winning at sport, business or any other sphere of life?

Of course, you may be reading this and feeling perplexed. ‘My ambition is no where near as noble,’ you may say. ‘I simply want to be rich, famous and successful. It is natural to want to succeed, but I just want some confirmation that my ambition is OK.’

Here are some principles that come to my mind when I think about ambition. You might like to suggest some others in the comments.

We are called to be stewards of all that God has given to us: The Bible encourages us to think realistically about who we are and what gifts we have. Romans 12:3 instructs: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. It then goes on to speak of the different gifts that we each have and the importance of using these gifts for the greater good. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 explores the different responses of three people to the gifts they were entrusted with. Two used them to gain more, the third did nothing, burying the lone talent given. The parable is clear that failure to use what God has given us is irresponsible. For the mathematically inclined, the non-static nature of the gifts will be of interest. The person who started with 5, finishes with 11, the one who started with 2, finishes with 4, the one who was entrusted with 1, is left with 0. At the end, no one is in the same position as at the start. Good stewardship is rewarded, laziness (or was it excessive timidity, or resentment at not having been given more?) is not. We are expected to use what we have, be it little or much.

What we use our gifts for, matters: Here’s the crunch. It is one thing to use our gifts, but who will benefit from their use? This gets to the heart of the tension between 1 Tim 3:1 and Jer 45:5 – do we have an ambition to serve God or an ambition for self. Even when we use our gifts for a worthy cause, we need to ask ‘who benefits from the financial reward that results from this?’ Wesley famously advised ‘earn all you can, to save all you can, to give all you can,’ to which one wag has replied, ‘well, two out of three is not too bad…’

Success confers responsibility: This is the Genesis 12:2-3 principle, where God says to Abram, I will bless you… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Success does not primarily lead to privilege, but to responsibility. I must use what I have on behalf of others, and for the good of others.

Leadership is about servantship: Augustine of Hippo famously said: With you I am a Christian. For you I am a bishop. What was that about? I guess Augustine was acknowledging that in spite of his lofty status (and many would argue that he is greatest theologian the church has ever produced), he was just like any other believer. With you I am a Christian – not greater, not lesser, like you, made from the dust of the earth but enlivened by the breath of God. However, for you I am a bishop refers to role, and the responsibility conferred by the role. Because of his role, he was not free to do whatever he wanted, but had to fulfil the duties linked to it. and they were weighty. Graham Hill in his book Servantship makes this point strongly by suggesting that we abandon the language of leadership and speak instead of servantship – because leadership is about serving. The test of our leadership is always what becomes of those who chose to follow our lead, not of what becomes of us. So we can be ambitious, but it should be ambitious to serve.

There are different seasons in life: I love Ecclesiastes 3 and its gentle reassurance that there is an appropriate time and season for everything – a time to go all out, and a time for the quieter life; a time to be born, and indeed, a time to die. Fitting within this rhythm, I’d argue that there is a time to say no to promotion (for the sake of the family, or to gain deeper experience, or to finish what you are already doing), and a time to say yes.

A personal story… At the age of 31 I was appointed principal of Rosebank Bible College. It was the sort of post I knew I wanted – the ability to help train those who would over time take on leadership positions in the church. 31 – goodness. Our oldest child was not yet 4, our daughter not 1, and our youngest, a few years away from being born. I loved many, many aspects of the job. But oh, the hours it required – especially as I was so inexperienced and making lots of mistakes. In the end I knew I faced a choice – job or family. I left after less than 3 years in the position. Never regretted it. Great post – wrong time. And, as is usually the case, after a little while they were able to find a great replacement. Humbling – but I definitely wasn’t irreplaceable. I wondered if I would ever get a comparable role again. I assumed not. But at the age of 46, I was offered the principalship at Vose Seminary. I have been here for 12 years. Fabulous years. Right post – right season. I am truly grateful. And I guess I want to say, have the courage to say no to some great things, if it is the wrong season. Don’t let ambition blind you. The right time will come.

It is not all about me: I often say that the four idols of our age are money, sex, power and self. It is the fourth that is at stake here. So many messages of our day focus on self and what we deserve. Me, myself and I makes for a suffocating trinity. The Bible urges us to be outwardly focused. Or as the old children’s chorus has it, JOY stands for Jesus, Others, You… and in that order. The pressure of our time is to reverse the order, but YOJ is a very odd word, and should be rejected both in Scrabble, and in life.

It may not be what I want, but it will be what is needed: While I love to quote Frederick Buechner’s wonderful words where, in speaking about vocation, he writes: ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ Our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger – beautiful… and usually, but not always, true. Sometimes what I am called to do is not my deep gladness, but it does meet a deep hunger. Many calls are difficult and involve sadness. At a certain level there will be deep gladness as we help meet a deep hunger – but no, it won’t necessarily be my first, second or even twenty second choice. We do what is necessary, not always what we want. That’s a requirement of servantship – or of ambition that is honourable, because it does not seek great things for itself.

There is so much more that I could say – and my sketch of what I planned to write tells me to start commenting on the difference between a career and a vocation, and of the need to rediscover a sense of calling – whatever our work might be.  But I am conscious that several of my recent posts have been very long, so I’ll make amends, and leave that to another time.

As always, nice chatting.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Brian, I have often thought along these lines. I particular like the quote about meeting the world’s deep hunger as a bottom line for our sense of Christian calling and ambition. I wonder about Ephesians 2.10, “For we are who He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”, if we are God’s creation and he has chosen and prepared our work, at what point does personal ambition enter the equation? Are not service and self-giving our primary values, they were for Jesus.

    • Thanks Phil. Great comments – and so good to hear from you after far too long. The photo you gave us of Mission Bay when we left New Zealand still hangs in our home and sparks many happy conversations.

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