Ambition – an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.
Maybe it’s because my father was a great man? Dad was a world renown OB/GYN surgeon. He was amazing. He saved lives on a daily basis. He helped build hospital systems in Africa. He did things surgically very few others could. He was invited to speak in places like Amsterdam and Hawaii. He had a really long CV that included pages and pages of publications. He was a brilliant theologian who had obtained a seminary degree in his spare time. Growing up I remember walking down hospital hallways with him and watching the world bend around him like water around a giant ship; as if everyone elses movements were determined by what Dad said and did. Maybe my ambition stems from my admiration for my father?
Or maybe it was something I was born with? I’ve always been incredibly competitive. I hate loosing. As a kid I loved sports. When the grown-ups tried not to keep score for fear it would damage us in some way, I was the kid on the sideline constantly calling out who was winning and who was losing. And now as an adult I struggle not to turn everything into a competition. I’m actually doing it right now. As I type I just caught myself thinking, “This post is going to be better than ________’s post.”
Yeah…its a disease.
I’m a sick puppy.
So maybe my ambition is something I was born with; some kind of genetic marker or something.
Or maybe everyone is like this? Maybe every one is constantly seeking to be better, do better, excel, win, improve? I’m not sure. I’m not in your head.
For professional pastors ambition is an extremely dangerous thing. It is something I know I constantly battle and struggle to suppress. It is the gas that fuels my pride, the wind in my ego’s sails. It drives me down paths of self-absorbtion for my-name-sake. Yeah though I walk through the valley of beautiful possibilities, I miss opportunities for my ambition doth distract me.
Don’t misunderstand. Ambition in itself isn’t bad. At the heart of justice is ambition – ambition for someone elses well-being. Selfless ambition is a by-product of love. It is part of what drove Jesus to the cross and Paul around the world. When we are sacrificially, selflessly ambitious for the success and well-being of another we are like God.
But my ambition is more often selfish. Selfish ambition twists things. For example, God will place on my heart a people group. He will call me to pray and love that group of people. He will break my heart for their struggles and give me dreams of their possibilities. He will call me to serve and sacrifice for them. Then my selfish ambition will creep in and show me the respect from others I will receive if I pull off God’s plan. My selfish ambition will speak to me about the glory and size of the programs I could build. My selfish ambition will whisper to me of the greatness of the task and the beauty of the sacrifice. My selfish ambition pushes me be focus on the big picture over the individuals, the system over the people. Often I fail to realize my selfish ambition is planting seeds because I am “doing the Lord’s work.”
In this way my selfish ambition is like a vine that quietly, slowly twists itself around a great tree. At first you don’t notice it is there because the leaves look similar; but then as you stare closer you see that the tree is actually being choked out. It’s resources are being robbed by an intruder. Over time the tree will become secondary to the vine. It will simply be the scaffolding that gives the vine support.
Selfish ambition makes inroads in my life through my envy of other people’s success. Thoughts like, “I wonder what it would be like to speak on a Catalyst stage in front of thousands.” Or “Someday I believe my church will grow to that size.” Or “Sure, I’m only leading a house church of ten people now; but like Neil Cole, our dream is to become a network of multiplying house churches some day.”
Selfish ambition camouflages itself in the word “vision.” It may sound like I am talking about the church’s growth, about the advancement of the Kingdom, or about something fantastic I’m going to do for God, but my role in the whole picture is there lurking in the back corners of my language.
Selfish ambition calls me to plan for the future. It tempts me to build large systems that can handle hoards of people when no hoards are present. I forget about the individuals I should in the present because I am focused on the crowds of tomorrow.
The antidote to selfish ambition is humility. As Paul said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conciet, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Now this is tricky, because humility can be faked. Making the statement, “Lord, I can’t do it, so you do it through me” while believing in your heart that you actually can do…fake humility.
Proclaiming, “Let’s not do anything before we pray about it” because you know that prayer is a necessary component, not because you are actually desperate for prayer…fake humility.
Real humility admits our broken state. It is transparent in its insufficiency. Real humility is honestly hopeless. It is dependent completely on God. It is not attractive. It is not glamourous. It is not something of envy. It feels simple. It looks plain. It is not charismatic. If success is huge numbers, than knowing only God builds movements, real humility is cool with failure.
I struggle with selfish ambition. How about you?