Ambition

Preaching and Worship Resources about Ambition

Ambition is a strong desire to achieve. Ambition may be noble or selfish, and it's often hard to figure out which type of ambition is dominant in another person and even in ourselves. Christians shouldn't shrink from attempting fine things just because they are unsure whether they are selfishly or nobly ambitious. Fine things are fine for the kingdom of God, which is going to come whether in working toward it we were well motivated or not.

In Scripture

"Then they said, `Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth'" (Gen. 11:4).

"Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor" (Prov. 21:21).

"How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, `I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.' But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit" (Isa. 14:12 - 15).

"The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, `All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.' Jesus said to him, `Away with you, Satan! for it is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him"'" (Matt. 4:8 - 10),

"`Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled'" (Matt. 5:6).

"Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:33).

"What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:25).

"To those who pursue glory, honor, and immortality by steady persistence in well-doing, he will give eternal life; but for those who are governed by selfish ambition, who refuse obedience to the truth and take the wrong for their guide, there will be the fury of retribution" (Rom. 2:7 - 8, NEB).

"I [Paul] make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else's foundation" (Rom. 15:20).

"Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church" (1 Cor. 14:12).

"We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him" (2 Cor. 5:6 - 9).

"Anyone can see the kind of behavior that belongs to the lower nature: fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who behave in such ways will never inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19 - 21, NEB).

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).

"We urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you" (1 Thess. 4:10 - 11).

"The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task" (1 Tim. 3:1).

"If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. . . . For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind" (James 3:14, 16).

Points to Ponder

Ambition is morally ambiguous. On the one hand, selfish ambition can be morally and spiritually devastating. According to traditional Christian thinking, ambition caused the fall of the angels and of the first humans. They had a strong desire to "be like God." They wanted to vault over the line between creature and creator. Unsurprisingly, life and literature since then have been full of people who hungered for fame, power over others, and unsurpassable wealth. Adolf Hitler's dream was to turn Germany into an empire that would conquer and exploit most of Europe for a millennium. His ambition caused indescribable suffering.

Ambitious striving may lead to idolatry and strife and sometimes even to tyranny. Lots of type-A hard drivers want God to get out of the way so they can build their towers and collect their kudos. Foolish pride bedevils us still. On vacation one summer in the Rockies, I heard the story of a man, an expert skier, who lost his life while skiing off-trail in an avalanche area. He knew perfectly well that what he was doing was risky. But his ambition was to leave tracks across impossible terrain so that anybody who rode up an adjacent chairlift would see those tracks and admire the skill that made them.

On the other hand, ambition may also be noble, as when a Christian "strives first for the kingdom of God." Paul was ambitious to spread the gospel where it hadn't gone before. He craved the difficult work of trailblazing. Jesus challenged his followers to "hunger and thirst for righteousness," and Paul called us to distinctly Christian ambitions: to live quietly, to build up the church, to please the Lord.

The same ambition for high accomplishment that drives the arrogant and the foolhardy also gives us great cathedrals, glorious music, terrific sermons, and flourishing businesses. Where would Christians be without ambition? Does anybody want a son-in-law who lacks it? The parable of the talents should remind us that "safety first" was not Jesus' motto. For him, obedience comes first, and that often means taking a reverent risk for the kingdom of God. But if we are slackers inside the kingdom, one of the most terrible things God could ask any of us on the day of judgment is "Do you mean you never even tried?"

Here are seven observations about the push and pull of ambition:

1. The energy that fuels accomplishment is a gift of God. All real energy comes from the ultimate power source in the universe. Taking pride in a doing a job well is just as often a virtue of the diligent as it is a sin of the arrogant. In any case, it's not a bad idea to buy the goods and services of people who take pride in their work.

2. It's one thing to want to do a job well because it's right to do it that way and because it therefore pleases the Lord and contributes to his kingdom. It's another thing to want to do a job well because you will then get your name splashed across social media.

3. Although it's not hard to figure out which of these last two attitudes is better, it is hard to figure out which has the upper hand in another human being. Take a person who's never satisfied with her work. Is she humble or proud? Or take a hard-charging minister. As Eugene Peterson has said, it's pretty hard to tell whether a minister's ambitious leadership amounts to courageous faith or mere self-importance. But we still must go ahead and make solid decisions in the church when we don't know. The minister may not know.

4. When we do fine things, even for God, we might sometimes do them for partly sinful reasons. Again, that's just the way it is. And we ought not to stop trying to do fine things just because we are afraid of lapsing into vanity or some other folly. The truth is that we will lapse at times, and that when we do, we ought to get on our knees about it. And then we ought to stand up and go back to work, trusting God to help us do better. The idea is that even if God can hit straight shots with crooked sticks, our job is to be as straight as we can — and in any case to keep soldiering on.

5. We may fight self-importance by accepting our failures and then by accepting the liberating grace of God that follows them.

6. "Be all that you can be" comes from the U.S. Army, not the Bible. In biblical perspective, it's okay not to do everything, not to try everything, not to develop all your gifts. Maybe we should develop just the ones the kingdom needs from us right now. There is a life to come, after all, and there will be plenty of time then to practice photography or the saxophone.

7. The final truth is that God's kingdom is going to come whether we fly high or not. We do have to answer for what we make of our lives, and regular self-examination is therefore in order — even about our virtues. But the rest of the time we ought to walk out into the sunshine, do our work, and delight in the opportunity God gives us to play a role in the coming of the kingdom. The attitude we bring to our work, paid or volunteer, should be neither arrogance nor despair, but joy — sheer joy at being part of something immeasurably bigger and more mysterious than any of us could ever have dreamed.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.