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Ambition Powered By Docstoc
Introduction: A dark motive, or a powerful motivation

Motives are slippery things – hard to understand, and hard to
recognize. In part, that comes from their two-fold direction. On one
hand, motives are about the past, the chronological past as well as
the psychological past, and are to do with the context from which a
desire emerges. On the other hand, motives are about the future, the
outcome towards which a thing is oriented.

It is clear that Christian piety is concerned with motive in both
senses. In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul is sufficiently
comfortable to speak of the motives he was operating under in his
brief ministry to them, and makes reference to both past cause and
future direction:

   1 Thess 2.3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but just as we
   have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to
   please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 As you know and as God is our witness, we
   never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals,
   whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ … 11 As
   you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you
   and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Here is the past, both psychological and chronological, as Paul draws
attention to his commission from God with the message of the gospel,
and his desire to please, not others but God. And at the same time,
there is reference to the outcome which was sought, not greed, which
might have made thinkable words of flattery; instead, Paul’s goal was
that they become people whose lives were worthy of God, who calls
them into his own kingdom and glory.

One motive which is worthy of our reflection is ambition. Webster’s
Dictionary defines ambition as:
   Am`bi´tion n. 2. An eager, and sometimes an inordinate, desire for preferment,
   honor, superiority, power, or the attainment of something.

There, of course, is the question – what makes an eager desire for
something, an inordinate desire for something. We live in a world
where selfish ambition has become something of a religion. Denied any
possibility of a ‘grand-narrative’ by the post-modern suspicion which
has enveloped us, and rightly so in some regards, we have nothing
much to live for except our own micro-narratives, and although that
can include families and networks of friends, it almost inevitably
tends to become a more or less selfish, and small, ambition. How are
we to think Christianly about ambition?

1. Types of ambition

a) Holy Ambition
Some ambition is outright ‘holy’, an eager desire which is itself
from God, for a thing which is God-approved. Listen to the
Apostle Paul’s ambitions:

Rom 15.20 Thus I make it my ambition (philotimeomia) to proclaim the good news, not where Christ
has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall
2 Cor 5.9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim (philotimeomia) to please him. 10
For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for
what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

1Th. 4:9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you,
for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10 and indeed you do love all the
brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, 11 to
aspire (philotimeomia) to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we
directed you, 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Keith Drury, in his book Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People puts it like this:
“Holy ambition is a pure, pointed mandate from God. It is a call
to complete a task or a mission. It is closely connected with the
ideas of "call" or "destiny." Holy ambition is knowing for sure
that God is calling you to do something. You believe you have
"come to the kingdom for just such a time as this." It is
hungering for obedience to your Master more than for mere
accomplishment and success. Holy ambition produces a calm,
unruffled drive like that of Jesus Christ, who never seemed to be
in a hurry yet always knew where He was headed. Holy ambition is
the conviction that God has called you to do something, and
nothing in or under the world can stop you. It is a holy
compulsion driving you to achievement as a matter of obedience,
not as a matter of personal success.” He concludes: “Holy
ambition isn't common.”

b) Human Aspiration
There is another kind of ambition, which is neither good nor bad,
it is simply human. God has created us with a longing for
achievement, fulfillment, even greatness. We have a legitimate
spiritual longing for significance, a desire for something
better, something lasting. All of us have this yearning,
Christian or not. This innate desire to achieve, to create, to
improve, is stamped on our nature by our Creator. It is one
aspect of one way we are created in his image. It is a drive to
do better, to accomplish something, to leave something worthwhile
behind us.

These human aspirations are not sin, they are wholesome. This

desire for excellence, accomplishment, and betterment comes from
God. IN the parable of the talents, Jesus indicated that we are
responsible for that which has been entrusted to us, to make
something of it:

Lk 19.13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business
with these until I come back.’ 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after
him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received royal
power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find
out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has
made ten more pounds.’ 17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy
in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’

I wonder whether many people are faithful in the small things, in
such a way that they will be entrusted with bigger things?
Author Tony Campolo put it so well, ‘two dangers threaten the
survival of Christendom. The one is mediocrity; the other is
success …’ Mediocrity, he says, has come to characterize the
behavior of most people in most institutions. “They live out
their Christian commitment in a mediocre fashion within the
context of churches that have mediocre programs … Holiness is
excellence, so there is no excuse for mediocrity. Success is
worldly, so there is no excuse for Christians pursuing it’.
c) Selfish Ambition
Of course, there is ambition-as-sin, selfish ambition. The Bible
puts us on guard against it:

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

James 3:14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false
to the truth.

James 3:16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of
every kind.

Here is the lowest level of ambition. Selfish ambition crosses
the line from human aspiration into selfishness because the
motivation is impure. Selfish ambition is sin. It springs from
the flesh. It is the desire to be lord over others -- to possess
the power of success. It is the desire to beat others, be number
one, win for winning’s sake. It is ‘healthy competition’ turned
into ‘hellish combativeness.’ Selfish ambition is a hunger for
power, prestige, and status. It thirsts for recognition, rewards,
and the influence which comes with success.

It is often driven by deep and dark psycho-spiritual neediness, a
desperation to demonstrate our worth by our performance. We
strive to be luminaries, rather than letting our light shine. We

   are what we do and achieve. And we have an insatiable appetite
   for approval, and so much of the way we relate is a veiled means
   of soliciting compliments. Paul Tournier describes a universal
   comedy of innumerable individuals all motivated by the intense
   desire to appear in the best possible light. ‘They are always on
   the watch, lest their weaknesses, their faults, their ignorance
   be discovered; anxious to distinguish themselves, to be noticed,
   to be admired, to be commiserated with. Some do it openly and
   naively, and are considered vain. Others hide it better, but are
   no less vain … The people who fail are those who try hardest to

2. Mixed Motivation

For most of us, our aspirations cannot be neatly divided between the
three levels: sometimes there is mixed motivation in our desire for
achievement. While we may not claim that our ambition is of the holy
type, we usually feel it is of the wholesome, human variety. At
least, mostly so. Mostly? Right there lies the problem of selfish
ambition. Who would say that their ambition is wholly selfish? Far
more likely is for us to recognize that our ambition is partly
selfish, but is that good enough?

What’s more, ambition has a tendency to start out noble, but then get
off track. Human aspiration can be 100% wholesome at first, yet later
derail into selfish ambition. We can start out with a clean God-given
desire to succeed; yet, as time passes, selfish ambition leaks into
our motivation and we become selfish.

One temptation is to give into selfish ambition, on the grounds that
it simply can’t be beaten. I suspect a more common strategy among us
is to go in the other direction, to be so aware of the mixed-ness of
our motivation, that we seek to put out the fire by denying it any
oxygen, to flatten out almost all ambition, in order to ensure that
none of it is selfish.

This seems to me to be throwing out a very important baby with some
genuinely dirty bathwater. There is such a thing as holy ambition,
and I want to urge us to be ambitious for such holy ambition, if
that’s not too self-referential! Rather than suppress anything that
might be selfish ambition, Jesus’ strategy was a different one – he
took the (even selfish) ambition of his disciples and sought to turn
the same energy into a different direction, by re-educating the
values upon which it stood:

   Mark 10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called
   them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers
   lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but
   whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first

     among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give
     his life a ransom for many.”

Notice here that Jesus does not tell them not to want to be great; he
does something far more radical – he redefines greatness, according
to his own model, and sends them with the same energy in that
direction. The Apostle Paul took the same approach:

       Rom. 12:9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with
       mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit,
       serve the Lord.

We are to outdo one another – here is the encouragement for
competition in the Christian life – but it is a competitiveness to
show honour to one another.

In other words, the solution to selfish ambition is not no ambition;
it is re-ordered ambition, re-ordered according to values that are
genuinely derived from the cross. And this means ambition not only
for the things of Christ – the extension of his kingdom, the
appropriate honouring of his name, the obedience of his people – but
also for the right reasons. That what is at stake in the things I
desire is never my own sense of myself as a child of God, as someone
who is valued in God’s eyes, even as someone who is faithful in my
task – but only a self-forgetful focus on the kingdom of God and his
righteousness. The story is told of Ignatius Loyola, who founded the
Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. It was his life-work, the fulfillment
of a consuming ambition. He was once asked how he’d feel if the Pope
suppressed the Society. ‘A quarter of an hour of prayer’, he replied,
‘and I would think no more of it’. He’d cultivated a sublime
indifference to temporal success or failure. The one thing that
mattered was that Christ be honoured, and if that meant the end of
his influence, so be it!

3. Having holy ambition

Our challenge, then, is to be ambitious with a holy ambition – neither selfishly ambitious, but at the
same time, nor non–ambitious. For some, that will mean stoking the fires of your ambition a little
more; for others it will mean turning the direction of an existing, but far too selfish, ambition.

For those whose ambition fires need to be stoked, can I suggest you give your minds and hearts to 2
things, especially over these holidays, which enable a little more reflection. First, think of the needs
that are around you and the capacity you have to contribute to those needs. The need of unbelievers to
hear the gospel; the need for churches to be led and taught well; the need for Christian service
organizations to serve well. There is an immense amount of need in the world, and your training, ability
and experience enables you to contribute to it greatly. Which leads to the second thing – read some
Christian biography. Immerse yourself in the story of real people with real weaknesses, who make a
real difference when they are filled with a holy ambition for the Lord’s work.

For those whose ambition needs re-directing, ask yourself some of these questions

    1. Am I more interested in the glory than the goal?

    2. How do I feel when someone else starts to accomplish ‘my thing’, or fulfills my dream … do I rejoice or have a tinge
        of jealously or envy?

    3. Do I visualize myself doing or being the dream, or do I visualize the recipients receiving the benefit of my work? It
        is need-oriented or ego-oriented?

    4. Am I infatuated with power, money, prestige, influence?

    5. Is my ambition short term, or has it been long lasting in my life? Has it "marinated" for several years, or is it really
         merely a temporary brainstorm?

    6. Do leaders -- those in spiritual and administrative authority over me -- give me confirmation of this ambition? Do
        they say, "Go for it," or are they giving caution signals?

    7. Do those around me "sign up," volunteering to help me accomplish this great ambition?

    8. Am I willing to "pay the price" to see it happen, or do I want someone to hand it to me on a silver platter?

    9. Would I feel "released" if God raised up somebody else who did it better than I?

    10. Have I dropped past friends and associates who helped get me where I am?

    11. In what way would God get glory if I achieved my deepest ambition?

    12. Have I compromised any of my personal standards to get where I now am?

These are helpful diagnostic questions, which enable you to do a bit
of soul searching. But the point of them is not to flatten you;
rather the point is to enable you to begin the re-direction process.
So as much as you spend looking at yourself, make sure you spend
looking at Jesus, and determining that you will be a person who
believes that the first are last, and the great are the slaves.

As we are honest with ourselves about these questions, and as we
cultivate an appropriate holy ambition to play our part in the
kingdom of God, so we will imitate the Apostle in his own ambition of
conformity to Christ:

Phil. 3:7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I
regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have
suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in
him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in
Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection
and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the
resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I
press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I
have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies
ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of

us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will
reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.


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