Ambition is a Dragon

I’ve found myself grappling with surges of ambition for the past few months, and I haven’t known what to do with it. At times, I’ve been frustrated, almost angry, because I know I could accomplish so much more, were I free to do it. At other times, I’ve been despondent, wanting to give up, because my efforts appear futile without the potential for real accomplishment.

Ambition is a dragon: hard to manage and never completely understood.

In 1960, no one had gone to the moon. What made people want to do it? Sure President Kennedy declared the goal, but the desire went beyond making a name for the scientists, astronauts, or country (Encyclopedia Britannica). I believe it was about seeing just how far humanity could go…about achieving something astounding primarily for the sake of achieving it

Does ambition exist for its own sake. I don’t think so.

When I finally confronted my own ambition, I started by pushing and pulling on a definition for ambition, trying to understand this dragon that has awakened.

What Ambition is Not

Ambition is not about expectations. Expectations are external, placed on me by my culture and social situation. Even my internal expectations for myself are informed by external factors. Ambition, on the other hand, comes from within and pushes out.

Ambition is not about goal setting. Like expectations, goals are external and often personality-driven. Goal setting lacks the deep-seated desire inherent in ambition. Goals are often tasks or plans I feel like I ought to do rather than things I am driven to do. While I may set a goal that reflects my ambition, goal-setting focuses on accomplishment without the underlying passion of ambition.

Ambition is not about zeal. Zeal is “fervor for a person, cause, or object; eager desire or endeavor; enthusiastic diligence; ardor” (dictionary.com). It has passion but lacks the accomplishment factor necessary for ambition—the opposite of goal-setting.

Ambition begins in desire,
bears fruit in drive,
and basks in accomplishment.

Ambition begins in desire. There’s something within me that earnestly wants/yearns for accomplishment in a certain area.

Ambition bears fruit in inner drive. I am willing to work as hard as necessary to achieve what I desire.

Ambition basks in accomplishment. I am satisfied only when my inner drive reaches fulfillment of what was desired.

(Those lines hold many more “I”s than you usually see in my writing. We’ll get to that.)

What Ambition Is

Next, I simply looked up the definition of ambition. There was no illustration of a dragon beside the entry.

“An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.” (dictionary.com)

(Again, the part about my honor, fame, and wealth: We’ll get back to it.)

So ambition is desire coupled with a willingness to work in pursuit of an accomplishment. Like many desires, a failure to fulfill it leaves one feeling dissatisfied…maybe even incomplete.

10-08b Wizarding World of Harry Potter (7) Gringotts dragon
dragon at Gringott’s – Universal Studios (c) Carole Sparks

Ambition seems to live down there with instinct or natural talent. I don’t think everyone feels it like this, and it’s not something I can create within myself. Even with my most self-disciplined, most goal-oriented mindset (Yes, I’m Type A. You should know that by now.), ambition gets beneath all that.

For a long time, I pushed ambition down, thinking it was  not Christ-like or unseemly. It starved like the dragon in the vaults of Gringott’s. Right now, though—right now—I am quite literally at the midpoint of my life. I turned 47 last week. You can’t get more middle-aged than that. And ambition has reared its ugly head. (Is it an ugly head? Are dragons ugly? Maybe, but they are also beautiful.) I can feed it, or I can starve it and sink down with it into oblivion.

What does God want? Ahh, there’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Dragons are hard to manage, and I’m a mere human.

Are there things He wants me to do…to accomplish in this half of my lifetime? Is ambition His vehicle to accomplish them through me?

I’m drawn toward these desires,
as if they must be done–with
or without me.

I ask because much of what I want to achieve doesn’t seem to be about me. (Maybe I’m completely delusional. You can tell me in the comments if you think so.) In some ways, I’m drawn toward these desires, as if they must be done—with or without me. And in many ways, the accomplishment will be enough on its own. I’m not seeking accolades or attention for my own sake. If I garner attention, I want to deflect it to the God who created and supplies me.

What the Bible Says

Enough musing. Here’s what the Bible says about ambition.

English versions of the Old Testament do not have the word “ambition” or “ambitious.”

In the New Testament, simple “ambition” is a positive condition. The Greek word translated as “ambition” or “goal” begins with philo, like Philadelphia (city of brotherly love) or philosophy (love of wisdom). It may mean “loving or fond of honor” but in the Bible it has to do with a healthy desire to improve one’s self or surroundings. A synonymous verb is aspire. Paul used it of himself and when encouraging others.

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.Romans 15:20

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…1 Thessalonians 4:11

We make it our goal to please [God], whether we are at home in the body or away from it.2 Corinthians 5:9

But more often, the New Testament pairs ambition with selfish. In these cases, the translation comes from a single Greek word which means “those who seek only their own,” having selfish or mercenary motives (For both Greek words, see Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament.) It’s easy to see that “selfish ambition” is always sinful.

Among other instances, Paul included “selfish ambition” in his lists of sinful behaviors in 2 Corinthians 12:20 and Galatians 5:19-20. Both times, “selfish ambition” comes right after “fits of rage.” Wow. James said selfish ambition leads to false, worldly wisdom and disorder (James 3:14-16).

“Selfish ambition” is when I want to be put on a pedestal, when I want the achievement for how it makes me look and feel or what I get from it (attention, income, etc.). Consider the contrast Paul makes in this famous Philippians passage:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Philippians 2:3

Paul doesn’t use the aspirational ambition word here. He is talking specifically about the selfish ambition he typically groups with other sinful actions. Thus, the antithesis of selfish ambition is… humility!

How do I pull the “selfish” out of my ambition … and keep it away?

I can have ambition that looks
to the interests of others.

On this end of all my thinking and researching, I believe I can have ambition that looks to the interests of others. For example, the founder of a local nonprofit has grown his organization to serve hundreds of people because he knows it’s in their best interests, not because he wants to be famous or respected. That’s humble ambition, but I imagine there are times when he has to step back and tightened the humility reins on his ambition dragon.

Ambition is a dragon, difficult to train and prone to occasionally eat people. I need to pay attention to it at all times. I can ask myself, “Do I want it because I want it…or do I want it because it would be better for everyone?” Can I make that determination from within myself? Not always.

Two ways to tame ambition:

  1. Keep a close eye on my humility.
  2. Test my desires in the presence of trusted friends who are well-acquainted with the Holy Spirit and with me.

If I can keep the dragon of my ambition in hand, I can say with Paul:

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  –Philippians 3:14

The sweet spot of achievement:

ambition (desire + determination)

harnessed by

humility (right understanding of how you compare to God).

Ambition is a dragon, difficult to train and prone to occasionally eat people. But I’m trying to tame it because my #ambition is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you confronted ambition in your life? Have you felt the word applied to you judgmentally? Have you seen it encouraged when it fits with God’s will? I would seriously love to have your input on this challenging topic! Drop a note in the comments please.

Related: Confident Humility is not an Oxymoron

To read: Humilitas by John Dickson (I just finished this one.)

Just Pick Up Your Mat

I hope you enjoy this #FifthFriday #FlashFiction based on John 5:1-15.

Zeb wasn’t particularly mystical. If he hadn’t seen it with his own two eyes, he wouldn’t believe it himself. But people had been truly healed at Bethesda pool—people he’d seen suffer for years. That’s why Zeb stashed his wheelchair at the bottom of the steps every morning and dragged his body up the steps and across the colonnade. Every morning, he staked out a space as close to the water as possible, but every morning, others arrived before him.

This morning, only one person blocked his path to the water. It wouldn’t matter. If the waters moved, someone else—someone with two working legs or a friend—would reach the water before he could. Maybe this daily labor was his penance. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be healed.

The warm sun convinced Zeb a short nap wouldn’t hurt anything, and he was almost asleep when someone spoke to him. He looked up, blinking, at the man standing over him.

The man squatted. Now they could speak eye-to-eye. “Do you want to get well?”

Did he want to get well? What
sort of fool question was that?

Did he want to get well? What sort of fool question was that? Of course he wanted to get well…didn’t he? Some part of his heart pushed the idea aside. His recklessness and arrogance had made him this way and stolen his bride thirty-eight years ago. Did he really want to get well?

Short of breath, Zeb grasped at the obvious. “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” It wasn’t an answer to the man’s question, but it was the best Zeb could do in the moment. Maybe this guy would hang out and help him win the race into the water.

The man’s next words startled Zeb into obedience. He said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Zeb obeyed without thinking. When the man straightened up, Zeb stood up too. Then Zeb bent over, rolled up his mat, and walked away. When he reached the bottom of the steps, he saw his wheelchair tucked behind a bush. Only then did his knees go weak. He was walking! He turned around, trotted back to the top of the steps, and scanned the crowd for the One who had healed him. The man was gone.

08-28 Greece (133)
Greek colonnade (c) Carole Sparks

Zeb leaned on a column, puzzling over his next move. What should he do first? Where should he go? Who should he tell? Well, the “who” question was easy. Across the thirty-eight years of his disability, he had pushed away everyone who cared and everyone who offered to help. There was no one left who would celebrate with him.

Perhaps the best thing to do was offer thanks to God. Zeb made his way to the temple. He didn’t realize it was the Sabbath.

Before he took two steps on the main street, a Pharisee tapped him on the shoulder. The short man’s frown extended to his hairline like a mask he couldn’t remove. His stubby finger jabbed at Zeb’s mat under his arm. “It. is. the. Sabbath!” the man barked, his finger punctuating each word, “The. law. forbids. you. to. carry. your. mat!”

“Umm…” for the second time in an hour, Zeb wasn’t sure what to say. “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ So I did.”

Even thinking about the
man who healed him brought
a smile to Zeb’s face.

Two other Pharisees had descended on this exchange. One asked, “Who was this guy? Who told you to pick it up and walk?” But Zeb had no idea who the man was. Still, even thinking about him brought a smile back to Zeb’s face. He turned to a shopkeeper along the street and asked the man to hold his mat until evening. The Pharisees shoulders slumped as they looked around for someone else to correct.

An hour later, Zeb was standing (because who would sit after thirty-eight years of not standing?!?) in the temple courtyard when he heard the same voice he’d heard by the pool. He wandered toward the crowd around the man and asked someone at the back, “Who is this guy?”

“Where have you been?” the guy snorted. “This is Jesus. Some people say He may be the Messiah!”

Zeb shuffled to the front of the crowd and found himself face to face with Jesus. Then Jesus looked him directly in the eye and said, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Zeb blinked slowly as Jesus returned to his teaching.

Zeb turned his eyes toward
Jesus again…He really was
the Messiah!

What could be worse than thirty-eight years of pain, shame, loss, and struggle? Eternity apart from God, that’s what. The Sabbath school answer popped back into his head despite the fifty-year span since he had learned it. It wasn’t wrong. Zeb turned his eyes toward Jesus again, the Teacher’s words muted by the volume of Zeb’s own thoughts. He really was the Messiah! It was completely clear now. Zeb’s feet danced a little shuffle, responding to the fresh light in his eyes. Jesus looked back toward him, and a smile stretched His lips as if they shared an inside secret.


There’s a lot of my own imagination built around the story John gives us in his gospel. Maybe you picture it differently. That’s okay. Here’s my take-away based on the true parts of the story:

Jesus asks a seemingly easy question that’s actually very difficult. That’s how he often worked. I once heard someone say, “You answer with your heart before your mouth.” It’s true, isn’t it? And Jesus was the master of asking just the right question…usually the one you don’t want to answer. Remember the woman at the well (John 4)? She tried to avoid the difficult question by distracting Jesus, but it didn’t work. This time, the guy is so focused on his one way to be healed that he misses Jesus’ point.

Sometimes, we think Jesus needs to fix our circumstances or help us achieve a personal goal that will make our lives better. Like this disabled man, we focus entirely on the foreseeable outcome, even if it has frustrated us again and again. Jesus’ question wasn’t, “Do you want to get in the pool?” It was “Do you want to be healed?” What question is Jesus asking you? Are you mishearing Him because you’re so focused on your existing plan? He has a way for you to get what you really need, even when you don’t know what that is. But it’ll take a little obedience.

Jesus has a way for you to get what you really need, even when you don’t know what that is. A little #BiblicalFiction for some #FifthFridayFun via @Carole_Sparks on #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

What do you think about this fresh take on a familiar story? Is there a moment you want to remember? Something you want to apply to your own life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

This is not my first time in this passage. For more on Jesus’ side of the story, check out God’s Priority: His Kingdom from way back in 2012.

Antioch: First Church of… well, Everything (part 1 – Acts 11)

Let’s dig back into Acts this week with the first of two posts about the church at Antioch. We will connect the dots between different parts of Acts and see how this church paved the way for our modern definition of church.

When the apostles appointed seven deacons to serve in the Jerusalem church, one of them was from Antioch: Nicholas (Acts 6:5). Nicholas was the only deacon for whom Luke felt it necessary to name his city of origin and note his spiritual history. Nicholas was a convert to Judaism who became a Christ-follower. Why did Luke mention all this? I think it’s because, by the time Luke wrote his history of the early church, he knew both the city of Antioch and the Gentiles who inhabited it were significant. It’s a bit of foreshadowing. Continue reading

Let God Shatter Your 2020 Expectations

The new year is so pretty and clean, sitting here on the first weekend of the year. I have significant expectations for this year, partially because I will soon turn 47, and since 47 is my favorite number (for no particular reason), I have long thought this year would be big for me. But God is doing something a little weird in my heart right now. Let’s see if I can break it down. Continue reading

Letting Go of Legalism

During a family reunion many years ago, my husband’s family found themselves at a karaoke bar in Branson, Missouri. This was before I became an official part of the family. Toward the end of the evening, all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins, etc. came together onstage and sang “We Are Family.” My mother-in-law still recalls it as one of the most special moments of her life.

Except one aunt and uncle weren’t there. They stayed back at the hotel because alcohol was served in that establishment.  Just before this aunt passed away, she told my mother-in-law how much she regretted that decision…how much she wished she had been part of the family ensemble on stage that night. Continue reading