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.
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:
- Keep a close eye on my humility.
- 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)
humility (right understanding of how you compare to God).
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.
To read: Humilitas by John Dickson (I just finished this one.)