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.)

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

Are They Happy to See Us?

What a strange time it must have been in Jerusalem in those months after the Holy Spirit settled above the heads of the disciples and Peter preached his first sermon (Acts 2). The church grew exponentially—both Greek-culture Jews and Hebraic Jews came to faith. Everyone shared everything, Luke says (Acts 2:44). I get the impression they thought Jesus was coming back really soon, like within the year.

But as time wore on, people found things to complain about. “That’s not fair,” “What about me,” and other phrases floated around. The original apostles couldn’t deal with it all. I wonder which one of them said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). Sounds sarcastic. It was probably Peter. Continue reading

Some People Aren’t Gonna Like You

As Christians, we often think everyone needs to like us. If people want to be around us and think we’re nice, we assume we’re representing Christ well.

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: It roots the standard for Christ-likeness in other people’s opinions. They are not God. Jesus is God, and there were some people who didn’t like him when he was on earth. In fact, certain people despised Him. Our standard for Christlikeness is … (wait for it) … Christ. Continue reading

What If God Put Controversies in the Bible on Purpose?

One aspect of a bigger thought process I’m in right now.

There are some things in the Bible that just aren’t clear. When Paul talked about mystery (e.g. Ephesians 6:19), he wasn’t joking! If you read your Bible honestly and extensively, you’ll see why there are controversies among modern believers. Just to name some of the big ones,

  • Timing of the rapture
  • Role of women in church leadership
  • Baptism’s relationship to faith
  • election/free will

There’s a part of me that says, “If the brightest minds haven’t resolved these issues in the 1500-ish years since the Bible was codified, I’m not going to figure them out.” But there’s another part of me that says, “I need to know the right answer, and I need to know it now!!!!!” I’m still trying to find a balance because I believe God enjoys our inquiry and wants us to pursue knowledge of Him (Romans 11:33my favorite, Hebrews 11:6), but He also expects us to practice our faith, which often means we trust without evidence (Hebrews 11:1). Continue reading

3 Biblical Moms who “Owned” Their Unconventional Roles

In recognition of Mother’s Day this Sunday (12 May 2019), I offer three portraits of biblical mothers who overcame their less-than-ideal circumstances and produced amazing kids (one way or another).

Naomi owned the mother-in-law role

When Naomi’s husband and both her sons died, she remained in Edom with no family and no way to take care of herself. It’s not a surprise she decided to return to her own people. What does surprise is the commitment Ruth, her daughter-in-law, made to Naomi. (For more on Ruth’s side of the story, see my recent post, Blessed Are: The Meek.) At first, Naomi was like, “whatever,” about Ruth’s refusal to leave her. She was still full of grief and even told people to call her Bitter.

Naomi rose from her grief and
directed Ruth toward a happy future.

But Naomi rose from her grief and directed Ruth toward a happy future. She advised Ruth on local customs and on finding another husband. Boaz turned out to be a wonderful husband for Ruth, and Naomi got to hold her grandson on her lap.

Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!”  –Ruth 4:16-17a

Ruth may have gained another mother-in-law when she married Boaz, but something tells me Naomi remained an important and influential part of her life.

Hannah owned the longed-for-and-lost role

Hannah desperately longed for a child—just one child! Finally (to make a long story short), after pleading to God for years, God blessed her with a son after Hannah promised to give Him back to the service of God. Hannah kept Samuel until he was weaned (probably about three years), then she left him at the temple with the old priest, Eli.

Hannah released Samuel, but
she didn’t disregarded him.

God blessed Hannah with five other children after Samuel (1 Samuel 2:21), but she never stopped being Samuel’s mother. Just because she released him doesn’t mean she disregarded him. Every year, she faithfully brought him a new cloak (1 Samuel 2:19).

Eunice owned the cross-cultural marriage role

We know so little about Timothy’s mother, Eunice. What’s the story behind her marriage to a non-Jewish guy (Acts 16:1)? And how did her mother, Lois, feel about it? Paul said to Timothy,

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.  –2 Timothy 1:5

Eunice raised Timothy
to love God.

It seems Timothy’s father wasn’t one of those “God-fearing Greeks” like the ones who joined Paul and Silas in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4), and yet Eunice raised Timothy to fear God, love others, and follow the Law. Sometime after Jesus came to earth and changed everything, both Eunice and Lois shifted their devotion, becoming Christ-followers.

Eunice navigated her cross-cultural marriage while consistently instilling her faith into her son. She didn’t let her circumstances excuse her from diligence in faith matters.

Naomi’s grandson, Obed, was the grandfather of King David and in the lineage of Jesus (Ruth 4:17).

Hannah’s son spoke for God for years and anointed both King Saul (1 Samuel 10:1) and King David (1 Samuel 16:12-13).

Eunice’s son helped the Gospel spread around the world and was the recipient of two letters that influence Christian thinking even today (1 and 2 Timothy).

These women had unconventional mothering rolls, but they were exactly where God wanted them to be, doing what He wanted them to do. This Mother’s Day…okay, every day…let’s celebrate the mothers around us who may not look or act like your “typical” mom, if there is such a thing.

Being a mother–and “owning” that role–has always taken many forms, as far back as biblical times. Even #MothersDay is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you known the blessing of an unconventional mom in your life? Maybe you are the unconventional mom. Know another biblical example of an unconventional mothering role? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!