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.)

Called to Brokenness

Bread doesn’t grow on trees. If I want to make bread, I have to use flour. Flour typically comes from a grain, such as wheat.

Grain  ⇒  Flour  ⇒  Bread

We once lived in a place with less strict processing standards than the United States FDA. Sometimes, a few kernels of our rice retained their tough outer hulls. That hull was like the shell of a nut! It was difficult to break with your hands and almost impossible to chew. We checked and cleaned our rice to remove those pieces before we cooked. Other grains grow the same way. Continue reading

There’s This “One Thing”

Jesus told the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).

Jesus said to Martha, “Few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

For the young ruler, the one thing was what he would gain by losing his possessions. For Martha, her sister had found the one thing and she was left holding the oven mitt.

But I think, at the root, these two very different people lacked the same one thing. Continue reading

Generosity Makes Time

I remember sitting in my tent cabin on the side of a mountain in Yosemite National Park, where I was working for the summer. I was twenty-three years old, and I had just finished college. It was the summer before I got engaged…and the summer my grandmother died. It was the summer I read Mere Christianity. I opened to the inside back cover of my journal, and I wrote, “Rules to Live By.” I already longed for wisdom, and I asked God for it daily. I had been paying attention to what happened—both to me and around me. For those couple of months, I thought back over my life. I tried to see where God was working. I thought about the spiritual relevance of everything.

People are more
important than plans.

By the end of the summer, I had three rules. The first one was this: People are more important than plans. Maybe you’re thinking, “Duh!” But to this Type A, first-born, compulsive list-maker, who would do whatever it took to tick that last task off the day’s to-do list, such a simple sentence both convicted and challenged me. In not-so-many words, God told me to prioritize the people in my life over the plans/tasks/lists/projects/obligations.

I haven’t always heeded my own rules, including this one. Continue reading

Demolition is Messy

When the Israelites paraded around Jericho, God demolished the walls of the city (Joshua 6:20). What the text doesn’t mention, however, is the cloud of dust that must have risen into the atmosphere and all the rubble that must have remained on the ground from the walls, not to mention the noise it made when it fell! I think when the Israelites “charged straight in,” there was some up and over to their straight line.

Last fall, I wrote about the walls Satan builds around our hearts—an image the Lord gave me as I prayed for someone I love. I shared a detailed study of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 with you. Paul said we have other-worldly weapons which “have divine power to demolish strongholds,” arguments, and pretensions” (emphasis added).

Since I wrote about demolition, we did a major remodel in our home. We knocked out the center wall to create an open floor plan. Here I was, praying for spiritual/emotional walls to crumble, and God gave me a tangible wall to demolish—one I couldn’t ignore, right in the middle of my house. I would say that’s crazy, but truth is, that’s how God works. Continue reading

Spiritual Maturity and Sentence Diagrams

If you’re of a certain age, you remember diagramming sentences in elementary/middle school. If you’re a #wordnerd like me, you don’t just remember it, you enjoyed it! Yes, I am that weird kid who diagrammed sentences just for fun.

So when I showed up in New Testament Greek class and my professor started diagramming some of Paul’s sentences in Greek, I was delighted. A couple of them took up the entire board! (We were then using dry erase markers on white board, not the chalkboards of my grade school years. Ah, progress.)

When I come upon a long,
complicated sentence, I fall
back on sentence diagramming.

Paul could write some of the longest sentences. I often get lost in them. But when I do, I fall back to some mental diagramming. (Confession: if it’s extra-difficult, I might draw the diagram in my q.t. journal. Am I alone in this? Probably.) Hopefully, I’m not alone, however, in finding real spiritual truth in a well-diagrammed sentence.

Take this one, for example.

Colossians 1:9b-12.

It’s one sentence in my NIV, and the ESV includes the first half of verse 9 in the same sentence. If not periods, Paul could have at least used some bullet points in this section. I won’t force a sentence diagram upon you now because it might unearth long-buried nightmares, so let’s turn it into a list. We like lists, don’t we? I took a little time to dig out  the key words (watching for prepositions and paying attention to punctuation) then bulleted some questions I asked myself as I studied this.

4 Marks of Spiritual Maturity

One whose life is worthy of God and who pleases God (v. 10) will model these four traits.

  1. Bearing fruit
  • Is my life producing/causing good in the world?
  • Are people learning about Jesus?
  • Are needy people blessed?
  • Is my church better/stronger because of my service there?
  • Do my thoughts and actions honor the Lord?
  1. Growing in knowledge of God
  • Do I know more than I did last year about God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit?
  • Am I more familiar with the Bible now?
  • Do I know how to apply biblical truth to life situations (wisdom)?
  1. Being strengthened to have more endurance and patience
  • Does it take me longer to get angry now?
  • Can I withstand longer/harder trials?
  • Do I seek Him more often than I seek His solution to my problems?
  1. Giving joyful thanks to God
  • Am I perpetually thankful for my salvation?
  • Do I find ways to give thanks regardless of my circumstances? (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • Do I see God’s blessings in my life—the good parts and the bad?
  • Is my perspective on life characterized by joy?

2 Notes of Caution

I’m sure you know what I’m about to say, but it’s easy to overlook the bigger picture of God’s Word when we zoom in so tightly.

  1. Doing these things doesn’t qualify us for heaven. God qualifies us through Jesus (v. 12b). Instead, these “marks” are evidence of what God has already done in our lives.
  2. God doesn’t supply this list so we can judge others but to affirm for ourselves that we’re on the right track. This is one of many passages designed to encourage us.

There’s so much more to this set of verses. We could go in ten different directions with all the Truth Paul packs into one long sentence. My goal today was to give you (or remind you of) one tool for dissecting the Scripture. (Oops—I switched from English to Biology.) I don’t know about you, but turning Paul’s long sentences into bullet points (a sneaky half-diagram) helps me understand, remember, and apply the guidance God has given us through Paul.

This is not middle school English, but we can use sentence diagramming to clarify Paul’s super-long sentences. #BibleStudyTools #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Do you remember sentence diagramming? Have you used it in your personal Bible study? Any other good suggestions for understanding Paul’s grammar? Or more personally: How have these verses spoken to you? Is there a particular one of my questions the Lord has highlighted for you to ask yourself? Any way you’d like to answer in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

Authentic Generosity Springs from Humility

We get so we can give.

Why does God give us things (tangible and intangible)? First, because it’s in His nature. God is generous. But second, we get so we can give.

From my car to my children to the love I show my neighbor, everything I have is, in a sense, on loan from God and on its way to someone or somewhere else. I am the conduit of His blessing for others. The things He gives me are mine for the time it takes them to pass through my hands, through my circle of influence. Like an earthen ditch flowing full of water, some of God’s blessing soaks into the earth over which they pass, and so I am blessed as all these things pass through me.

That last paragraph is where I want my mindset to remain. I’m not often there, which is why I write this month about the connection between humility and generosity. Continue reading