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.)

We Don’t Have to Understand Everything

The treasure chest bulged between its straps and strained against its clasp. I paused, my eyes wide, and savored the moment. There was no lock on the clasp, so I heaved open the lid. It clanged back as gold coins spilled all around. I reached in, burying my arms in the treasures yet never hitting the bottom of the chest. I scooped out as much as I could hold and fell into a nearby chair. The chest remained full.

When we open our Bibles, we lift the lid on a limitless treasure trove of greater eternal value than any pirate’s booty—treasures we understand and enjoy now along with treasures we won’t understand until Heaven. What sort of treasures, you ask? Treasures of wisdom and knowledge, of perfect judgments and plans. The Apostle Paul knew about these treasures. The thought of such treasures struck him so that he paused in the middle of Romans to declare,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  –Romans 11:33 Continue reading

There’s good, then there’s Good

“You’re good people.”

I heard it again last weekend. What do you say to that? “Umm…thanks?”

I live in the south, and most of us are good…at least we’re polite and nice. Our mommas told us, “Be good!” every time we went out the door. We wait our turn; we try to help people; we give Christmas gifts to our mailmen and garbage collectors. We try our best to be nice (except on college football Saturdays, but that’s another story). Continue reading

How Much More

A wobbly number line stretched across the classroom board, drawn without the help of a straight edge. Zero was near the center. To the left, the negative numbers. To the right, the positive numbers. You remember it from elementary or middle school, don’t you? For me, it was a green chalkboard and a teacher who was allergic to chalk. “Occupational hazard,” he said. At each end, the line was capped by an arrow just before the edge of the board. The arrow meant we hadn’t really arrived at the end of the line—that it continued into infinity in both directions.

As I read through Romans 5 this week, that number line returned to my mind. Four times in this chapter, Paul says “how much more.” It’s not a question but an exclamation, like when I (frequently) say, “What was I thinking!” or “How could I have forgotten that!”

I dug into the Greek a little. The phrase is pollō mállon (thank you, BibleGateway.com and my Complete Word Study Dictionary). It means simply “much more;” we add the “how” to get the right meaning in English. This word pairing comes up rather often in the New Testament, most notably (I think) in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said,

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  -Matthew 6:30 (emphasis added)

Much more.

With these words, the speaker (Jesus, Paul, etc.) creates a comparison between two concepts. There’s a first thing, which may be positive or negative, but the second thing so far exceeds the first as to make the first thing insignificant.

Like when David said, “My cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5), the image here is abundance, excess, extra to the point of wastefulness.

In the number line of life, we start out in the negative, somewhere to the left of zero. God’s generosity (saving us through Jesus’ death) doesn’t just return us to zero. It goes far beyond, bypassing even that arrow at the edge of the board on the positive side, into infinity or, in our case, an infinite eternity.

Let’s look at Paul’s how much more comparisons in Romans 5.

Since we have now been
justified by his blood,
how much more shall we
be saved from God’s wrath
through him! For if, while
we were God’s enemies, we
were reconciled to him
through the death of his
Son, how much more, having
been reconciled, shall we
be saved through his life!
Not only is this so, but
we also boast in God through
our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have now
received reconciliation.
Romans 5:9-11

How much more are we saved from God’s wrath (v. 9)

Jesus’ blood gives us the right to be in God’s presence (justification), but it’s more than that. Because of Jesus’ death, we don’t have to worry about the final judgment. God will not release his righteous anger on us.

Jesus gave us an excellent example of this. When the prodigal son returned to his father (Luke 15:11-32), the father could have said, “Yes, you’re my son, but you need to be punished.” He didn’t. The younger son not only returned to his status in the family, but he was also saved from his father’s wrath.

How much more are we saved through His life (v. 10)

We’ve also been brought into a healthy relationship with God (reconciliation), but He doesn’t stop there—oh no! Jesus’ continuing life in and through us, both saved us and continues our sanctification (the “shall we be saved” of this verse). We have an on-going, deepening relationship with God through Jesus.

Again, from Jesus’ parable: The prodigal’s father could have said, “I forgive you, now get out of my sight,” but he didn’t. He pursued a renewed relationship with his long-lost son, starting with a big celebration.

Next in Romans 5, Paul introduces the idea of the “one man” Adam and the “one man” Jesus Christ. This section is full of comparisons, but twice he uses our pollō mállon again.

But the gift is not like
the trespass. For if the
many died by the trespass
of the one man, how much
more did God’s grace and
the gift that came by the
grace of the one man, Jesus
Christ, overflow to the
many! Nor can the gift of
God be compared with the
result of one man’s sin:
The judgment followed one
sin and brought condemnation,
but the gift followed many
trespasses and brought
justification. For if, by
the trespass of the one man,
death reigned through that
one man, how much more will
those who receive God’s
abundant provision of grace
and of the gift of
righteousness reign in life
through the one man,
Jesus Christ!
Romans 5:15-17

How much more does grace overflow to many (v. 15)

Before Jesus came, many people died because of sin—Adam’s original sin instilled in them. But many more than that will live eternally because we get grace (our saving factor) through Jesus’ singular death and subsequent resurrection.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.  –Ephesians 2:8

How much more will grace-receivers reign through Christ (v. 17)

Because of Adam’s sin, death reigns in our lives. When we receive God’s grace, He dethrones death and sets us up to reign in this life through Jesus.

How much more is there to say? (I mean this one as a question.)

I hope you can see the type of comparison Paul makes in these four verses. In the first two, he says, “What you know is good, but the reality is so much better!” In the second pair, he says, “If this is bad, the converse is not just good but amazingly good!” Every time, God goes the extra step to make our situation beautiful and remarkable.

Let’s end with a related “immeasurably more” from Paul.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  –Ephesians 3:20-21

Why does he give us much more? For His glory. We can draw a heavy line all the way across our number lines on the board and off, into infinity.

number line 2
(c) Carole Sparks

God isn’t playing a zero-sum game with our eternity. He gives us “much more” every time. My #more is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Can you think of a good image to help us understand God’s “much more”? My number line is just one example. Have these verses impacted your life in a particular way? In either case, we would love to hear from you in the comments below. Let’s glorify God with a discussion of His Word!

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

Hope Let Me Down

The nurse met us in the sterile, grey hall again. “We weren’t able to do the procedure, but there’s one more thing we can try.” At least three times, one nurse or another met us in the hall with essentially the same statement. At least three times, my heart grabbed onto that slim chance and held on…hoped on.

I left the second, bigger hospital, sure that this new facility with different doctors and fresher equipment would make a difference. But when the phone rang the next morning, I had to face the facts: even our last option hadn’t worked. Continue reading

On Worship

A lifestyle of worship has been on my mind for awhile. It arises partly out of my study in Psalms and partly out of…well, a bunch of stuff. Anyway, I am glad to share some thoughts on worship this week with my blogging friend, Vanessa. Read the first bit here or click straight over to her blog and start from the beginning there.

As much as I am tempted to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I love worship time with my church. You see, we lived in a place without churches or church services for more than six years. Our corporate worship time involved gathering in the living room with some praise choruses pulled up on a computer screen. I think God was honored in those moments, but it was nothing like adding your voice to a few dozen (or a few hundred) other believers, singing out in praise and accompanied by talented musicians. Corporate worship and preaching fuel me for the week ahead.

But Sunday mornings are not the only time I worship.

I have learned that worship shouldn’t be a noun. It’s not a person, place, or thing; it’s an action. Sometimes it’s an active verb, like on Sunday mornings when we worship together. And sometimes it’s more like a state-of-being verb, a mindset that pervades everything else.

Dig into God’s call to worship–including some gleanings from Romans–at Vanessa’s blog. Otherwise, what do you think of as worship and when does it occur? Share your thoughts there or in the comments below.