Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:13-17)
In Christian circles today, you might hear people say with disdain about another person, “Boy, is he ambitious.” Ambition is categorized with sins like pride, jealousy, and lust. People who are ambitious can feed this comparison by being ruthless and cold-hearted.
But Scripture doesn’t command against ambition; it commands against selfish ambition. In the passage above (James 3:13-17), James juxtaposes selfish ambition with wisdom. If one wants to be wise, they must not have selfish ambition, jealousy, pride or falsehood, but rather purity, peacefulness, gentleness, etc.
I recently read Dave Harvey’s book “Rescuing Ambition,” to help me to think about the ambition that’s in my heart, and to try to clarify my motivations behind my emotions. Harvey has a very clear style of writing, and his outline is very clear.
He spends the first part of the book defining ambition:
- We are wired for glory. We are wired to seek glory.
- We chase what we love – we are natural pursuers.
- We turn this pursuit of glory on ourselves, often with disastrous results (cf. Dennis Kucinich).
- We grow small trying to become great (again, cf. Dennis Kucinich)
If we’re spending all of our time trying to be great, that’s a bad thing, right? If we want to turn this around, how do we “redeem” our ambition? How do we generate godly ambition? Or, as C.J. Mahaney put it, how do we practice humble ambition?
Harvey offers a few ways that godly ambition can be cultivated, and it starts with being a Christian. Christ led a sinless life so that he could transfer (or apply) his goodness to us. It’s through his perfect life that he could rescue the motive, the obedience, and the joy of ambition.
The last few chapters of the book deal with how ambition is different in Christ than apart from Christ. Harvey deals with several different areas:
- Ambition’s Agenda – “We’re called to become what God has declared us to be… walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called means I have a new ambition. Instead of gunning for my own glory or comfort, I’m ambitious for a changed life.” (p. 67).
- Ambition’s Confidence – “Godly ambition finds its focus through faith. It battles unbelief with faith. It leans on faith when circumstances scream otherwise. And ambition is confident in the ultimate reward.” (p. 97)
- Ambition’s Path – Harvey outlines five paradoxes of ambition. My favorite is Paradox Four: It’s Really Something to Be Nothing: “The career path of the Christian looks different than for others. We should not be hungry for our own name or unrestrained in our self-promotion… If God submitted his great majesty to the call of servanthood, we can submit our musical talents, our teaching desires, our motivational skills to the call of servanthood as well.” (p. 105).
- Ambition’s Contentment – If ambition defines me, it will never fulfill me. This chapter resonated with me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contentment. “On its face, contentment seems at odds with ambition, doesn’t it? But for us to be rescued from selfish ambition, the warm colors of godly contentment must be mixed with the bright colors of godly ambition.” (p. 119).
If you’ve ever struggled with the paradox of godliness and ambition, this is a MUST READ book.
Questions: Why do you do the things you do? Do you do them to maximize your impact for the kingdom of God? Or do you do them to maximize YOUR exposure?