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December 17, 2018

The Down Side to Ambition

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Ambition. It’s a concept loaded with meaning and starving for clarity. It’s been abused, neglected, misunderstood, and misappropriated.

While baby boomers embraced ambition without hesitation, making it the necessary companion of hard work and elevating it to a near religious status, the attitudes of their millennial children are less clear. For every one article that trumpets the ambition of millennials, there is another that decries its absence. Christians, meanwhile, seem altogether scared of it. In their eyes, ambition looks and feels a bit too much like selfishness and greed to be safe.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Perhaps this confusion shouldn’t surprise us. After all, ambition appears to manifest in two fundamentally different ways. Like the good Dr. Jekyll and the sinister Mr. Hyde, one encourages the best inside of us, while the other gives life to our most selfish and base instincts. In short, it has a good side and a bad side. We can’t simply declare it acceptable or unacceptable. As this Inc. article wonderfully illustrates, it just isn’t that simple.

I tried to convey this complexity to my son some years ago. Throughout his time in high school we regularly met for breakfast, and among other things, we worked through a list of “41 Life Skills.” There were certainly more, but we only had so much time and I wanted to make sure I shared the critical insights with him that I never got from my father. Ambition was one of these life skills, and to illustrate its importance and complexity I asked him to sort the following “desires” as either positive or negative ambitions.

  • Desiring to be the president of a pro sports team.
  • Desiring to discover the cure for cancer.
  • Desiring to play college sports.
  • Desiring to date a really great looking gal.
  • Desiring to graduate top in the class or to get a college scholarship.
  • Desiring to make a lot of money.
  • Desiring to reverse the trend in homelessness and poverty.
  • Desiring to be a CEO.
  • Desiring to own a company one day.
  • Desiring to get a Masters or Ph.D.
  • Desiring to lead a church that impacts an entire city.

It isn’t as easy as you may have thought, is it? Sure, there are some that may be clearly good and some that may be clearly bad, but there are also plenty that you had to answer with “It depends.”

Here’s what I tried to convey to my son: Ambition can be either positive or negative. In and of itself, it is a morally neutral concept. It gains moral weight – positively or negatively – through what we attach it to and how and why we attach it.

Because of this, there is some evaluation of your ambition that only you can answer. Here are guiding truths to help you as you navigate these difficult waters.

1. Ambition is an inherent quality, given to all in some measure.

We certainly don’t all get the same dose of inner drive, but we all get some.  Some lose this drive in childhood, while others get it beat out of them by life, a spouse, a friend, a job, or even their church. Still others embrace ambition and make it a defining characteristic of their lives. Regardless of what we do with it, ambition is something God deposits into us from birth.

2. We have all types of ambitions. Some are worthy and some are not.

I said it above, but it’s worth repeating: Ambition in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It only gains moral weight as a result of what we attach it to and why we attach it. Consider the words that regularly ride along with ambition: build, acquire, pursue, rule, expand, compete, and multiply. Depending on what these words are attached to, they may indicate something admirable or something loathsome. Ultimately, you are in control of what you attach your ambition to.

3. God doesn’t want to strip me of my ambition.

The Apostle Paul experienced a radical transformation on the road to Damascus, but what we often miss is that much of Paul did NOT change. Paul was an aggressive, independent, get-it-done kind of guy before his transformation, and he was still that guy afterward. What changed were his heart and the target of his drive. God doesn’t want me to flush my ambition. Instead, He wants to redeem my ambition and harness it for good. He wants to strap it to the gospel of grace and let it drip like a rich coffee brew daily in my life.

4. Ambitions can be rooted in self (my ego, the flesh) or God

Remember Solomon in the Old Testament? His story is a great case study on ambition. Solomon was a man of unparalleled wisdom, yet throughout his life he regularly swung back and forth between good and bad ambitions. For Solomon and for us, the initial distinguisher when evaluating ambition should be our motives and heart. Only when I get my heart in a good place can I make sure the object of my desires is worthy and noble. Too often we reverse this sequence and run full steam toward a seemingly noble purpose with a wicked, self-serving heart.

5. Self-serving ambitions leave me empty, stuck, or full of regret.

Solomon’s ambition led him to pursue more and more, but he did so with little rationale or purpose. He wanted more … just to have more … with little regard for utility and stewardship. By his own testimony, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:10).

He built houses and planted vineyards. He cultivated gardens and commissioned parks. He accumulated chariots and horses, robes and weapons. He bought slaves, procured great herds of livestock, and amassed huge fortunes in gold and silver. He wrapped himself in women and wine. But despite all this, he wasn’t happy. “Utterly meaningless,” he called it (Ecclesiastes 1:2b).

Jim Collins artfully captured this very concern in How the Mighty Fall. He called it ”the undisciplined pursuit of more.” If the target and purpose of our ambitions aren’t worthwhile, there can be no satisfaction at the end of the road, just a never-ending desire for more.

6. God-centered ambitions are flourishing, productive, and fulfilling.

Ahh, the flip side: Nothing is more satisfying than living out a God-centered ambition. When internal ambition is filtered by a good motive, rooted in a useful outcome, and linked with the Lord’s eternal plan, it can be profoundly powerful. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for God-centered ambitions. They can be highly personalized or they can be shared. They can be tied to career, ministry, or family. They can be focused on obviously good endeavors, or to the seemingly mundane tasks of life. Regardless of the shape and size, the shared trait of God-ambitions is God. He leads us to the ambition and empowers us to chase it. Sure, God-ambition doesn’t often equate to the easy living we may desire, but it offers a peace that will always elude us when we are compelled by self-centered ambition.

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