OPINION | Greg Clarke
Sunday 14 February 2016
Ambition has a chequered reputation. As Donald Trump gallops confidently towards the American presidency, it would seem that relentless ambition is something many people admire. Trump famously wrote in his book, How to Get Rich, “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.” The people who get followed, who make a difference, seem to be the ones who have healthy (or bloated) ambitions deriving from a very robust sense of their own importance.
And while Trump has discordantly trumpeted his faith, it can be hard to match furious ambition with Christlikeness. It is a struggle to follow a leader who denied himself to the point of sacrificial death, while at the same time clambering up the ladder of success crushing the fingers of the people on the rungs beneath you. We are rightly suspicious of leaders who claim to be in it “to serve” while everything they do suggests they are in it to be served.
Ambition bites the nails of success, sang U2. The hunger for triumph, acknowledgement and achievement can be a painful, destructive one. Anxiety over one’s status and value seems to go hand-in-hand with ambition.
So is it an ungodly thing to really go for it? When the Bible says that the meek will inherit the earth, is it saying that in order to receive the reward of rulership one must be humble, unambitious and behind-the-scenes? Is there any room for ambition in the Christian life?
Yes, but if you are willing radically to revisit its definition.
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands,” writes Paul to the Thessalonians. Why? “Because you have been taught by God to love each other.” What lame, misnamed kind of ambition is that? Paul sees that being a Christian changes the locus of your value, where you get your identity. You can be an ambitious Christian as a local plumber, pastry chef or professional pencil sharpener – if you are doing it out of love for others.
To make it even clearer, Paul writes to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Loser! This teaching comes in the famous passage where we are to emulate Christ, who although in nature God made himself a humble servant. The biggest loser? Or has he modelled true Christian ambition? Obviously, we believe the latter is true.
The New Testament is certainly laying down a challenge to those of us who would be empire-builders, asking us to redirect powerfully our energies from what makes us feel big to what makes others feel big. That’s a noble, but tough, command. But the Bible gives room for ambitious people to do just that: to channel their drive into building up others.
Ambition is a part of your created personality. Some people simply have more of it than others, and personality seems to be pretty hard-wired. When the Apostle Paul was converted, he doesn’t appear to have changed personality (as far as we can tell). Before conversion, he was a zealous persecutor of Christians; after conversion, he was a zealous Christian. Before conversion, he was a fanatical scholar of Jewish law; after conversion, he was a fanatical scholar of Jesus’ grace.
Paul’s personality is just, well, Paul. His actions and understanding changed dramatically, but he was still Paul. If you are ambitious, it is probably just you. The challenge is to direct that ambition towards things that matter beyond just you.
New Testament ambition all relates to whether you are pleasing God (2 Cor 5:9). And you please God by loving others. Rather than being about your own get-up-and-go, aspiring to fulfil your dreams and be your best self, the Bible’s view of healthy ambition is that you want with all your heart and strength to be worthy of God, bringing joy to him by valuing others higher than yourself, and sharing in his work in the world to hurry in his kingdom of peace and love.
The opposite of ambition, according to the New Testament, is not laziness or passivity or being one of Trump’s losers. It is indifference to God’s ways. We are to make our ambition to please God, striving humbly (not an oxymoron, but an unnatural pairing of words, nevertheless) to be worthy of his grace. Godly ambition, not selfish ambition.
If God’s pleasure is your measure of success, you can be as ambitious as you like in 2016. But check yourself.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.