May 3, 2022

Informing Ambition

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When you hear someone at work say, “He sure is ambitious,” what image of this person pops into your mind? Is it positive or negative? 

Is it good to be labeled ‘ambitious’? Ambition is a person’s strong desire to achieve something requiring determination and hard work. The definition of ambition sure seems positive. James K.A. Smith says, “The opposite of ambition is not humility — it’s sloth, timidity, lack of courage. Playing it safe isn’t humble.” The opposite of ambition is not positive. 

Ambition is a uniquely human trait. Ambition is personal. You can not evaluate ambition without connecting it to a person or a group of people. To understand a person’s ambition, we must know the object of their ambition. To properly understand your own ambition, you must know what you care about and why you care about it. 

Recent headlines including the word ‘ambition’ teach us a few things about ambition.

Amazon has bold ambitions to take on SpaceX in the satellite internet business – CNBC 

"In many ways, it's a response and a competition to Elon Musk and SpaceX with its Starlink network," said CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz. In this story, we see two of the world's most powerful business leaders competing for the same territory. 

Tesla’s Ambitions in India Will Test Elon Musk’s Commitment to 'Free Speech' – Time Magazine

Elon Musk would be CEO of both a company seeking policy adjustments from the Indian government, as well as the owner of Twitter,” says Jessica Dheere, the director of Washington D.C.-based tech watchdog Ranking Digital Rights. “There are certainly conflicts of interest there.” – Time Magazine. We see here that a person’s ambitions can conflict with one another. We also observe that Musk may currently be the world's most ambitious person. 

How Russia’s grim demographics could thwart Putin’s global ambitions – The Washington Post 

When Putin does pay attention to demography, he obsesses over headcounts — for him, “capitas” are more important than “per capitas.” He fixates on raising birthrates and seizing neighboring territory instead of enhancing the capabilities and productivity of his entire population.” We see here, all too clearly, that ambition for power and territory leads to devaluing both human life and human flourishing.

We perceive from all three of these articles that ambition is based on how these individuals define success. Each of them – Musk, Bezos, and Putin – are well known for their ambitions and will likely be remembered in history for their ambition and whether they achieved their personal definition of success. 

Conflicting Ambition

The object of our ambition is a result of our definition of success. And, our definition of success depends on who and what we allow to inform our definition of success. God’s word defines success perfectly (Joshua 1:8). 

When it comes to ambition, those who follow the way of Jesus should have a significant advantage over the rest of the world because they know that their significance comes from God and not from their accomplishments or what people think about them. Yet, many people who follow Jesus still struggle with temporary worldly success as an object of their ambition. Jon Tyson, a pastor in New York, commented on the struggle many Christians have with ambition on the Bring It Out podcast with Ben Pilgreen, “Ambition is a fundamental good, not a fundamental threat. I’d rather be around ambitious people than being apathetic any day. While Tyson confirms that ambition is good, he goes on to say, “Christians with torn ambition are a disaster in the world.”

James, the brother of Jesus, writes to other believers about this type of torn ambition. In this letter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we see that the object of our ambition is informed by two very different types of wisdom.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. – James 3:13-18

The wisdom of the world is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. This may sound radical but this is practical for life. Today, we see examples of worldly wisdom all around us. We see this type of wisdom driving the ambition of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We see this in our workplaces every day when someone puts their own needs above others and uses people to achieve their personal selfish ambition.

When our source of wisdom is from the world, the object of our ambition will be ourselves. It may look like we are achieving great things, but if our definition of success is not from God, then the object of our ambition will be ourselves. Our ambition will be selfish.

The Wisdom from God is pure, peace loving, considerate of others’ needs, submissive to the will of God, generous with mercy to others, and produces fruit that will last. It’s this wisdom, God’s wisdom, that informs the object of a proper ambition.

Holy Ambition

When we know and believe in Jesus, our ambition participates in God’s kingdom. Tyson goes on to comment on this in the same podcast, “Christians with holy ambition have a complete and utter corporate advantage because they are willing to work hard without worldly recognition for the good of others and the glory of God …that’s an employee that anyone would want on their team.” Tyson then defines holy ambition this way: 

  1. Kingdom Vision (not personal visions) — lift your vision beyond the confines of your own life.
  2. A crystallization of discontent — a radical commitment to move beyond the status quo, that things must and will change.
  3. Radical sacrificial action — to do something very hard in order for that ambition to be fulfilled.

This is the way Jesus teaches us. My friend Mitchell Moore, a pastor in San Antonio, says, “Jesus does not condemn ambition, He redirects it.” Mitchell pointed me to the story of James and John where they had just learned how Jesus would suffer much and be killed, and then three days later would rise (Mark 10:33-34). 

Learning, for the third time, the most important news of their lives, James and John have a new object of their ambition — to reign with Jesus in heaven on His right and on His left in glory (Mark 10:37). Jesus is so kind and gracious to them. Instead of rebuking them, Jesus asks a pivotal question. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).

James and John went on to live with an unfettered ambition to make much of the name of Jesus. They died just as Jesus predicted, sacrificing their lives that others could know Jesus too (Mark 10:39). 

Ambition To Know Jesus — Become Like Jesus 

Jesus, the very glory of God, is the proper object of our ambition. When we get to know Jesus and trust Him with our lives, we can stop worrying about our future on earth and concern ourselves with God's kingdom and His will being done.

To do this, we must reorder our thought lives. Dallas Willard says, “The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.” Too many of us use this freedom to be distracted by the world. When we spend too much time setting our minds on entertainment, social media, sports, or our work, we are always left wanting more. We are never truly satisfied. 

When we spend time with Jesus by starting our day with Him in devotion, praying to Him throughout the day, gazing at His perfection, accepting that His yoke is easy and His burden is light, then we desire to make our object of ambition to be like Jesus – to want to be transformed to be like Him. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 

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Howard Graham
Howard Graham
Executive Director

When you hear someone at work say, “He sure is ambitious,” what image of this person pops into your mind? Is it positive or negative? 

Is it good to be labeled ‘ambitious’? Ambition is a person’s strong desire to achieve something requiring determination and hard work. The definition of ambition sure seems positive. James K.A. Smith says, “The opposite of ambition is not humility — it’s sloth, timidity, lack of courage. Playing it safe isn’t humble.” The opposite of ambition is not positive. 

Ambition is a uniquely human trait. Ambition is personal. You can not evaluate ambition without connecting it to a person or a group of people. To understand a person’s ambition, we must know the object of their ambition. To properly understand your own ambition, you must know what you care about and why you care about it. 

Recent headlines including the word ‘ambition’ teach us a few things about ambition.

Amazon has bold ambitions to take on SpaceX in the satellite internet business – CNBC 

"In many ways, it's a response and a competition to Elon Musk and SpaceX with its Starlink network," said CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz. In this story, we see two of the world's most powerful business leaders competing for the same territory. 

Tesla’s Ambitions in India Will Test Elon Musk’s Commitment to 'Free Speech' – Time Magazine

Elon Musk would be CEO of both a company seeking policy adjustments from the Indian government, as well as the owner of Twitter,” says Jessica Dheere, the director of Washington D.C.-based tech watchdog Ranking Digital Rights. “There are certainly conflicts of interest there.” – Time Magazine. We see here that a person’s ambitions can conflict with one another. We also observe that Musk may currently be the world's most ambitious person. 

How Russia’s grim demographics could thwart Putin’s global ambitions – The Washington Post 

When Putin does pay attention to demography, he obsesses over headcounts — for him, “capitas” are more important than “per capitas.” He fixates on raising birthrates and seizing neighboring territory instead of enhancing the capabilities and productivity of his entire population.” We see here, all too clearly, that ambition for power and territory leads to devaluing both human life and human flourishing.

We perceive from all three of these articles that ambition is based on how these individuals define success. Each of them – Musk, Bezos, and Putin – are well known for their ambitions and will likely be remembered in history for their ambition and whether they achieved their personal definition of success. 

Conflicting Ambition

The object of our ambition is a result of our definition of success. And, our definition of success depends on who and what we allow to inform our definition of success. God’s word defines success perfectly (Joshua 1:8). 

When it comes to ambition, those who follow the way of Jesus should have a significant advantage over the rest of the world because they know that their significance comes from God and not from their accomplishments or what people think about them. Yet, many people who follow Jesus still struggle with temporary worldly success as an object of their ambition. Jon Tyson, a pastor in New York, commented on the struggle many Christians have with ambition on the Bring It Out podcast with Ben Pilgreen, “Ambition is a fundamental good, not a fundamental threat. I’d rather be around ambitious people than being apathetic any day. While Tyson confirms that ambition is good, he goes on to say, “Christians with torn ambition are a disaster in the world.”

James, the brother of Jesus, writes to other believers about this type of torn ambition. In this letter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we see that the object of our ambition is informed by two very different types of wisdom.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. – James 3:13-18

The wisdom of the world is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. This may sound radical but this is practical for life. Today, we see examples of worldly wisdom all around us. We see this type of wisdom driving the ambition of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We see this in our workplaces every day when someone puts their own needs above others and uses people to achieve their personal selfish ambition.

When our source of wisdom is from the world, the object of our ambition will be ourselves. It may look like we are achieving great things, but if our definition of success is not from God, then the object of our ambition will be ourselves. Our ambition will be selfish.

The Wisdom from God is pure, peace loving, considerate of others’ needs, submissive to the will of God, generous with mercy to others, and produces fruit that will last. It’s this wisdom, God’s wisdom, that informs the object of a proper ambition.

Holy Ambition

When we know and believe in Jesus, our ambition participates in God’s kingdom. Tyson goes on to comment on this in the same podcast, “Christians with holy ambition have a complete and utter corporate advantage because they are willing to work hard without worldly recognition for the good of others and the glory of God …that’s an employee that anyone would want on their team.” Tyson then defines holy ambition this way: 

  1. Kingdom Vision (not personal visions) — lift your vision beyond the confines of your own life.
  2. A crystallization of discontent — a radical commitment to move beyond the status quo, that things must and will change.
  3. Radical sacrificial action — to do something very hard in order for that ambition to be fulfilled.

This is the way Jesus teaches us. My friend Mitchell Moore, a pastor in San Antonio, says, “Jesus does not condemn ambition, He redirects it.” Mitchell pointed me to the story of James and John where they had just learned how Jesus would suffer much and be killed, and then three days later would rise (Mark 10:33-34). 

Learning, for the third time, the most important news of their lives, James and John have a new object of their ambition — to reign with Jesus in heaven on His right and on His left in glory (Mark 10:37). Jesus is so kind and gracious to them. Instead of rebuking them, Jesus asks a pivotal question. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).

James and John went on to live with an unfettered ambition to make much of the name of Jesus. They died just as Jesus predicted, sacrificing their lives that others could know Jesus too (Mark 10:39). 

Ambition To Know Jesus — Become Like Jesus 

Jesus, the very glory of God, is the proper object of our ambition. When we get to know Jesus and trust Him with our lives, we can stop worrying about our future on earth and concern ourselves with God's kingdom and His will being done.

To do this, we must reorder our thought lives. Dallas Willard says, “The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.” Too many of us use this freedom to be distracted by the world. When we spend too much time setting our minds on entertainment, social media, sports, or our work, we are always left wanting more. We are never truly satisfied. 

When we spend time with Jesus by starting our day with Him in devotion, praying to Him throughout the day, gazing at His perfection, accepting that His yoke is easy and His burden is light, then we desire to make our object of ambition to be like Jesus – to want to be transformed to be like Him. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 

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