Ambition and the Kingdom of God
Since a very thought-provoking and challenging message on Sunday on the theme of “Living a Life that Matters”, I’ve been thinking about the subject of ambition.
It’s a subject I’m not all that comfortable about, either as a Brit or as a Christian, but it’s one worth exploring. There are transatlantic cultural differences involved, and the very word itself can have very different connotations depending on how it’s applied.
Americans, it seems, largely worship at the altar of ambition. The leader, the entrepreneur, the star athlete, the competitive, highly motivated person is seen as a hero, someone worth emulating. Everyone wants to be Number 1. I’ve heard countless Americans using phrases like “I’m a very driven person” without trace of embarrassment, like it’s something positive to be willing to throw anyone and anything under a bus in order to reach your goals. Even in something as simple as street numbering, Americans have to begin at 100 so there’s no mad scramble among businesses for the number 1 address. The fact that this would even be an issue would not occur to a Brit.
Brits, on the other hand, have a lot of what I’ve heard Australians call “tall poppy syndrome”. It’s the tall poppy, the one that stands out, that is the first to be mown down. Leaders, especially politicians, are targets for levels of mockery that could blister the skin of a rhinoceros, and the thing is that it’s not really considered mean-spirited; it’s just the way things are. Open ambition is something suspect, or at least immature. The overall message is “Play it safe. Be mediocre. Never shine. Hide your lamp under a bowl.”
I’m probably being a little unfair to my country, but there is a major difference between us on how we view ambition.
In JRR Tolkien’s epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is a fearsome magical device of such strength that it can rule and control all of the various other rings of power, and such innate evil that even the most stalwart of heart among the righteous dare not stretch out their hand to claim it and use it. It’s a pretty good metaphor for how I tend to view ambition.
The One Ring’s effect on the elven ruler Lady Galadriel is like a light that illuminates her alone while leaving everything else dark. To the human battlechief Boromir it is an asurance of victory in war and his own glory therein. Even the wise wizard Gandalf will not take it: the way of the Ring to his heart, he says, is the temptation of “contempt for weakness and the desire of strength to do good”.
In all of this I hear the war-drums and trumpets of selfish ambition: the thirst for power, recognition, fame, glory. Significance. A light illuminating me and leaving all else dark. Victory over darkness and my own glory therein. Fame. Position. Me.
Fame never had much of a hold on my soul, actually, but there’s a part of me that craves recognition. It comes from the very real and very positive God-given desire for significance. And I have a tendency to reject it wholesale.
Taking as his text the passage in Mark 10 in which James and John ask for the power seats in the Kingdom on Jesus’ right and left sides, our pastor made what was to me a very surprising observation: “Jesus never rebukes them for their ambition”.
“What?” all my instincts screamed. “That can’t be right. Look, obviously Jesus rebuked them, because we know ambition is wrong.”
This is circular reasoning. I start with the idea that ambition is wrong, and come right around to “prove” that ambition is wrong. Maybe I’m missing something.
It’s true that this is the incident that triggers the whole “servant leadership” teaching in which Jesus seems to invert the world’s expectations of what leadership looks like. But you’ll notice, as I did, that Jesus’ words are “If you want to be great”, not “Don’t want to be great”.
Ambition in and of itself may not be the One Ring after all.
The desire for significance is part of the original created order. God placed Adam in Eden in a very significant role: ruler and steward under God of the whole creation, husband to Eve, father of all people. He had a real job (tending the paradisal garden and naming all tha animals) that produced real results (food for himself and Eve, and “whatever Adam called the animal, that was it’s name”). He had perfect relationships, with God, with Eve, with the creation and with himself.
It’s only after the Fall that things go awry. Sin mars and breaks the relationships, leading to a loss of significance there. Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden, and Adam’s job of producing food gets a lot harder. His rulership over the creation is compromised. By the time of Noah, the animals no longer come to him but flee. By the time of Babel the felt loss of significance has become so profound that in desperation the descendents of Noah build a city with a sky-reaching tower, “to make a name for ourselves”. The contrast with Abraham, to whom God promises “I will make your name great” is stark.
Most of the wrongness I immediately associate with the idea of ambition is actually the good desire for significance gone awry in sin.
The Bible never condemns the desire for greatness anywhere I can think of. Selfish ambition, arrogance, conceit, the thirst for position and power as an end in themselves, these come in for Scriptural opprobrium. But never the desire to be great.
Here in Mark 10, what Jesus offers is a redirection of focus, not a rebuke. The way of the world is to seek significance in power, position and authority. Jesus counters with the way of the Kingdom: the last shall be first. If you want to be great in the eyes of God, become a servant.
Position and power do not have any bearing on your eternal significance. The great pharaoh of Egypt Rameses II doesn’t even get his name recorded in Scripture. Countless Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite rulers have names that only specialists now remember. The mighty Persian emperor Xerxes appears as a bit-part character in a single Bible book. The Caesar to whom Paul appealed remains unnamed by the New Testament. Meanwhile an unknown figure from a race of slaves is the central character of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, a young exile named Ruth has a whole book of Scripture named after her, the warrior king of a powerless backwater kingdom is described as “a man after God’s own heart” and a poor itinerant preacher in a conquered province is revealed as the promised Messiah King.
It’s a relatively silent but nonetheless potent commentary on God’s view of what significance looks like.
Ambition is not the One Ring, but it needs to be directed. Significance is found in relationship with God, not in fame or positions of power. The world may know your name today, but will God know it on the Last Day? The parable of the sheep and the goats implies that some of the “goats” were well-known ministries and personalities. And yet God says “who are you?”
In God’s Kingdom, the one who serves is the one who will be called great, because Jesus Himself was a servant. The greatest in the Kingdom is the one most like Jesus, “who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Sin, the true One Ring, perverts our godly desire for significance into a self-aggrandising quest for position, wealth and fame. Social climbing. The corporate ladder. Name recognition. The cult of celebrity. So-called “reality” television in which you can be famous not for doing anything but simply for being famous.
Not significance. Winning the rat race just proves you the biggest rat in the game. A light that illuminates you and leaves everything else dark does nobody any good. Glory in war as an end in itself only leads to further bloodshed in order to sustain its lustre. Even the desire for power to do good is off-track if it carries with it a contempt for what it perceives as weak.
Yet ambition itself is not condemned. Interestingly, it was Saul, not David, who ran away from the call of God to a position of power. And we all know how that turned out. Fear of ambition can lead you wrong as surely as lust for power.
My personal attitude to ambition plays out in how I approach the Biblical story of Joseph’s dreams. I always want to make Joseph wrong for sharing his dreams with his family. I’m almost right there with his brothers: “Here comes that dreamer! Let’s do him in!”. Even his father’s rebuke doesn’t seem to faze the self-centred git.
It’s not that I want Joseph dead, but clearly, he needs to be taken down a peg or two. Or three. Part of me actually seems to believe He Got What Was Coming To Him when they throw him down a well and sell him into slavery.
However, it’s equally possible (perhaps even more possible) that the reaction of Joseph’s family to his dreams was not his problem.
Scripture is silent about Joseph’s attitude when he was sharing his dreams. Portraying the young Joseph as a little narcissist filled with ego that the Lord has to squash out of him by ther process of slavery and prison actually rests not on the text but on an assumption about his character.
This is actually embarrassing considering how much I hate it when other people do that.
Admittedly, Joseph’s father does rather set him up to be the object of envy by his overt favouritism, but it’s more than a little unfair to blame Joseph for that. Let us instead consider the probability that Joseph was basically innocent in the matter.
If Joseph’s dreams were from his own imagination, we’d probably be justified in labelling him a narcissist. However, the rest of the story makes it clear that his dreams eventually come true, pointing to them being God-given prophetic dreams rather than too-much-pizza-before-bed dreams.
The dreams, in essence, are Joseph’s call of God. A younger son doted on by his daddy wouldn’t be my first choice for a leader, but God delights in choosing the unlikely. Abraham was over 80 years old when God called him to be a father. Jacob was a schemer. Gideon was a youngest son of a weakest clan when God called him to “go in the strength you have and save Israel”. David was a youngest son whose father didn’t even think worthwhile to bring in from the sheep. Jeremiah was a boy. Joseph fits right into this mould.
And like he ought, Joseph shares this felt call of God to leadership with his family. Likely this was in all humility; certainly the picture of him that emerges from the incident with Potiphar’s wife is not that of someone self-obsessed. But instead of praising God together with Joseph for the Divine call upon his life, his brothers hate him and even his doting father rebukes him.
All of a sudden it doesn’t seem fair. Which is kind of the point. Joseph’s story is all about how he comes to his eventual position of greatness through hardship and trial that were not his fault. He didn’t have it coming; he suffered unjustly every time. The punchline is “what you meant for evil God meant for good”. Joseph coming into his position at the time he did enabled not just his own family to survive the years of famine, but the great nation of Egypt, and through the influence of the Egyptian empire, the entire region.
If Joseph had fled his calling out of fear of selfish ambition, the story would be rather different, and perhaps more like that of Saul.
In the New Covenant, chosenness and calling are no longer the province of only a few. The great in God’s sight are not those who have the position and the power, but those who look like Jesus. Who, let’s remember, did not shrink from being followed by the masses any more than He shrank from the nails of the cross.
It may be time to stop being afraid of significance.