Humble Ambition?

I admit, it is hard to put the words humble and ambition together. Don’t these terms seem so polar, so different, even contradictory?

If you read from Church history, you will notice that rarely is a distinction made between holy ambition and selfish ambition. Usually the term ambition is simply flattened out and used synonymously for sinful pride.

Yet humble ambition is a legitimate phrase in the wisdom of God, which is made evident in Dave Harvey’s recent book Rescuing Ambition (a book I highly recommend). And just yesterday, while finishing up some random reading that piled up on my desk and needed to be processed before I travel to Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised to find the theme of humble ambition emerge in the old article by DTS professor William D. Lawrence, “Distinctives of Christian Leadership,” published in BibSac 144 (1987). The following section, which is a little lengthy but worth posting (and reading) in full, comes from pages 323-25. Here Dr. Lawrence provides us with a biblical example of how selfish ambition is molded into humble ambition in Jesus’ interaction with his disciples in Mark 10. Read it for yourself here (bold is mine):

Few characteristics generate more reaction among Christians than ambition. This is because many people think of ambition as a self-centered seeking for more power and authority. There is no place for this attitude in any kind of leadership, least of all in Christian leadership.

But ambition is a desirable attribute when understood and exercised properly, though many miss the proper perspective of ambition and equate all expressions of it with ego and arrogance. Ambition is essential in a leader for it provides the drive and the desire necessary to carry the burdens and responsibilities of leadership; ambition is the fuel of leadership. There is no problem with ambition in itself; the problem with ambition lies in its aim, not in its strength and its presence, as Mark 10:35–45 makes clear.

This passage shows ambition at its worst and its best. In James, John, and the other disciples, all of whom sought the highest position for themselves, ambition is seen as self-centered, competitive, assertive, thoughtless, arrogant, proud, and blind (Mark 10:35–39, 41). Their ambitious request was foolish because they did not know what was involved in it. They spoke in ignorance. Nothing could be uglier than the attitudes found here.

But nothing could be more surprising than Christ’s response to these attitudes; He did not attack them for being ambitious, nor did He reject them for having drive and desire. Instead He redefined ambition and turned it into service for others without taking away any of its drive for achievement.

Ambition is transformed into a humility directed toward serving others rather than a proud serving of self. Ambition is redefined from self-service to self-sacrifice (Mark 10:43–45), and included in this is instruction in how to be first. It is accomplished through the holy ambition of slavery in accord with the model of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He demonstrated ambition at its best as the One who willingly sacrificed Himself for the sake of others.

Christian ambition, then, is the burning, even driving, desire to make a name for Christ, not self, which results in a constructive rather than destructive impact. In contrast to Christian ambition is the ambition of James 3:14, the selfish ambition that is earthly, fleshly, and devilish. There is no place for such ambition in spiritual leadership, but there must be a place for proper ambition in Christian leadership or there will be no leadership. The key to determining whether the ambition being expressed is Christian or not lies in the answer to the question raised by Fred Smith when he states, “We must ask, What is my purpose? Am I satisfying my ego through this ministry or sacrificing my ego to it?”

Christian ambition must be understood as the redirection of aim, not the denial of desire. Proper ambition is not the loss of ego (this will never happen until the believer at death or the rapture is ultimately separated from the flesh), but ego redirected according to God’s purpose. Biblical ambition is not the lack of ego (again this will only occur when the believer is separated from the flesh through physical death or the rapture), but ego under the control of God’s Spirit. Proper ambition is not the love of ego, but ego redeemed and used as God’s redeeming force. Though “ego” is a negative concept, Paul’s distinction in Romans 7:18 must be remembered: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Only the flesh part of “me” is negative; there is a positive side about “me” (Christ living in me, Gal 2:20), which is the product of the grace of God.

There is no place for the self-seeking ambition of those who reach for positions of honor on the right and the left of the Savior in Christian leadership. But there is no Christian leadership without the self-sacrificing ambition of those who follow the Savior in reaching for the redemption of others at great cost to themselves.

The fact that there can be no leadership without ambition is obvious from the Lord’s choice of disciples. He chose only men who had the raw material of ambition and rivalry because no other kind of men could accomplish His task. But He refined that raw ambition and rivalry into holy ambition and humility.

Christian leadership must be marked by ambition: redeemed, redirected, self-sacrificing ambition, but ambition nonetheless. Without it, no leadership will occur.

Rescuing Ambition

One of the most important books published in 2010 is Dave Harvey’s Rescuing Ambition (Crossway). But rather than tell you about it, I’ll let Dave explain the purpose behind the book through six short Q&A video clips. Watch the clips, meet Dave, get motivated, then go find a copy.

Q: “Why did you write ‘Rescuing Ambition?'”

Q: “Why is ambition important?”

Q: “What happens when ambition is lost?”

Q: “How do we fight selfish ambition?”

Q: “What’s the relationship between ambition and contentment?”

Q: “What part of this message would you share with your son on his graduation day?”