Sunday, October 21, 2012


Ambition. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have ambition? Ambition is a desire for personal achievement. What can be bad about that?

According to the dictionary, ambition is an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power. It could be a desire to achieve a goal for yourself. Like you want to become a college graduate, or a homeowner, or the President of the United States. What could be bad about that?

Ambition can also be defined as a desire for activity. When we say that someone has no ambition, it’s not a good thing. It’s the sort of thing we say when our grown kid moves back in with us and they spend all day lying around on the couch watching T.V. No, a lack of ambition is not good. Every parent wants an ambitious child: the kind of kid who has a fire lit underneath them, a go-getter, someone with dreams and aspirations. I mean, really, what could be bad about that?

Through the years, great thinkers have had a lot to say about ambition. Sigmund Freud once said that “the psychoanalysis of neurotics has taught us to recognize the intimate connection between wetting the bed and the character trait of ambition.” I guess Freud would conclude that ambition is a bad thing.

The tennis star Venus Williams quipped, “My ambition is to enjoy my life and to do exactly what I want to do. And I'll do that. I will be free.” That sounds like a good thing and it seems to have worked for her.

According to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied.” Um. That doesn’t sound so good.

And the spiritual giant, Thomas Merton, stated his opinion on ambition quite succinctly: “When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Like Longfellow, he equates ambition with a state of never being content, always longing for more. And when you put it that way, if nothing is ever enough, maybe ambition isn’t all that helpful to us in our quest for an abundant life. Of course, if there is a quest for the abundant life, you’d have to say that ambition is somehow involved.

Oy! Are you as confused as I am? Maybe the best we can say is that ambition is neither good nor bad. And it can sometimes be good, like when it gets you up off the couch. Or it can sometimes be bad, like when you’ll do anything (lie, cheat or steal) to get what you want.

When we’re raised in a culture like ours, one that’s very achievement-oriented, other people admire us when we’re ambitious. So when someone challenges us about it, it can be quite a slap in the face. We’re supposed to be praised for our ambition, not criticized for it, right? Well, despite that, I think we all know that there are some ambitions that we would be better off keeping to ourselves. Our ambitions can’t be too grand or other people will figure we must think too highly of ourselves. We don’t dare voice them out loud.

And that’s where James and John got into trouble. They had a grandiose ambition that they dared to voice out loud. Actually, it went further than that. They not only wanted something that was grande, but they also had the cojones to ask Jesus to do it for them. They come to Jesus and they ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Can you imagine? Well, instead of saying, “Are you crazy?!” Jesus plays along, and he comes back with, “Okay, so what is you want?” And here’s what they say: “We want to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Seriously? Is that all!?

Jesus must be ready to pull his hair out here. Not because James and John think they’re so special. And not because their ambition is so over-the-top. But because he just finished telling his disciples that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Jesus lays it all out for them. For the third time! And this is how James and John respond?

(Of course the other disciples are outraged as well. Probably because they wanted the choice spots when Jesus came into power for themselves and here James and John are calling first dibs.)

Were they really that dense? Was it selective hearing? How could Jesus tell them what was waiting for him, repeatedly, and have his disciples so completely miss what he was saying? Did they have no clue about what was happening around them? Did they not understand Jesus at all?

But they were just being ambitious, weren’t they? Is there something wrong with that? Well, in this case, it meant that they didn’t get who Jesus was. It meant they were missing out because they were stuck in a world where people aspire to be among the rich and powerful and Jesus was inviting them to something more. Jesus was inviting them to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

Their ambition was misplaced. Before they could really understand what Jesus had been trying to teach them, they had to see it. His greatest lesson of all would come to them when he hung on a cross, flanked on his right hand and his left hand -- by two thieves. Then they would get it. Finally, their ambition would become to live and die like the one who came not to be served, but to serve.

Michael W. Smith wrote a song about this called, “Secret Ambition.”

Young man up on the hillside
Teaching new ways
Each word winning them over
Each heart a kindled flame
Old men watch from the outside
Guarding their prey
Threatened by the voice of the paragon
Leading their lambs away
Leading them far away

Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the Holy Veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
(But) Nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away


Bill Bolen said...

Oh what a beautiful ending! Our Bible Study group worked on the "Workers in the Vineyard" in Matthew last night. And the last shall be first.
Thanks for sharing this - making my day!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday !