In yesterday’s post we saw that Jesus abandoned self-preservation and the pursuit of power in His descent to the cross. We heard His call to lose our lives for His sake and the sake of the gospel. How, then, are Christians supposed to cope with ambition? The Bible acknowledges the dangers of ambition right from the beginning of its account of human existence. The narrative of Genesis contains a powerful contrast between the tower-builders of Babel, who wanted to make a name for themselves (11:4), and Abraham, who, while abandoning comfort and civilisation in obedience to God, receives God’s promise to make his name great (12:2). The difference is that the builders were driven by a desire for self-protection and self-promotion (“otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”), whereas God’s intention in making Abraham’s name great was to bring truth, hope and salvation to others through him (“I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing”).
Abraham was blessed to be a blessing, but obedience to God led him initially into a place where there seemed to be no possibility of influence over others. I mean, seriously, to leave Ur (one of the most developed city states of the time) to wander in the desert vaguely in the direction of some backwater (Canaan)? In fact, Abraham never lived to see much of the fulfilment of God’s promises to him. He was told that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, the sand and the dust, but he only saw two sons and one of those (Ishmael) was driven away by his jealous wife, Sarah. He was told he would possess the land, but he only owned enough land for a burial ground. He was told he would bring blessing to many nations, but he saw the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and was fearful of the king of Egypt. Abraham’s faith was not grounded in any successes he experienced, but in the goodness and faithfulness of the God He trusted. He did not receive what had been promised – he simply longed for God’s heavenly country (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Babel versus Abraham suggests our first principle for dealing with ambition: seek God’s glory, not your own. Rather than being concerned to make a name for yourself, make it your ambition to be used to increase the fame of Jesus. Prayerfully commit your heart to God and surrender your life to Him as a living sacrifice. There is a tension here, of course. Like Abraham, God may want your name to become known so that others may be blessed – if you have a message worth sharing (in a sermon, a book or a blog?) or a vision worth realising, the more people who come under your influence, the better. The issue is at the level of motives – why do you want to be known? For God’s glory or your own? As fallen human beings, I’m not sure that our motivations are ever entirely pure, so the best you can do is to take whatever opportunities present themselves, without forcing the way (trust that God will provide the opportunities and you don’t need to engage in self-promotion). As you do so, keep praying for grace to obey even when, like Abraham, obedience takes you away from comfort and the apparent centre of civilisation.
I will continue to explore biblical insights into coping with ambition in posts on the next two days.