By Michael Kelley
I haven’t always had a good relationship with ambition. At times, I have been (probably rightly) accused of being devoid of ambition, which honestly, I took as a compliment. In my mind, the lack of ambition was equated with contentment. But I no longer believe that there’s a one to one correlation between the two. That is to say, lack of ambition doesn’t necessarily mean you are content; and being content doesn’t mean that you aren’t ambitious.
Ambition is the strong desire to do something or achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. Nothing wrong there; ambition, like so many other things, is neither good or bad. It is simply a desire that can either be redeemed or corrupted. Like most anything else involving desire – sex, power, eating – the question becomes how that desire is fulfilled. That fulfillment, though, is where things get complicated.
Most of the time, we don’t know until it’s too late that we have begun to seek fulfillment in something else other than God. We slip into a pattern of thinking and behavior, unbeknownst to us, and then wake up one day and realize that our eating or our desire for sex or our ambition or our whatever has taken the place of God. We drift, and because the drift is gradual, we don’t even realize it’s happening until we are a long way from shore.
Given that tendency to drift, and given that along with ambition in particular often come other things like money, fame, and power, I think there’s a helpful checkpoint we can use to ask ourselves about the health of our ambition. It’s a gauge – something that can give us a reading of our ever deceptive hearts and help us know whether that drift has started to occur. The checkpoint for ambition is in the way we relate to other people.
Take a look at those around you. Look particularly at those who are better, more successful, and more recognized at doing the thing you are ambitiously striving to do. How do you feel about them? Are you happy for them? Are you encouraged by them? Or does their apparent success and ease at accomplishment make you frustrated and angry? There’s your check.
The minute we stop being happy for the successes and victories of others, especially when those successes and victories come in an area of life in which we are ambitious, we know there’s a problem brewing if not already boiling. When you look at the person who makes more money than you do in your field, though they do so honestly and morally, and you wish them to have failure, there’s a problem. When you look at the person who has their home better organized and their children more respectful and you are resentful, there’s a problem. When you look at the one who has more people reading their blog because, frankly, theirs is better then yours (man, this is a little personal now), you’ve got a problem.
It’s not a “them” problem; it’s a “you” problem.
The Bible tells us over and over again that the way we treat others is a reflection of what’s going on inside us:
- Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children. And walk in love… (Eph. 5:1)
- If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. (1 Jn. 4:20)
- If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? (Js. 2:15-16)
See the dynamic? Our treatment of others gives us a window into our hearts. In the case of ambition, our joy with and love for those who are successful shows us whether or not our ambition is godly or whether it’s misplaced.
So what are you striving for today? What are you working hard at? Where is your ambition? If you want to know whether or not that ambition is healthy, don’t just examine your heart; look to your treatment of other people. It’ll show you.
Michael Kelley is the Director of Groups Ministry at Lifeway and author of Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life.