June 28, 2017:  Godly Ambition, Part 2

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I want to return to the subject of the place of ambition in our lives. In a previous blog, I wrote about earthly ambition being the nemesis of Godly anointing. The Apostle Paul warned us, “Do not act out of selfish ambition or conceit, but with humility think of others as being better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3). Earthly ambition is sinful. Any incursion into sin is going to obscure the clarity of the work of the Holy Spirit within us, the outpouring of His love, the assuredness of God’s mercy, our new identity in Jesus, our calling, and His leading and direction. All of this, and more, becomes obscured and twisted when we let selfish ambition and pride have free reign in us.

Earthly ambition can also derail Godly ambition in the oftentimes subtle guise of false modesty. Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) provides an interesting lens on this reality. In summary, a very wealthy man prepares to leave home for extended travel. Before he sets out, he entrusts three of his servants with talents (in this case, currency) with the expectation that they would invest his money wisely and provide him with a good return on investment. To the first servant he gives five talents, to the second he entrusts two and to the third servant he gives one talent. All we are told is that the master apportioned the amounts “to each according to his ability” (verse 15). While the master was gone, the first two servants call their brokers (we might imagine) and invest wisely, doubling the money. The one-talent servant, however, calls by the local hardware store, purchases a shovel, and buries the one, solitary talent in the backyard. When the master returns, he applauds and rewards the first two servants (and no doubt requests the number for their broker). He says the same to both: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (verses 21 and 23). But the one-talent servant is strongly reprimanded then removed from service.

There are several facets to this parable but let’s speculate upon the approach taken by the “less talented” servant. Why did he sideline the talent and refuse to risk investment? We are not given any specific reasons but when the master interrogates this third servant, he pleads the following in mitigation, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (verses 24-25). There is nothing in the parable to support his accusation. On the contrary, the master has shown himself to be generous in trust. What was it that caused the third servant to act in this way and make this excuse? Is it possible that his pride was wounded when he found himself to be the guardian of just one talent?

How do we respond to people around us whom we believe to be more talented than we are? Emotionally, we can feel like we are losing or we may even fear failure. We convince ourselves that to retreat from the fray is a form of Godly modesty — but, at least for me, this is, truthfully, a prideful, talent-burying fantasy. Self-pity and discouragement can be exactly the right tools to build an impressive Trojan horse within which legion pride lays in hiding.

In stark contrast, the late John Stott wrote, “Ambitions for God…if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambition for God. How can we ever be content that He [Jesus] should acquire just a little more honor in the world? No! Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honor, according to his true place. We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere.” And perhaps with the first two servants in mind, he continued, “Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work — not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God.”

So how do we pursue Godly ambition? How do we steer clear of prideful ambition or the false modesty (pride by another name) that impedes God’s Kingdom ambition in and through us?

1. Search your heart. Invite the Holy Spirit to bring to mind those thoughts, words, actions or inactions that have emanated from a place of earthly ambition so that you may see them for what they are. Ask Him to lead you in confession of pride. Pray that you might also gain His perspective on the talents He has given you, and have an awareness of His plans for you and your God-given talents. Psalm 139:3 reminds us: “You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” 

2. Recover joy. In my own life, I have come to see that joy is a useful barometer of Godly ambition. Interestingly, the first two servants were invited to “enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23b). When joy runs thin in my own labors it is likely that I am taking myself a little too seriously and not trusting in the goodness of the Master. Archbishop Justin Welby wrote, “There is a simple joy in the Lord. The work of our salvation is done — let's savor that. Life is a place of joy and celebration, tragedy and challenge — but all within the presence of God.”

3. Embrace humility. Raniero Cantalamessa points out that humility in the life and calling of a follower of Jesus is as important as insulation is to electricity. The higher the level of the current through the wire, the greater the need for thicker, more efficient insulation. Without the right insulation, there is the danger of a short circuit. The greater the calling, so follows the need for greater humility. Humility is the insulation that enables the flow of His love without short-circuiting ourselves or those around us. Cantalamessa wrote, “If we really want to be in the cyclone of the Spirit, let’s hurry to the lowest place.” Invite the Holy Spirit to cultivate humility in you.

4. Be courageous. This begins with praying for the courage to fail. Cardinal Vincent Nichols wrote, “We tend to shy away from people who have failed. This is a terrible idea. We need courageous people who have learned from their mistakes.” Pray also for the courage to be yourself. All of us should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and not on each other. Our proclivity to comparison with one another — the talents we presume that others have in comparison to our “little bundle” of talents or the secret pride we may have in believing we have a “big bundle” of talents — is a great weapon used by the enemy. This kind of comparison will always steal peace, joy and contentment. It will cloud the clarity of God’s calling in our lives.

Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Each of us is here by Divine providence. All we need is already in us. (If I were supposed to be taller, I guess He would have made me taller!)

Marianne Williamson offers this word of encouragement: “We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same...”

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