May 10, 2017: Godly Ambition vs. Earthy Ambition
I wrote in my prayer journal recently:
“I have had an epiphany: Earthly ambition is the nemesis of Godly anointing. I find that in accepting Jesus' invitation to lay down ‘my’ ambition there is a peace that floods my heart where there was none. I now discover a renewed desire to serve. To paraphrase John Gray, ‘...to serve others as if it were my last day upon this earth, and my only purpose is to squeeze the very last drop of the fragrance of Jesus from within me.’ I guess this must be Godly ambition. I pray it lasts. I like it so much better than the other variety. ‘What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.’ (Philippians 3: 8-9a).”
On reflection, perhaps this should have been more obvious to me. Earthly ambition is sinful. “Do not act out of selfish ambition or conceit, but with humility think of others as being better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) 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 and our calling. All of this, and more, becomes obscured and twisted when we let earthly ambition have free reign in us.
But what about Godly ambition? In considering this I was led back to a great theological hero of mine. The late John Stott was the longtime Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place in London and the author of over 50 books translated into 65 languages. In 2005, Time magazine named him as one of the “100 most influential people” in the world. Despite his influence and the recognition he received during his life, Stott is remembered for his humbleness and dedication in serving the Lord. Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, has said, “The greatest gifts in John’s life were not his talents, it was actually his character.” Tim Keller, commenting on John Stott’s life, believes that we should all be inspired and challenged by Stott’s Kingdom vision and zeal for God’s Kingdom. Although Stott was considered one of the greatest evangelists of his generation, he was far from satisfied with his ministerial success. Keller concludes, “Here is my point. Most of the rest of us would be very happy being told you are the best. You are the best preacher, you’re the best of this or that. But he didn’t care about that. He wanted to change the world for Christ. I looked at his motives, I looked at his labors, how he spent himself, and how he gave himself. Why wasn’t he ever satisfied? It really was not worldly ambition. He really wanted to really change the world for Christ. We should be convicted by that.”
Stott was also remarkably humble. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Wright, who considered Stott to be a mentor, has shared, “I found John to be a man of genuine humility, not just fake humility, but genuine, through and through humility. He was able to mix with what we might call the ‘rich and famous’ on one hand, or with the ‘poorest of poor’ in other parts of the world, and do so with equal integrity and simply be himself.” We know that Biblical ambition always puts others before ourselves and will make sacrifices for others. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)
I would like to give the last word to Reverend Dr. John Stott. In his book Godly Ambition, he wrote with compelling clarity:
"In the end, just as there are only two kinds of piety, the self-centered and the God-centered, so there are only two kinds of ambition: one can be ambitious for oneself or for God. There is no third alternative. Ambitions for self may be quite modest (enough to eat, to drink, and to wear, as in the Sermon [on the Mount]) or they may be grandiose (a bigger house, a faster car, a higher salary, a wider reputation, more power). But whether modest or immodest, these are ambitions for myself — my comfort, my wealth, my status, my power. Ambitions for God, however, 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 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 this kingdom and righteousness everywhere. When this is genuinely our dominant ambition, then not only will all these things…be yours as well (i.e. our material needs will be provided), but there will be no harm in having secondary ambitions, since these will be subservient to our primary ambition and not in competition with it. Indeed, it is then that secondary ambitions become healthy. 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."
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