I’ve been wondering about ambition lately. Could be because I’m entering midlife and re-evaluating myself, my vocational trajectory, and my discipleship. Anyway, I’m haunted by a saying I once heard: “I got to the top of the ladder and realized it was leaning against the wrong wall.” Have you ever felt that way?
I worry that sometimes we can pursue a prescribed path for our lives, live out a script that society or our family or someone else hands to us, which we assume is the right way to go…only one day to wake up and discover that, in fact, it had little resonance with God or even with our deepest wirings.
It’s so easy in Christian circles to sprinkle some Christianese into this discussion and talk about having high impact for the kingdom, seeking God’s glory, trying to be at the center of God’s will, etc—all good things if they’re genuine…but what if they’re more show than substance? What if they’re simply our ambition (or even our pride) shellacked with pseudo-spirituality? Am I being too harsh?
What if the gospel calls us to obscurity? Or even to what others might perceive as mediocrity? Is bigger (as in salary, congregations, etc) really better? Could there ever be a downward mobility to following Jesus?
I’m also haunted by what I’ve sometimes observed in those who excel—whether reaching the top rung in professional sports, business, entrepreneurship, entertainment, even church leadership—their paths seem too often littered with the debris of broken relationships, compromised integrity, and neglect. Am I over-generalizing? What does excelling really look like? Can we really excel when we neglect the things that make for personal integrity—nurturing a marriage, raising children, being a good neighbor, getting involved in the community?
I worry that sometimes in church circles (and among pastors, especially), we can bring in worldly ambition, dress it up in church clothes and call it zeal for God and his Kingdom. When, truth be told, what’s really going on is nothing more than the natural impulses of the flesh, which in any other profession or social circle would be named for what it is: ambition. Am I grinding an axe? Did my dinner disagree with me? What do you think?
Here's what I think (and it is definitely tainted by my long career in corporate America, where peer pressure and "the system" drive everyone to excel): Obviously, the power of God and His plan for one's life is the highest influence on what one does in the way of "ambition". One's personality (God's creation, after all) and one's upbringing play such a critical role in what drives each of us. In my case, I always tried to find that delicate balance between agressive ambition and "quality of life" considerations. Living in California for most of my career, where distractions abound, made it easire to find ways to temper my career aspirations to a desirable level. I have found it fascinating to get to know you in particular, and others on the FPC staff to a lesser degree, well enough to see the classic Career Issues be a definite and visible part of God's calling for each of you. I admire the way that you have handled all of this and the manner in which you have partnered with Jesus to strike the right balance.
so, carl, what ~did~ you have for dinner?
i've always been fascinated by this verse:
"By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds." 1 cor 3:10.
i like how, in the same breath, paul understands his identity as an "expert builder" as well as his identity as a another brick in the wall. (clearly, paul listened to floyd). and i like how our human achievement is rooted in a greater context.
to me, this is a verse of reality and perspective. (verses 8 & 9 before that are good, too) paul acknowledges, unashamedly, identity as an expert builder. this is not the only place paul exploits his unique personal characteristics, and if you read carefully, he talks about using his status to pull strings in various places. so we know paul was ambitious, and we also know paul achieved (both as saul, ~and~ paul).
but there is another side of this passage, one that puts human ambition and achievement in perspective: it is juiced by grace. lest you proclaim, "i did it!" it is a reminder as to what this is all about.
finally, an exhortation. be careful. i read this essentially as philippians 2:12.: "work out your salvation with fear and trembling." paul isn't saying live like scaredy-cats, he's saying, "this is important; this is for keeps." we are supposed to be full with care about what we are building.
on to practical ramifications and your mid-life crisis... i think these are really great questions for anyone to ask as they make their choices. and i have noticed a peculiar correlation of my friends in their 40s going through serious self-examination.
i think a lot of your questions are relative. "what if the gospel call us to obscurity?" i'm assuming you're using a personal "us", because clearly god has used many unwitting heroes in a rather unobscure fashion. at the same time there are thousands of unsung obscure heroes we have never heard of. i have sometimes fantasized about "disappearing into service." but i think that while perhaps simplifying the equation of ordering my life, it would invalidate a lot of good things. so for me, it wouldn't work. for you, maybe it's different. same for the mediocrity thing.
but bigger is not necessarily better, and certainly downward mobility is totally valid.
i really do get back to the perspective component of this passage. in my mind, just the fact that you're asking the right questions, tells me that you are doing the work of maintaining perspective and careful building.
it would not be a bad thing to relax and delight as one of paul's co-workers; naming your identity, and living it out for a greater glory.
Steve and John,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I guess what I'm making in this entry is a plea for honesty and self-awareness. Too often, we Christians make shortcuts in discernment, assuming prescribed paths or baptizing raw ambition with spiritual jargon, calling it all "God's will" (when, in fact, it looks suspiciously similar to other inclinations!). I like your 1Cor 3:10 reference, John, not only because I've recently taught on it, but because Paul is so strongly questioning the worldly leanings of the Corinthians in that whole section. Today's passage, Ch. 4, will heighten his paradoxical call, fulfilling God's intent for his life, while appearing down and out (see 4:9-13).
And Steve, your enjoyment of things outside your job most certainly tempered what could've otherwise been a singleminded (and unhealthy?) focus. However, I might gently push back on the statement that our personalities are "God's creation"--yes and no--God's creation in and of us often is distorted by human sin, both ours and others, not to mention other distorting, environmental emphases, all of which can give rise to unhealthy ambition.
I'm thinking back to an old entry called "Blind Spots", I guess...
Good to hear from you both--what thoughtful guys!
Was it Cromwell who said that ambition was a bad master but a good servant? I like that.
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