The Seduction of Ambition
by Lance Witt
Ambition is a double-edged sword. When it is God-directed and Spirit-managed, it can bear tremendous fruit. When it is restrained by humility, ambition can be a powerful motivator. But when it is hijacked by self and ego, it can leave a wake of destruction in its path.
I have wrestled with this issue for most of my life. If you have leadership gifts, you know what it is to be captivated by vision. You know what it is to have dreams of what “could be.” You know what it is to want to do something significant with your life. Here is where it gets sticky.
Is that drive and desire and motivation about me or about God and his purposes? If we are honest, we have to admit that our hearts are entangled with God-motives and self-motives. Sorting them out is complex. A discussion of motives and ambition takes us to a place in our soul that is hidden from everyone. Part of what makes ambition so dangerous is that it resides in the unseen world of the soul.
There is a creative tension that God wired into every one of us. On the one hand, we have what the ancients used to refer to as a “fire in the belly.” This is where vision comes from. This is where the longing to make a difference with your life comes from. And this is where ambition comes from. In recent years in the church, we have been pouring lots of gasoline on the fires of ambition.
At the same time, God hardwired us with a need to be humble and dependent on him. This is more about being than doing, and more about abiding than accomplishing.
A healthy soul keeps us both energized and glued together. It seems to me that we are reaping the results of a generation in the church that has been too much about ambition. And the outcome has been a spike in leaders who are coming “unglued.” I have a growing conviction that it is dangerous to equip young leaders with vision, leadership, strategy, and church growth principles without equipping them to have healthy souls.
Challenges of self-deception
One of the challenges with selfish ambition is that we usually don’t see it in ourselves. Either because of denial or self-deception, we are usually the last person to see the unhealthy ambition that has taken root.
In their book Deadly Viper, Mike Foster and Jude Wilhite observe, “The odd thing about the High and Mighty Assassin is that everyone else knows you’ve been clobbered by it, but you.” Long before it becomes apparent to us, it is seen clearly by others.
We have an amazing ability to self deceive. In The Seeking Heart, Fenelon says our self-interest hides in a million clever disguises. Thomas Kelly says it even more colorfully, “O how slick and weasel-like is self-pride” (A Testament of Devotion).
When you’ve been in ministry leadership for awhile, you learn how to cloak ambition in kingdom language. You can wrap it in God-talk and sanctify it. This is one reason why it is so important to build solitude into your life. At least for me, it is in those times of listening and quiet when God turns the spotlight of the Holy Spirit onto my ambition. But if I am moving at an insane pace and there is no room in my life for quiet, I will miss the voice of God. And, I will continue on a path of self-deception.
The perfect storm
Recently the fires in Southern California came dangerously close to our house. As the fires rapidly advanced over the hilltops toward our neighborhood, every effort was made to create a fire break. Every piece of dry brush was moved away from homes that backed up to the wilderness area. Helicopters were in the air around the clock dumping huge buckets of water around the perimeter. Our neighborhood was spared.
On the local news, our area fires were referred to as the “perfect storm of fires.” There was the convergence of three dangerous conditions: extended drought, excessive heat, and strong Santa Ana winds. The convergence of these conditions created the perfect environment for hundreds of explosive fires in the area.
In ministry leadership, the perfect storm for a personal disaster is also the convergence of three elements: ambition, isolation, and self-deception.
We desperately need to stare this in the face. As Fenelon said, “You ask for a cure to get well. You do not need to be cured, but killed.” When it comes to the danger of ambition, it doesn’t need to be cured, it needs to be killed.
We need to start asking ourselves some hard and penetrating questions. Why am I so driven? Why do I keep pushing so hard? Am I obsessed with success? Do I have God’s measuring stick for success? Do I have a utilitarian view of people? Have my family and team sometimes been the victim of my ambition?
Practical help for leaders
So, how do you start to turn the corner? How do you begin to move away from ambition and toward humility?
The starting place is to have an accurate understanding of humility. Humility is not being down on yourself. It is not self-ridicule. I like Andrew Murray’s definition: “It is the displacement of self by the enthronement of God. Where God is all, self is nothing.”
Let’s get practical and tactical. Here are some tangible steps you can take in your ministry leadership role.
Make much of Jesus. Speak of him often. Let there be no doubt that Jesus is the most famous person in your ministry. As you share vision, always point people back to Jesus. Remind yourself and your team that your vision is to bring glory to Jesus. As John the Baptist said,“He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less” John 3:30 (NLT).
Remind yourself that the church is not “your” church and the ministry you serve is not “your” ministry.
We are shepherds and stewards, but Jesus is the owner. He paid for it with his own blood.
Work hard at praising others and not yourself.
The challenge from Solomon in Proverbs 27:2 (NLT) is very direct and straightforward: “Don’t praise yourself; let others do it!”
Bless and uplift a pastor or ministry leader on a more difficult assignment. One of the best ways to remove the spirit of competition is to genuinely, authentically bless another ministry. Do something that expresses “over the top” extravagant love.
Be more interested in others and less interested in yourself.
Ask people questions about their lives. Get someone to tell you their story.
Stay in touch with grace.
I hope you never get over that God loves you and saved you and adopted you into his family. Rewind. Let that soak in for a moment. The eternal God and creator chose you and he chose me. When grace invades my life, I put less focus on building “my thing” and start serving out of gratitude.
Enlist an ambition patrol. Ask a couple people you trust to help you. When they see hints of posturing or self-promotion, don’t just give them permission to come to you, insist that they come to you. By helping you see blind spots they will help you be a more godly leader and potentially avert a train wreck in your life.