Selfish Ambition versus Divine Ambition
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
When I was a child, one of things I said I wanted to be was a doctor. Of course that sounds ambitious, until you know that it was because I share one trait with doctors: my handwriting was bad. I’m not much improved as a 35 year old, but I am certainly not a doctor. Ami and I chatted with a church member this week about ambition. They had been asking the question, what’s the difference between them and their friend whose prosperity and productivity is on display? I don’t presume to know, but I can say something about ambition in general. Ami had mentioned that ambition was actually traditionally considered a vice. In other words, worldly ambition is not good but evil. We don’t think so because we’re so American. It is virtuous in our circles to be self-sufficient, to have the know how to make ends more than meet, to be a jack of all trades. Perhaps even there has been an unspoken looking down on purely secular work. I know in Ami’s growing up time, the ideal had become that each family would have their own business. But this is all upside down and although many of the desires and principles may be from scripture, they are equally from our secular world. I didn’t grow up in the home-school world, but Pinterest thinks I am interested in the off-the-grid, live-by-yourself-by-your-own-sustenance world that is very similar to the homeschool world but without God. I mean, why do you think I garden and have solar panels? ;)
And I wonder if this is how we can have the exact opposite problem: our youth launching very slowly. I’m not picking on any one person or family here, but a general theme not just in our church but the world around us. Could this in part be a reaction to the crazy ambition that has been virtue signaled? Could it be a fear of failing to meet the standard of uber-performance that is expected? Twenty years ago everyone was going to be an astronaut or the president and now there are classmates of mine growing up who still today have struggled to become adults. I feel like I remember my sister being dissatisfied with all the guys in her grade at church: they were working and spending their money and having a good ol’ time. But their ambition was misplaced. I’m sure some of these guys have continued to grow up (they’re now over 30), just like us all.
In the university setting you have another, weirder ambition. Excelsior! Higher up! Aren’t you going to do a Master’s degree after your Bachelor’s? And why not a Ph.D. after your Master’s? I can tell you for certain that many of the guys coming out of the Ph.D. program at Southern Seminary are not the most qualified or academically astute. They are the most ambitious. I think some people expected me to get a Ph.D. because I’m a language nerd. Maybe someday, but it was almost an expectation of necessity.
So if selfish ambition is a problem, what is the answer? I would suggest that we have to begin in a different place. The problem is, ambition for what? When it is an ambition to fulfill our selfishness, it is wrong. Ami has written a song on each of the verses mentioned above. She’s just now singing them as I write this, how fitting! In Psalm 27, the psalmist points us in a better direction: a holy ambition. ‘One thing I ask, that I will seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.’ Instead of us doing something, being productive, making much of ourselves, the psalmist’s main thing is to be, to be in the presence of God, to gaze at his beauty. Our ambition problem shows itself in a lack of understanding of true beauty. Our ambition problem lies fundamentally at our inability to sit at the feet of Jesus and know him. The millennial generation’s mantra had been something like, ‘Saving the world.’ Big corporations began donating money to charity and advertising it. Greta Thunberg is famous for doing something about climate change. Our world is awash in doing, saving, changing, and the flips side of it is disillusionment. There is no time for sitting, meditating on scripture, knowing the glory of Christ in the gospel. I just read the Magnificat this morning, and one way to describe it is an exuberant, joyful overflow of thanksgiving to God for the gospel of his salvation. And Mary just muses on the whole of the Old Testament. It isn’t just Hannah’s song, the Magnificat has been dragged through the paint of the whole of the scriptural witness. Mary, knowing what God had promised, sang an exuberant song, and she did this in part because she had sat meditating on the scriptures and knowing her God, and knowing the promises to be fulfilled.
Perhaps one of the most terrible things about plain old ambition is that it almost always makes us neglect those closest to us. I’ve known more than a few whose hearts were set on pastoring or on overseas missions, but their house was hiddenly a mess. At seminary, the ambition with which some men pursued their education resulted in broken families and lost faith. Even the simple ambition we call the pursuit of pleasure makes us neglect those in our own households and the household of God. And in general, ambition sits in anxious striving and tension with an enduring Christian life where we are called to sit under the proclamation of the word, love others sacrificially, work in my hum-drum job or as a forgotten homemaker as if I’m serving my Lord Christ, and generally sit and tend to the garden we have been given.
But is there joy to be found in this Christian life? Getting a new toy? Eating at a new restaurant? Making our home a Model Home? Traveling the world? None of these things is bad of itself, but often they betray a wandering heart. We must regularly recalibrate and work to cultivate our joy in what is most meaningful and valuable. To gaze at the beauty of our Lord, and then I think what we do have, things we do accomplish, we view them not as the thing which I have gotten, but as the good gift given me by God. Every good and perfect gift if from the Father of lights. A holy ambition is one whose one desire is knowing God, and then which receives all things as a gift from that God, and even then overflows to bless others. And it is from this order that everything falls into place. We then work six days a week, since it is a gift of God, and we rest on the seventh. We gather on Sundays to worship our God, and we also work to meditate on his word throughout the week. We sit in his temple and gaze at his beauty. ‘Oh, may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise.’