Ambition can be godly

Reading through the Letter of James, I came to the passage where James denounces “selfish ambition” (James 3.14, 16 NRSV).  I checked the underlying Greek word (eritheia) in the standard Greek-English New Testament Lexicon by Arndt & Gingrich and discovered that it was used by Aristotle to denote “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means”.  On this basis Sophie Laws defined ambition as an “unscrupulous determination to gain one’s own ends” (A Commentary on the Epistle of James 160).

The same Greek word is also found in Paul’s introduction to the great Christ-hymn in Phil 2.3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition (eritheia) or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”.  Walter Hansen noted the link between ambition and conceit and suggested that it is “selfish ambition” which drives a person to “vain conceit” – literally ‘empty glory’ (The Letter to the Philippians 114).

But does ambition necessarily have to be selfish?  So much depends on our definition of ‘ambition’.  It must be admitted that our English word has an unsavoury history.  It comes from the Roman practice of going round town canvassing votes, and is derived from the Latin word ambire, to ‘go around’. This touting aspect of ambition of ambition is far from pleasing. It smells of the political cesspit.  Hence Jonathan Swift said: “Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices: so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping”.

However, a word’s origin does not necessarily determine its present meaning.  Joseph Epstein in his 1980 monumental tome, Ambition, concluded with these words:

“We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die, nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: courageously or in cowardice, honourably or dishonourably, with purpose or in drift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide, we choose, and as we decide and choose so our lives arte formed. In the end, forming our own destiny is what ambition is about.”

Here ambition is linked with self-realisation.  Some might say that it is self-centred – but to my mind it is not ‘selfish’.  Ambition here is simply what the Oxford On-Line Dictionary terms “the desire and determination to be successful”. The same dictionary offers another definition: viz. “a strong desire to do or achieve something”.  In that latter sense of ambition, I am happy to plead guilty.  Throughout my ministry my two chief aims were, on the one hand, to win people for Jesus Christ and his church; and on the other hand, to enable the church to be the church.  There is surely nothing selfish about such ambition.  Indeed, for church leaders not to have ambition is surely a dereliction of their God-given calling. I believe that Rick Warren was right to entitle his blog post of January 29, 2014, ‘Every leader needs a God-sized ambition’.  Warren went on:

“Many leaders never achieve the influence they could potentially have because they drift through life on autopilot, maintaining the status quo, without a big ambition. They have no master plan, no big purpose, no dreams pulling them along.”

Warren went on to highlight three misconceptions that keep pastors from having a great ambition in life:  a confusion of humility with fear; a confusion of contentment with laziness; and a confusion of little thinking with spirituality.

Alas too many pastors have no dreams – they have no passions – and so they have no ambition.  Not surprisingly their churches make little difference to the world around them. The Apostle Paul, by contrast, was a man with great ambition.  “I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation” (Rom 15.20 NRSV).  Significantly the same word translated in Rom 15.20 (so GNB, NIV, NRSV – as also Arndt & Gingrich) as ‘ambition’ (philotimeo) is used by Paul in 2 Cor 5.9, where he says that in the light of the fact we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, “we make it our aim to please him” (NRSV).  On the basis of these two verses we may surely say that to be without ambition is to displease our Lord.  Ambition is not always selfish:  ambition can be godly!

One comment

  1. Thanks Paul. A very important point. Language can change over time and our application of Scripture benefits from our appropriate response to this.

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