Ambition is a slippery word.
Here is one dictionary definition: “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.”
But is such desire and drive good or bad? When someone says “She has no ambition,” that sounds bad. But when you hear “He’s full of ambition,” that too may sound bad. Is it simply a matter of moderation? Or does this thing that we can possess—or be possessed by—carry inherent moral danger?
The scriptures, after all, repeatedly warn against a certain kind of ambition:
- Do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” …But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matt 6:31-33)
- All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matt 23:2)
- Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit... (Phil 2:3)
- Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim 6:9)
On Labor Day, my wife and I took the daughter of a colleague out for brunch. She is two weeks into her freshman year at Emory. Like a surrogate parent, I just wanted to check on how she was faring, you know, with roommate and meal plan and first classes and being 500 miles from home. Just fine, it turned out. She had already successfully auditioned for the college dance team, had found a bible study, had signed up for two service programs and seemed undaunted by her pre-med courses in chemistry, calculus and biology. She was brimming with enthusiasm and, I would say, a healthy sense of ambition.
How might this ambition help or hurt her in the coming years? Will having a clear direction and goal spur her to study hard, to put in the hours and to discipline her mind? Will similar dedication carry her through the grueling years of med school and residency? Or will she become so consumed with her vocational pursuit that fellowship, friendships and service fall off? And where might she end up practicing in the first years of her career? What will that phase cost her and perhaps her family? What will make her work meaningful and satisfying?
Vice or Virtue?
Yes, ambition—especially when modified by words like “naked” or “blind”—can be a vice with deadly spiritual consequences, easily attached to idols like money and power. Yet ambition, when properly offered to God, can also be a virtue.
First, like the apostle Paul, we can make it our ambition to please the Lord, to love him wholly and live for him fully. So we strive for godliness and seek to love our neighbors and work for justice and bear witness.
Second, ambition can be an expression of our desire to make the most of all the Lord has given to us—our talents, our passions, our education, our opportunities. We want to be good stewards of our lives for the glory of God and the good of the world. So we strive for excellence and seek to offer God our best.
The poet Scott Cairns, in introducing a book of essays titled Ambition, describes ambition as bad when it is focused on small things, but declares: “Ambition for great things is itself a great thing, an honorable thing and worthy of those who are shaped in the image of God, those called to acquire his likeness.”
As student leaders (undergrad or grad) and as campus ministers, I invite you at the outset of this new academic year to fine-tune your ambitions. Filter out any ungodly static of vanity, greed, and pride, and find those clear, beautiful notes of offering your highest potential to God with energy, humility, and gratitude.