Ambition’s evil cousins

One of my favorite topics to blog on is ambition. It’s so misunderstood among Christians today, and when the topic is misunderstood, it’s either avoided or piously denied. When the topic is avoided, it doesn’t go away; it goes underground. When it goes underground, it becomes weaponized.

Martin Luther once said, “If you’re going to sin, sin boldly.” That’s not how most churches and Christian organizations operate today. His point was that overt sin is better because it comes to light quickly and can be covered by grace. In contrast, western Christianity has been boiled down to Niceness and the appearance of godliness. The result is that sins have a caste system: there’s no room for overt sins while covert sins are tolerated.

A friend who reads this blog referred me to Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey. As I enjoyed Harvey’s marriage book, When Sinners Say I Do, I figured correctly that I’d enjoy this one. Harvey did his research. He really unpacks the roots of ambition and what the Bible has to say about it. Harvey says ambition is hardwired into all of us. At its heart, ambition is a quest for glory. The question is whether we will pursue God’s glory or corrupt it in the pursuit of our own glory.

Harvey refers us to James 3:13-17, where the early leader of the church in Jerusalem talks about the results of ambition going bad. I’ve always categorized this passage under “wisdom” and therefore missed the important message it makes about perverted ambition.

13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

Harvey says the word for “selfish ambition” refers to demeaning yourself for gain, like a politician or prostitute. He suggests the word picture that this kind of ambition shrinks our souls.

Let’s look at some of ambition’s cousins. Three times James pairs selfish ambition with jealousy. Why? Because the pursuit of your own glory will always find others to be a threat. Boasting and lying are likewise a pair of troublemakers, usually required for inflating your own sense of importance and glory. Then along come disorder and evil of every kind. Do you see the progression? It’s like a mud slide. Ambition doesn’t always start selfishly, and no one seeks disorder and evil. But when ambition is corrupted, eventually all kinds of evil join it as it slides.

Likewise, hidden ambition leads to nasty sins like false humility, gossip and slander. These sins are far too common in church and Christian organizations today. Somehow they’re tolerated. So I enjoyed hearing Dave Ramsey a few years ago share about how he runs his company. The first incident of gossip goes in your record. The second one means termination. The result is a very healthy organizational culture.

James doesn’t pull punches: “Such things are earthly.” They have no place in God’s kingdom. “Such things are unspiritual.” They have no place in church or Christian organizations. “Such things are demonic.” Their root is in the one who is seeking to destroy us.

When WHY and HOW get together

I want to look at two more partnerships where one leader clearly eclipsed the other, but couldn’t have been successful without the other guy. In both cases, one had the clear ability to originate vision but didn’t have the ability to make it happen without his older brother.

The spokesman

In the third and fourth chapters of Exodus, when God appeared to Moses to tell him that “I have seen” the oppression of Israel and “I have come down to rescue them,” Moses prepared to watch the fireworks. But he didn’t like God’s conclusion: “Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt.” Nice twist at the end. Total set up.

Moses reacted badly. He argued for an entire chapter before closing with his speech impediment and begging God to send someone else. But God didn’t relent, instead pairing him with his brother Aaron as his mouthpiece. “You will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.” As Moses whispered the WHY in his ear, Aaron spent the next 16 chapters making the public speeches. Eventually, Moses appears to have gathered the courage to make the speeches himself, but the partnership was cemented by that point. Moses became CEO and judge while his brother became high priest, together leading the people through 40 years of preparation for getting their own land. Moses gets the credit, but clearly wouldn’t have had the confidence if he hadn’t had a confidante working shoulder to shoulder with him.

The older Disney

“If it hadn’t been for my big brother, I’d have been in jail several times for checks bouncing,” Walt Disney said in 1957. Roy was a banker, eight years older than Walt but in awe of Walt’s talent and imagination. He quit his job to follow Walt’s WHY, because he knew someone needed to guard against Walt’s tendency toward risk and neglecting business affairs. As one biographer put it, “Walt Disney dreamed, drew and imagined. Roy stayed in the shadow, forming an empire.” While Walt created Mickey Mouse, Roy started the distribution company and the merchandising business that made him so widely loved.

After recounting this powerful Disney collaboration in Start with Why, Simon Sinek concludes:

In nearly every case of a person or an organization that has gone on to inspire people and do great things, there exists this special partnership between WHY and HOW.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Herb Kelleher and Rollin King. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who would follow up King’s inspiring speeches with the line, “let me tell you what that means for tomorrow morning.” So, let’s hear it for the HOW guy. WHY guys would be nothing without them.