Pure ambition

James 3 continues, saying godly ambition must be pure and sincere. Other versions use some helpful synonyms. Ambition must integrate as part of a holy life. It must be honest, without hypocrisy. The Message says it’s not two-faced.

What does pure ambition look like? Purity means it’s in its original, uncorrupted state. Dave Harvey says that we’re all wired to pursue glory. In the first days of creation, we existed in perfect relationship with our Creator, seeking his glory alone. If God was lifted up, we had everything we needed. But we perverted our original design, turning our focus to ourselves. (I say “we” because I’m convinced today we would do the same thing as our pansy ancestors Adam and Eve.) It’s impossible to make something pure that has been corrupted. Think about snow. Once its dirty, there’s no making it white and powdery again. Or salt. As Jesus said, how can you make unsalty salt salty again? So even when we attempt great things for God’s glory, we should suspect ourselves. Our motives are seldom as pure as we want them to be. We just can’t have pure ambition on our own.

Ambition should be sincere and honest. I come from an organization that loves the leader who stands up and says, “I never wanted this job, but since you chose me, I’ll do the best I can.” We love humility and, conversely, we suspect signs of ambition. In contrast, I have a healthy suspicion of platitudes. I admit I love the ideal of an unsought promotion and of a leader emerging from the rough. It makes a great story. But two problems stick in my mind. If a leader really has no ambition and never sought a position, then he has never prepared himself for higher levels of leadership. Who’s to say the reluctant leader is a lifelong learner or takes leadership responsibility seriously if they didn’t want the job? On the other hand, if a leader is saying that deceitfully, then I have bigger issues. False humility may well be the tip of the iceberg, a sign of darker things lying below public view.

In contrast, godly ambition is never two-faced. I heard a story that Abraham Lincoln was once charged with being two-faced. He responded, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” It’s far better for a leader to admit their ambition… and shift it toward the cause. Better to be open about ambition. When it’s on the table, there’s a certain amount of accountability, because leadership is a private matter lived out in public, as the authors of The 52nd Floor put it. Ambitious leaders need help to keep their aspirations pointed in the right direction.

Moses is a great example for us. In Exodus 2, we eavesdrop on a dialog that exposes Moses’ real fear of leadership. He is as reluctant a leader as you’ll find. But it’s not from pure motives; it’s fear based on his failure in Exodus 1, when his unharnessed, misguided ambition led to murder. The second time, he needs convincing that God is in the call and will give him everything he needs to lead. The next couple of books in the Old Testament portray a leader with mature ambition, deeply concerned with God’s glory. Multiple times Moses appeals to God to make his Name great or to act on behalf of Israel “for the sake of your Name.” Sure, he still struggles with the purity of his ambition, getting angry with Israel, breaking priceless handwritten tablets and smacking rocks with his staff, but Moses’ name becomes great only as he pursues God’s Name with his whole heart and allows God to show his great power rather than trying on his own effort to save Israel.

In this world, our leaders may never achieve pure ambition, but the pursuit of it is an admirable trait.

Ambition that’s humble and willing to yield

I want to look at James 3:13-17 again, but from the positive side:

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.

If Harvey’s theory is true, and this passage is really about ambition as much as it is about wisdom, then James is saying ambition should be characterized by being honorable, humble, pure, peace loving, gentle, sincere and impartial. Godly ambition is willing to yield, full of mercy and full of good deeds. That’s certainly not the traditional view of ambition. Let’s unpack the implications over a couple of posts this week.

When I think of humility coexisting with ambition, I think of Jim Collins. In Good to Great, he suggests that the best companies were not run by superstar CEOs, but humble men and women who were homegrown in the company. The defining factor was not a lack of ambition, but a lack of ambition for themselves. They didn’t seek out the media or even to be out front speaking to their staff. Instead, they were ambitious for the company, for the cause. Collins noted that they were determined, even stubborn about seeing their company succeed.

Ambition and submission are seldom said in the same breath. We think of ambition as elbowing people out of the way to get to the top. But there is another kind of ambition: James says it’s “willing to yield.” Aspirations to advance God’s kingdom should look as countercultural as God’s kingdom itself is. With God, the ends don’t justify the means. Since God’s kingdom is not just a future hope but a reality here and now, it must be advanced in God’s way and with God’s methods. That means an inverted value system where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. That’s exactly how God’s kingdom expands, because it is so contrary to every earthly system and every earthly instinct in us. The great in the kingdom of God are those who are considerate of others, who serve and who “turn the other cheek.”

Mother Teresa is the example that comes to mind. She certainly was humble. But her ambition to bring God to the poor led her to confront presidents. She was determined. Her ambition to bring the kingdom of God into some of the darkest places was marked by servanthood and a hands-dirty style of leadership. I remember that her death was upstaged by the death of Princess Diana. But when history defines greatness, Teresa will win hands-down over Diana.