November 2012


So what steps must be taken to get free of this control and what records do you have of those set free please?

As sydnlm reminds me, all the philosophy in the world doesn’t help when ambition has taken control. Let’s get practical about combating selfish ambition. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to open a discussion, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts.

Erica posted the following comment in response to a previous post on the subject:

“[God has] also taught me that combating envy, bitterness and selfish ambition with delighting in others’ well-being (or good fortune), unconditional forgiveness (through prayer and release to God) and altruism, is quite an antidote!”

Let’s look at those suggestions, and a couple of my own, using the story of Haman. The book of Esther sets the stage over a handful of chapters, describing the increasing tension between Xerxes’ right-hand man and the Jew who antagonizes him by refusing to bow. Haman just will not let this slight go, to the point that he builds a 75′ high gallows just for Mordecai. For good measure, he sets in motion a plan for the genocide of millions of Mordecai’s people.

One morning, the gallows ready, Haman heads to the king’s court to seek permission to avenge his enemy. It’s been a good week. He’s second-in-charge, he was the sole guest at a dinner with the king and queen, and he’s been invited back for dinner again tonight. The king invites him in right away, seeking his advice on the best way to honour someone. Haman’s a smart man and quickly catches the third-person reference; of course, Xerxes is referring to Haman himself. So in his response, he pulls back the curtain on his personal ambitions: wear the king’s robes and crown, ride the king’s horse in a one-man parade, and have one of the most noble officials cry his praises. Xerxes loves the idea and tells Haman to do all of that… for Mordecai.

That scene drips with irony for us, but it was brutal for Haman. He runs home to his wife, mourning and covering his head. She gently points out that Haman has pitted himself against one of God’s people and “will surely fall before him.” Sure enough, everything collapses for him in a day. Haman’s ambition leads to great success for a time, but it shows us some warning signs and ideas that align perfectly with Erica’s comment.

1. Forgive unconditionally. Holding onto perceived slights will literally destroy you. Envy and bitterness ends up holding you captive. It feeds the addiction that may linger at the root of ambition. It blinds Haman and leads him to irrational hatred and genocide. If you peel back the layers, what motivation do you find for your ambition?

This one is very personal for me; it’s taken me years to let go of a comment from a supervisor that fueled my drive for success. I used it as motivation, taking steps for years in a misguided attempt to prove myself to someone who had long forgotten the slight. I recently had an interaction that cast light on that situation and discovered that I have fully forgiven.

2. Altruism. I had to look this one up. Dictionary.com says altruism is “unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” Reference.com adds that altruism goes beyond charity in that it “suggests that the gift may actually cause some harm to the giver.” So to put sacrificial giving in the context of ambition, it means to intentionally sacrifice your own ability to advance in order to push someone else forward. Haman’s altruism was forced on him, but what if he had chosen it? Could he have been saved?

Could an ambitious person deliberately choose altruism? What would happen if he did? I think Henri Neuwen did that. The Henri Nouwen Society tells us of his early years:

He developed quickly into an energetic and enterprising young man who always wanted to assume leadership. Later, his father would say of him that he was very intense and would often ‘flare up’ if his leadership was not recognised.

At age 42, he became a tenured professor at Yale but couldn’t shake his restlessness. He sought another line of ministry in Bolivia but wrote there, “Slowly and painfully, I discovered that my spiritual ambitions were different from God’s will for me.” Comparing thoughts from a number of resources, it seems he became increasingly uncomfortable with the way his desires were being fed. Not only was he struggling with ambition, but some posit that he had a lifelong struggle with homosexual desire. So he walked away. He moved to Toronto and joined the L’Arche community, where he poured his life into the disabled.

3. Pursue opportunities for anonymous generosity. Wikipedia says of altruism that,

Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self… with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).

I agree with Wikipedia that pure altruism is probably not attainable. The closest you can get is to assure complete anonymity in your sacrifice, to intentionally remove the ability to receive recognition. The regular practice of anonymously serving, giving and praising others erodes your desire to build a kingdom for yourself. It won’t take that sin away; there’s a heart issue that needs to be dealt with. But at the least, that drive for success can be redirected towards others. The joy in advancing others can be just as addictive, and far more healthy.

4. Delight in others’ well-being. I have always had a strong sense of ambition. What do you do when your name means “king,” you’re identified as a leader in grade 2, and you’ve always been the youngest at any job you’ve ever put your hand to? For me, my sense of ambition was tempered by a huge gift: At age 37, I was asked to give direction to Wycliffe USA’s leadership development efforts. In other words, I was given a job that required me to expend effort to help others be successful. That meant I rejoiced when I participated in a process that led to the selection of a 40-year-old Latino to the Board, and I rejoiced when a 30-year-old friend of mine became the youngest vice president in Wycliffe USA’s history. On a number of occasions, I had to deal with feelings of jealousy and competition. It was wonderful therapy for me.

5. Studiously avoid taking credit. This is the principle of the window and the mirror: when things go right, think of a window and all the people who contributed to make the initiative successful; when things go wrong, think of a mirror, pointing back at you alone. It’s a discipline I work hard at. Years ago, I set a goal to never make excuses, but to own my mistakes. Then my father-in-law taught me to avoid using singular pronouns in talking about plans and successes. Use “we” as much as possible, and “I” as little as possible. My view has recently been transformed by doing a study through the Old Testament on the phrase, “the Lord was with him.” As I look back on my life, it’s clear that the Lord has been with me and made me successful in some areas where I had no right to be. I often say that it’s God’s sense of humour that He put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization. There’s very little success that I can claim any credit for. Of course, saying it is one thing. Believing it is another.

Over the last two months, I’ve enjoyed a sermon series on Esther by Mark Driscoll. I borrowed heavily on his thoughts in unpacking Haman’s story. So let me wrap up with some points he made about ambition.

Ultimately, ambition is about seeking glory. The question is, whose glory are you seeking? Most of my points in this post refer to redirecting glory to others. But the only one truly deserving of glory is the King of kings, the Lord of Lords and the President of Presidents. As we seek God’s glory, as we seek to expand His kingdom, as we delight in Him, He redeems our broken, twisted desires and satisfies our hungry souls.

So my conclusion is not to suppress your ambition. Why not seek to do everything you can to bring someone else glory?

Historically, the topic that has generated the most interest on this site is ambition. There simply are more people struggling with ambition than people writing about it. So I want to discuss ideas for combating ambition. I’ll get practical in my next post, but let’s start with a broader philosophical foundation. What I’m building toward is the provocative idea:

What if the antidote to ambition is ambition?

Have you ever noticed that the areas where you are specifically prone to weakness, temptation or sin correspond well to your strengths? Or, to put it another way, your strengths are the same areas where you’re often tempted to sin? Aristotle noticed the connection and attempted to explain it by describing a virtue as a mean between two vices. In other words, an excess or a deficiency in the core traits behind any virtue leads to vice.

I prefer another way of looking at it: our strengths correspond to our idols. We are created with certain strengths, desires, quirks of personality and weaknesses. Add to that our experiences and our spiritual gifts to make up who we are as adults who seek to follow Christ. But we know we live in a broken world where perfection is unachievable, and we have an enemy who constantly seeks our destruction. Satan’s greatest goal is to see us either bury our strengths or to make our desires and strengths ultimate. We call the latter idolatry, when anything takes the place of God in our lives. As C.S. Lewis illustrates in his classic, The Screwtape Letters, Satan attempts to twist every positive attribute into something sinful. His tactics are more about confusing and corrupting good desires and strengths than about overt temptation. (See more on The ugly side of strengths)

All of that is background for why we can’t battle back with sin management or suppression. So what is the appropriate response? I don’t think it’s helpful to consider opposites, because if areas of sin correspond to areas of strength, then to attempt to fight with an opposite would require us to work in our area of weakness. For example, if your area of struggle is fear, it simply doesn’t make sense to screw up your courage; if you weren’t missing courage, you wouldn’t be struggling in the first place. In addition, opposites are often surprisingly difficult to identify. A friend recently pointed out that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s apathy. His reasoning? Because hate and love both require passion. But apathy is the absence of passion. At least the person who hates cares about you in some way.

Instead, I think a better metaphor comes from the medical profession: an accurate diagnosis leads to a correct prescription of the appropriate medicine. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how we can apply this methodology to areas of sin and weakness.

In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender discusses the difficulties of narcissism. Leaders with a bent toward a strong ego and self-centeredness will have lifelong struggles with the positive reinforcement of success or adulation. The solution isn’t to attempt to control those behaviours, suppress those feelings or hide the sin. Instead, Allender says a better way to combat narcissism is with gratefulness. Narcissistic leaders need to focus on others and what God has given them, constantly finding ways to celebrate and appreciate how others have participated in their success.

What about the elusive quality of humility? After all, if you pursue humility, you can’t obtain it. If you think you have achieved it, you haven’t. Allender says that the only way to attain humility is through humiliation. I didn’t like that statement when I read it, and I still want to challenge it, but I can’t shake the ring of truth in his statement. Ask anyone on the street who the most humble person in recent memory was, and they’ll say Mother Theresa. But how did she attain such incredible humility? She pursued opportunities to be regularly humiliated. How’s that for a strategy?

So here’s the bad news: seeking to quell ambition is probably just as futile as pursuing humility. So maybe quelling it is not the answer.

[republished from Wycliffe Canada’s Prayer Alive publication]

You can never go wrong asking God to give leaders courage. Leadership and courage go hand-in-hand.

Why?

First, because leadership is about taking people from one place to another, and very rarely does that journey come with a clear roadmap. Leaders may have seen some glimpse of the “promised land” or experienced some part of it for themselves, but they are blazing a new trail. When I think of a journey like that, Moses comes to mind. The only way he kept his vision and faith in the wilderness was by spending copious amounts of time face-to-face in God’s presence.

And second, because leadership is a personal practice lived out on a public stage. Each leader has to figure out how much of his personal struggles to reveal to his followers. Frankly, many of our models have come from a generation that kept a “stiff upper lip,” giving a false impression that they didn’t struggle internally. I’m grateful for the young generations who are dropping that pretense. Some of them gain incredible power from admitting their failures and lack of courage. Joshua was that kind of leader. Why would he need four reminders to be “strong and courageous” in Joshua 1 if he wasn’t having doubts? Gideon was this kind of leader as well. I love the insights we get into his almost-daily need for assurance of God’s presence. (Judges 6:12, 16, 34, 36-40, 7:10)

During a recent trip to Southeast Asia where I had a chance to interact with a large number of the leaders of Wycliffe and SIL, I noticed a lot of tired leaders. I suspect some were discouraged, some tired from pushing themselves too hard, and some burning out from working in areas of weakness for too long. So I appreciated an early exhortation from Wycliffe Global Alliance Director Kirk Franklin. He unpacked the lessons God had taught him during his just-completed sabbatical. He specifically noted the lesson learned from Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18: God doesn’t want exhausted leaders.

Kirk went on to list a few applications for leaders in the Ten Commandments. For instance, “Do your Sundays look any different from any other day of the week?” He then set the tone for the meetings by confessing six areas of sin that he struggled with as a leader. Kirk’s personal disclosure was a powerful challenge for all of us.

To lead differently requires courage, both in the public and the personal aspects of leadership. To trust your vision and follow God’s direction in the face of doubts, obstacles and sabotage takes incredible fortitude. To admit that you are “not able to carry all these people alone” (Numbers 11:14), and ask for help, takes boldness. To risk your position by admitting your weaknesses requires inner strength. Even taking time for rest reflects a deep faith in God’s ability to carry your load.

So we need to pray for our leaders to be “courageous in the ways of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 17:6). More and more I return to the argument Moses had with God in Exodus 33, where he begged for assurance of God’s presence. We to whom God has given this sacred trust need a daily reminder of that presence. The only way we can be successful is if, like Moses, the Lord is with us.