Is humble ambition a paradox?

In my chronological reading through the Bible, I’ve arrived at the book of Nehemiah—a remarkable study of leadership. Many others have preached, blogged and written on the leadership principles gleaned from this case study. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to draw out some fresh points. As you will recall, Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the Persian King. In spite of his status as a Jewish exile, he earned a position as part of the bodyguard protecting the ruler of one of the world’s two greatest powers at the time.

From the very first moment we meet Nehemiah, we sense a calling. As he serves the king in Persia, the news reaches him that Jerusalem is still lying in ruins after almost a century. It wrecks him. He weeps, he mourns and he prays day and night—for four months. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray with objectivity; he prays himself into the solution: “let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man,” the king (Nehemiah 1:11).

In other words, Nehemiah does something Moses and Gideon would never have dared. While they said, “send somebody else,” Nehemiah says, “send me.” God honours his request, and it starts him on a promotion path. First King Artaxerxes appoints him as foreman of the rebuilding effort. Then, after some early success in Jerusalem, the king promotes him to governor. When my pastor Glen Nudd preached on Nehemiah recently, he summarized it neatly:

At the end of it all, Nehemiah is given a job, a position, an assignment, a mission. He invites it, he receives it, he accepts it, he embraces it.

Can you do that? Is it okay for believers to show such ambition? Aren’t we supposed to resist the temptations of advancement and the lure of power? Isn’t it Christian to be content and to suppress ambition? Doesn’t Nehemiah’s action show complete lack of humility? As Pastor Glen put it:

Sometimes, as believers, we think that to be spiritual and godly we should always refuse advancement, promotion, or any kind of upward mobility and just go play in the shadows quietly, unnoticed and not expecting to influence anything very much. Maybe we think it’s the humble thing to do.

Were Moses and Gideon more godly than this young upstart, Nehemiah? After all, wasn’t Moses described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble person on earth? Yet a careful reading reveals that Moses and Gideon were paralyzed by fear. I think many believers today have the same problem. While Pastor Glen allowed that there are valid reasons to turn down promotion, he pointed out that sometimes humility is a mask for the real issues for reluctance: fear of responsibility, fear of commitment, or fear of having our faith and abilities tested.

Pastor Glen asked us to consider promotion in a different light:

What if God wants to promote you so that He can use you in an even greater way to be salt and light in a dark world? What if your “no” is actually refusing the potential for great influence and ministry and impact for the Kingdom of God?

Proverbs 29:2 says, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.’

It’s a good thing, a God-honoring thing, when God’s people are promoted and the salt gets better distributed and the light shines farther. When the gospel and the glory of God are advanced, that’s a good thing.

There’s no Biblical prohibition on ambition for a cause, and that’s why Nehemiah willingly accepts position. The question is how you lead in whatever position God gives you. Jim Collins will tell you that a great leader engaged in a cause should lead with humility. I met a few Proverbs 29 Members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. I was impressed at their quiet competence, but also their fire when it came to causes like human trafficking. Like Nehemiah, they embraced high positions and the voice it gave them. Through years of faithful witness, each has earned respect for the way they handled the challenges of federal politics.

So, is the act of stepping up in leadership antithetical to humility? Not at all. The answer, as we’ll see in Nehemiah 5, is servant leadership.

2 thoughts on “Is humble ambition a paradox?

  1. I received this comment from a reader offline, and she gave me approval to post it:

    You’ve touched on a question I’ve thought a lot about too. Something Pope Francis said in a homily during Passion week really got me. He said, “There can be no humility without humiliation.” Looking at the story of Nehemiah, was he not humiliated? You said the news of Jerusalem “wrecks him.” This is my experience as well. I have experienced humiliation a lot in the past decade. And it does something to you. You can gain greater courage that almost looks like pride. Many people, however, don’t know the context or the prior experience of deep humiliation. That’s why, maybe, it’s so hard for us to judge whether a person is prideful or humble. God knows.

  2. Oh, wow. Great thoughts!

    Dan Allender said the same thing in Leading With a Limp. When I first read that, I really debated whether it’s true. I don’t want it to be true! Certainly Peter is an example. Compare the Peter of the Gospels with the Peter of the first few chapters of Acts and finally his wisdom in 1 and 2 Peter. Humiliation resulted in true humility. (See my blog post, “Humbled!” for my full thoughts on Peter.)

    But I don’t see evidence of Nehemiah getting humiliated, unless it happened prior to Nehemiah 1. Come to think of it, he is a slave/exile.

    I also have a history that includes humiliation, and it has certainly shaped my leadership. You can see my experiences laid out for all to see in my blog post, “Failure!

    Great observation that greater courage can look like pride. I think that’s why it’s important to be open with your story, so people don’t misinterpret your courage.

    By the way, I meant “wrecks” in the sense that Bill Hybels used it in a Global Leadership Summit years ago: that Nehemiah is ruined for doing anything ordinary, because he has a “holy discontent.”


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