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.

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.