The antidote to ambition: Haman’s altruism

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?

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.