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.