The Place of Godly Ambition

Is ambition bad, or should we cultivate it in ourselves and in our children?

When we do a search for the word ambition in the Bible—looking through various English translations—we see it in multiple texts translated from several Greek words. The word ambition is employed in both positive and negative contexts. Negatively, James condemns those who have “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (James 3:14). Positively, Paul “makes it [his] ambition to preach the gospel” (Rom. 15:20). Clearly, the Bible acknowledges both good and bad ambition. How do we know the difference?

 

“Give me this hill country . . . and I shall drive them out.” These are the words of eighty-year-old Caleb, recorded in the book of Joshua, as the Israelites surged into the land and prepared to engage their enemies (Josh. 14:12). In light of the obstacles in front of Caleb and the dangers they represented, one would be hard pressed to think of him as being anything less than ambitious.

But were Caleb’s ambitions good or bad? Too often the word ambition conjures up negative images of Wall Street investment bankers rationalizing self-serving greed. Or, one might find the word plastered across a motivational poster with a climber clinging to the side of a mountain attempting an ascent. But which is it? Is ambition bad, or should we cultivate it in ourselves and in our children? Does the Bible promote ambition?

When we do a search for the word ambition in the Bible—looking through various English translations—we see it in multiple texts translated from several Greek words. The word ambition is employed in both positive and negative contexts. Negatively, James condemns those who have “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (James 3:14). Positively, Paul “makes it [his] ambition to preach the gospel” (Rom. 15:20). Clearly, the Bible acknowledges both good and bad ambition. How do we know the difference?

Let’s be reminded what ambition is. The dictionary definition is simply a desire to achieve a particular end. But this definition is perhaps a little too weak—it can be applied in everyday life decisions that would not be considered ambitious. Therefore, let me suggest the following definition of ambition: a strong desire that leads to a willingness to overcome obstacles to achieve a particular end. There are two important observations to make here. First is the relationship of “desire” and “end.” Second, note that the definition also includes the words “overcome obstacles” and “achieve,” suggesting that some degree of effort will be required and that means will be employed to do so. Let’s consider each of these observations in more detail.

Desires and Ends

All of us have desires: desires of the mind and of the flesh. Desiring is an aspect of being a creature, a product of having a mind and a body. The problem is that sin distorts this relationship in several ways. First, sin results in desires (lust, cravings, passions) for the wrong ends. That is, our sinful nature distorts our thinking such that we desire to pursue ends that are not pleasing to God (James 4:1–3).

Second, sin distorts the proportionality of the desire-end relationship, causing us to desire even right ends with the wrong proportion of desire (weak desire for the best things, strong desire for the mediocre or trivial). Remember here the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

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