Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey (part i)
“This book is about grace. It’s about ambition for the glory of Another.” Dave Harvey
It’s implied even in the title that we’re looking at a book on ambition in need of rescue.
An immediate question follows: “if ambition is in trouble, is it worth rescuing?”
The answer suggests itself: “most likely, yes; otherwise, why bother writing such a book?”
These basic assumptions that potential readers can intuit by merely looking at the cover, even before opening the book, are confirmed plainly in its pages. So, let’s see, from Harvey’s perspective in this book, what is ambition, why save it, what from, and how.
Ambition “it’s the instinctual motivation to aspire to things, to make something happen, to have an impact, to count for something in life.” (p. 12) Ambition is part of what makes us human. We’re all “glory junkies”, and that by design: we were all “hardwired” by our Creator “for a glory orientation. It is inescapable. It’s in your genes.”(p. 22) We all have “an instinct for glory”, “glory grabs us”, it arouses energies in our souls, it stirs us. The Creator of all is glorious and interested in glory. Our attraction to glory, the capacity to perceive, prize and pursue glory is the essence of ambition, and is part of our essential humanness, a reflection of humankind being made “in the image and likeness of God”.
Harvey backs this claim citing scriptures and making the point that God reveals himself as a glorious God. Moreover, Jesus is called ”the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2: 18, James 2:1). Paul speaks eloquently of “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4: 6), and the writer of Hebrews says of him, “He is the radiance of the glory of God” (1: 3). Needless to say more: glory is good.
Ambitious for who’s glory?
“What is glory? The New Testament word—doxa—speaks of worth and dignity and weight. It’s most often applied to God but also includes man. Glory is about radiance and splendor. But glory isn’t just an attribute; it exists to be seen and recognized. It’s about reputation, esteem, standing, honor. At its core, glory is about inherent value that’s recognizable to others. It draws attention. Like a magnet, the value of glory attracts us. […]
A story of Glory:
In a profound sense, this glorious God created the cosmos to display his glory, his worth, his value. To whom? To a special creature who could take it in, make some sense of it, and rejoice over the worth of his Creator—to us! That’s what the Bible means when it calls us to glorify God. We can’t make him something he already is—glorious. But we can recognize the glory that radiates from him, value it properly, and give God his due. […]
That’s why we were created.
The Westminster Divines understood this. “Man’s chief end,” they said, is tied to our glory instinct; it’s “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” […] We’re all born glory chasers. Glory moments stir us. […] We’re awed by great comebacks, heroic efforts, sacrificial endurance, and extraordinary gifts. Glory arrests our attention.” (p.21-22)
The problem with ambition
While arguing that ambition is part of what makes us human, Harvey also acknowledges that in the Christian church “ambition has mostly hovered outside respectability” (p. 14). Ambition is in trouble on many fronts: while in the church it has a bad reputation, and needs to be rehabilitated, in our “hyper-individualist culture”, the “selfist” era of “big Me” (Brooks), ambition is in need of redemption. Its meaning was hijacked and abused: almost everyone conflates ambition with the quest for personal glory; and that is celebrated by our society as a good thing. It is rarely when people in our culture are ambitious for compelling visions that transcend the self, and that is mostly due to the spirit of our times; it is the condition of postmodernity. Any ambition beyond the goal of self-actualisation and personal excellence, is philosophically undermined by relativism: “when we deny truth, we suffocate ambition. Without truth as a foundation and ideas worth exploring, meandering replaces meaning, confusion trumps conviction, ambivalence swallows aspiration—nothing really matters all that much.” (p.14)
I would say this is one of the paradoxes of a culture that places the individual at the centre and is driven by discontent, by the insatiability of desire for more greatness (read validation/approval): what really matters is the self, and the self only matters to itself (be authentic!, stay true to yourself!), but greatness can only be achieved when witnessed (and validated) by other people. This validation is subjective, therefore fragile, and can only offer a fake sense of secure identity. The need for validation is universal, and strong enough not to care whether you’re part of a church or not. No need to paddle further on this: ambition is suspicious; when we perceive it in others is at least a bit suspect: both believers and non-believers expect it to go hand in hand with pride and corrupt motivations. When we think of ambition, we mostly associate it with selfish ambition.
The biblical explanation for the pervasiveness of selfish ambition goes like this:
Since we’re all “glory junkies” by design, provided we’re all sinners, following in Adam and Eve’s footsteps, we’re all tempted by self-confined glory, driven by a hunger of self-exaltation. Sin set us on a quest for glory apart from God: “Man became his own quest—a life expedition to move self to the center of his motivations. […] We grow small trying to be great. […] The problem—the reason we’re all engaged in a quest for self-confined glory—is sin. […] When a hardwired desire for glory is infected with incurvatus in se, noble ambitions collapse.” (p. 37, 38) “The early church used a fascinating visual to describe the self-preoccupying nature of sin: incurvatus in se. It means we “curve in on ourselves.””(p. 38)
The essence of sin is this: “we question God—his goodness, his wisdom, his power, his love. We turn from God to self. Remember incurvatus in se—the heart’s penchant for curving in on itself. And when self is the reference point for ambition, nothing good comes from it.” (p. 199)
The biblical word for “selfish ambition”—eritheia—portrays those who, like prostitutes or corrupt politicians, demean themselves for gain. (p. 39) James (3: 13-18) identifies two kinds of wisdom: the genuine one, which brings humility and an evil “wisdom”, fuelling selfish ambition. “Wherever selfish ambition exist, there will be “disorder and every vile practice.” Selfish ambition doesn’t travel alone. It has a partner in crime: jealousy. And the two of them inevitably pick up a couple more gangsters: disorder and vile practices. Selfish ambition guarantees negative consequences.” (p. 41)
We've got this from our ancestors: Adam and Eve. It's part of our fallen nature.
But there’s hope.
The Gospel: rescuing ambition from the pursuit of misplaced glory
Harvey succinctly presents the gist of the gospel-glory-ambition connection:
“Recognizing this universal human tendency to perceive, prize, and pursue, a biblical view of life connects ambition with the God-implanted desire for glory. We were created to be ambitious for God’s glory and to take action in pursuit of it. God’s Word catches us glorychasers in pursuit of counterfeit splendor and sets us on a chase for the real thing.
The good news of the gospel is that we aren’t trapped by the tragedy of misplaced glory. While our ambitious impulses led us to vain pursuits, the Lord of glory has come to rescue our ambition. He has come to redeem us and recapture us for his glory. Where we haven’t perceived the difference between true and false glory, he opens our eyes to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Where we haven’t prized that which has real value, he recalibrates our desires to fit his direction. And where we’ve pursued false glory, he turns us and sets our feet on the path of righteousness for his name’s sake—for his glory.” (p. 32)
Godly ambition - saved to walk
“Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. (Ephesians 4: 1)
Harvey makes it clear, commenting on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that Salvation is not the end of the journey, but the beginning of it:
“The One who saved us is now calling us to walk. It’s nonnegotiable. Though snatched from spiritual death, we soon discover that the Christian life isn’t an arrival—it’s an adventure. We experience a rescue, then we’re pointed to a path; it’s a journey of faith. (p. 64) Paul is building the bridge between doctrine and duty, principle and practice, creed and command. That stunning salvation we’ve received? We’re to live in a way that’s appropriate to it. “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Bridges aren’t for standing; they’re for getting somewhere […] we’re called to stoke up our ambitions and put on our walking shoes.” (p. 65)
To be rescued from something sets us on the path toward something. We are saved from something and we are saved for something. Martin Luther said that if we’d knew what we were saved from, we would die of fear, and if we kew what we were saved for, we would die of joy. Because of the tremendous grace given to us in Christ, not just by having our sins forgiven, but being credited with Christ’s righteousness, due to his perfect active obedience, we have to “live up to our privileges”. (BB Warfield, cited on p. 65)
I’ll let Harvey explain what a perfect Salvation we have in Jesus Christ:
“A holy and righteous God, by definition, cannot allow anything presented before him that isn’t holy and righteous. An absence of sin is impressive when compared to the gunk in my heart, but it’s not a ticket for an audience with God. We needed to be “made righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). We need a record of perfect obedience to God’s law. It’s absolutely required. Only a declaration of righteousness would permanently secure God’s approval and pleasure. Enter the Perfect Man, Jesus Christ.” (p. 54)
Oftentimes we have our definitions backwards: usually righteousness is mostly defined as "absence of sin”, but in Christ we have a positive righteousness. Christ empowers us to do what he calls us to do. At the cross our status changed. With it came the one thing we most need to pursue a life of godly ambitions: the approval of God. This approval should inspire ambition. (p. 56-59)
We are people saved from captivity and we have to learn to walk in freedom.
God’s glorious agenda for our ambition, like his glorious gospel, begins not with what we achieve but with who we are.
Walking in a manner worthy of our salvation means having new ambition. (p. 67)
Ambition gets us dreaming about what life might look like if we apply ourselves. It points us forward and invites us to aspire to something not yet seen. As followers of Jesus we can and should be ambitious, but we should never be concerned with our legacies. (p. 214)
Faithfulness and fruitfulness
Harvey points to the importance of constant honest evaluation of our motives, methods, activity and results. Not just before setting sail, but during the journey as well. In everything we do, “we must cultivate ambitions to bear fruit” (p. 115)
Rescuing ambition includes evaluating how our efforts are bearing fruit. We desperately need the eyes and words of others to help us form a humble self-perception. Humility looks for mirrors, so Harvey’s advice is to always seek input, ask for honest feedback and have “mirrors” in our lives. A good mirror asks unpopular questions about fruit in every season. It’s an important way of knowing whether we should continue or change what we’re doing . Mirrors help protect us from two dangerous extremes of ambition: building monuments to our abilities and flaming out in wasted effort. (p. 110, p. 115)
Especially in Christian ministry, Harvey sees a temptation to be excited about new initiatives, start many things and then feel compelled to keep these things running, often without asking questions:
“Christians are a funny lot. We’re ambitious to start things but hate to end them. Every initiative can seem right, good, and important — we’re sure God is behind it all. So we launch things as if great efforts in the name of God need no expiration dates. We assume that what’s effective in one season is effective for all time. Methods become monuments. We desperately need to see the goal. And we need the mirrors to help us see our fruit , our gifts , and our motives that are indispensable in the rescue of our ambitions.” (p . 113)
“Burning out” for God may sound radical, but it doesn’t position us to bear “much” fruit (John 15 : 8). We should think about burning long, like the Olympic torch that must travel through many lands before it reaches the final destination.
Christians should be ambitious to run long and finish strong. (p. 115)
Coming soon - part ii