Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey (part ii)

Recuperating a Biblical sense of ambition

“It’s my conviction that ambition shouldn’t be left to drown in its bad reputation” says Dave Harvey: “ambition needs to be set free and put back in play with biblical conviction and gospel clarity. I believe God wants ambition back in our understanding of godliness and spiritual health” (p. 212, 215)

The author unapologetically presents a biblical anthropological perspective, and ambition is at the core of what makes us human: “I’m not rooting this perspective in common sense or well-researched psychological studies. Nope, ambition is inherent in who we are before the God who created us. The Bible teaches that people are created by God to desire—and to go after those desires with single-minded determination. It’s this capacity to desire and strive that can generate remarkable good or stupefying evil. Whether it’s to conquer nations or control the remote, we’re hardwired to be ambitious for what we want. […] To understand ambition, we must understand that each of us lives on a quest for glory. Where we find it determines the success of our quest.” (p. 16)

Because of our sinful nature we don’t get ambition right. Left by ourselves we miss the point: we either don’t get it at all, or we get it wrong. Generally speaking, people either leave purposeless lives, in apathy and confusion, self-indulgent and with no ambitions or clear vision for their lives, or live pursuing wrong goals, driven by a self-absorbed desire for approval and admiration, trying to build their identity on personal achievements. 

We either keep no score or we’re obsessed of always keeping score, but mostly counting the wrong thing. We were made to chase glory, but East of Eden, our “default settings” look like this: we either don’t chase glory at all, or we chase it in all the wrong places, and for our own sake.

Especially amongst Christians, ambition is in deep trouble. It has enemies within (a misunderstood sense of humility) and enemies without (the world and its values, that often are more pervasive in the church than we’d like to admit).  I’d put it like this: when it comes to ambition, most Christians don’t get it, and those who get it, get it wrong! It has to do with a self-destructive tendency that keeps tempting us to make ambition the fuel that allows us to build our identity on our achievements and keep the control over our own lives. Let me explain.

For Christians the temptations surrounding ambition are even subtler, more sophisticated and harder to deal with: any person that serves others is in danger of pursuing great goals with the wrong heart. We easily tend to build our sense of worth and identity around our “godly ambitions”, always prone to “photobomb God” and steal some of his glory. Make no mistake, ambition is a God given human trait, but if ambition defines you, it will never fulfil you: “large ambitions open the door to bigger disasters” (p. 140). 

The extremes of ambition

Often, preaching is only adding to the confusion of already confused believers in search for a meaningful way of making their lives this side of eternity count. There are various rhetoric devices employed from the pulpits of our churches. I’ll single out two extremes:

  • “let God and let go”, which sometimes involuntarily promotes a welfare spirituality, laziness and a lack of responsibility, and

  • “dream big, for God’s glory, press on, you can do mighty works with God on your side!”, which creates the pressure for greatness “in God’s name”, but for "one’s fame”, an understanding plagued by worldly values such as fame, visible results, growth and impact, etc.

It all starts with an incomplete understanding of identity. If our own identity becomes the chief focus of our lives, we either become too complacent, or too concerned with “maintaining” it. 

We should constantly remind ourselves that we find our identity not in our failures or successes but in Christ!

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we confuse our goals with God’s will. Harvey offers his readers a few great criteria to examine our heart motives and exercise discernment: 

  • “ambitions can be godly only if they’re dependent.” (p. 176)

  • “our willingness to make others a success is a great measure of the purity of our ambitions.” (p. 106)

Another great health check for ambition is to see wether we are content with being part of God’s plan, regardless our specific role. Being a huge admirer of Spurgeon, Harvey quotes him on this as well: “What you’re a part of is more important than the part you play.” (Spurgeon, cited on p. 167) Shifting the accent from  “my part” to “what I’m a part of” stirs ambition for “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” and keeps my focus where it should be, not on “all the other things that will be given to us” as well. 

Having said that, let me get back to where I diverted from. If, generally speaking, when it comes to ambition, people don’t get it, or get it wrong, there are mainly two approaches in any attempts to rescue ambition: 

  • A. for those who don’t get it, make sure they get it!

  • B. for those who get it wrong, make sure they get it right!

Ambition ignited, motivation converted

Making use of Dave Harvey’s perspective, in his own words, the solutions for these two major problems with ambition are: A: “ambition ignited” and B: “motivation converted.” 

Rescuing it from the apathy of living a meaningless, purposeless life, and rescuing it from the self-absorbed desire for approval and admiration. For the A-type of people, the conservation instinct, the desire for comfort and their risk-avoidance keeps them from being consumed by great ambitions, and part of the solution is to overcome the fear, laziness and inertia, while for the B-type of people, the desire for greatness and fame keeps them in a perpetual state of discontent, restlessness, always chasing for more, prideful but insecure; for them the solution is to lay down their pride, and keep their dreams open to examination, so their dreams can be transformed, challenged, even denied if that’s their salvation. To emphasise this further, I’d say that the A-types, the ambition-less people keep their ambitions hostage to their comfort and drown their dreams in their fear of the unknown, while the B-types are being held hostage, consumed by their own dreams and ambitions.

A return to “factory settings”

As the wise says in Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for everything”, and God “made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3 1- 11)

We’re often out of sync with God’s timing, so we miss the beauty; glory evades us, because we’re not paying attention. 

If one looses her sleep, she looses her dreams. If one is always sleeping, he will never see his dreams realised.  We need to learn to be ambitious from a place of rest, security and complete trust in the One who “made everything beautiful in its time”, so our ambitions shape a harmonious way of living.

As they say, there are at least two ways of falling from the horse. People are drawn to extremes and in our attempt to correct our lack of balance, we often go from one end  all the way to the other. Often the pendulum finds its equilibrium only after full swings to the extremes. We tend to be bipolar with ambition: we don’t get it at all, or we get it awfully wrong. So, if one had no notable ambitions, upon receiving this news about good ambition, one might go straight from apathy into a frenzy of “making it count, dream big and start yesterday”, driven by FOMO (the fear of missing out), while if one was overly goal oriented and self-ambitious, upon receiving the same news, the tendency might be to get loose and “live in the now, go with the flow”. 

We can only "dream effectively" from rest. And we should be careful not to confuse ambition with identity. Identity shapes ambition, not vice-versa. Our ambitions should be anchored in our identity, but our identity, although shaped by what we pursue, should never be anchored in our specific ambitions. In being who we are, we are free to dream big. We are not dreaming to become, but dreaming because we are, not striving to become, but striving because we are. If we struggle in the pursuit of greater things, if our desires are redeemed and elevated, we are free to struggle, we're not struggling to become free. It’s an ambition exercised from freedom and rest: “in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15)

True humility promotes great ambition and inspires courageous action

The remedy against a meaningless life with no ambition or a perilous relationship with ambitions is a biblical understanding of humility:

“Humility doesn’t have to quench ambition. And ambition—the right kind—doesn’t have to trample humility. Humility, rightly understood, shouldn’t be a fabric softener on our aspirations. When we become too humble to act, we’ve ceased being biblically humble. True humility doesn’t kill our dreams; it provides a guardrail for them.” In order to save it, “we must snatch ambition from the dust heap of failed motivations and put it to work for the glory of God.” (p. 9, 10, 14,16)

Apart from God, our quest for greatness is often a search for approval. We want to be applauded and esteemed. We live for praise. We attempt great things because we crave being celebrated. Because of Christ’s perfect obedience, we are accepted in God’s sight and we no longer live for approval; we live from approval. We no longer live ambitious for approval, but we act ambitious because we have approval. (p. 56-59)

If our understanding of doctrine creates passivity toward God’s empowering presence or cools the hot embers of our ambition, we’ve misunderstood God’s sovereignty. (p. 85)

The greatest ambitions are realised on the path of humility. (p. 101) 

Humility should never be an excuse for inactivity. Our humility should harness our ambition, not hinder it. (p. 117)

Clarify your ambition - don’t settle for lesser glory

“One way to clarify your spirituality is to clarify your ambition.” 

(Donald Whitney, cited on p.16)

“We must seek a certain type of glory. We’re to hunger, crave, earnestly desire—to be ambitious for—the glory that comes from God. Jesus Christ is the glory that comes from God. Loving this glory that comes from God means first savouring the One who personified God’s glory, Jesus Christ. Glory isn’t simply a quality of Christ: No, Jesus embodies the glory of God. He literally is the glory that comes from God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth”” (p. 23, 24)

God’s glory displayed in Jesus redeemed us and as a result, we want to live for God’s glory. Grace ignited godly ambition, ambivalence was replaced with aspiration and our motivations are converted. Grace fires the soul and makes us want to live for the only glory that matters. (p 25, 26)

Godly ambition discerns what’s of eternal value and sets our desires to what’s worth prizing above everything else and worth pursuing with all our heart and strength.

When all is said and done, what we actually go after is what truly matters to us. This ability to perceive, prize, and pursue is part of our essential humanness, and it’s the essence of ambition. Your pursuits—whatever they may be—reveal what you prize. What we pursue will ultimately define us. It will claim our time, absorb our resources, and shape our future. (p. 19, p. 27, p. 31) 

“To love glory is to pursue glory. If we love the glory that comes from God, it translates into a lifelong, passionate, zealous quest—in other words, godly ambition”, but if we love glory, regardless of where it comes, as long as we get it, we might develop an ambivalence towards Christ himself, who is the ultimate display of God’s glory and love showed to humankind. Because it’s easier to perceive and receive immediate appreciations from people, if we value our self-esteem and social respectability, we can easily trade what’s of “surpassing worth” (Paul in Philippians) with vain praises from people like us. Jesus asks all of us, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).”

“Ambivalence toward Christ actually means we’re rejecting the glory that comes from God in pursuit of something counterfeit.“ (p. 26) 

In the same gospel, John writes the following: 

“Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. […] Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;

for they loved human praise more than praise from God.”

What a tragedy! To have God incarnated in your midst, to even believe in him, but to repress that out of willing to please people more than willing to please the only One that really matters!

We perceive, we prize, we pursue. We have ambition

We’re glory chasers: we pursue what we value. We’ve been captivated by a glimpse of God’s glory, we started to learn to recognise it, and we want more: “we perceive something, prize it at a certain value, then pursue it according to that assigned value because we were created that way. This ability to perceive, prize, and pursue is part of our essential humanness, and it’s the essence of ambition.” (p. 27)

Regardless of anything that we might say, what we do speaks louder: 

the depth of my love is seen in the intensity of my pursuit.

“Surpassing worth”: 

Godly ambition is willing to pay more than full price if that’s what it takes.

Godly ambition isn’t just being “in the market” for something. It is prizing so much what really matters, what's of “surpassing worth”,  that we go after it no matter the cost; we’re willing to sacrifice to get it. We’re called to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5: 6) and to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6: 33). 

Prizing what is of eternal value stirs ambitions to pursue those things. (p. 29-31)

In addressing the Philippians, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter about responsibility, ambition, courage, resilience, ultimate success and failure. Paul was an ambitious man, and he lived according to his supreme ambition: “to know Christ Jesus his Lord”:

“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” he tells us. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things . . .” (Phil. 3: 8). He’s referring to all that once defined him—his people, his education, his godliness under the law, his religious zeal. These cultural crowns of ancestry and accomplishments, Paul declares, are only a big zero compared to knowing Christ.

When all is said and done, what we actually go after is what truly matters to us.  

Pursuit means passion, purpose, and action. 

What we pursue will ultimately define us. This is not to say that our ambitions are our identity; but the object of our ambitions and longings will claim our time, absorb our resources, and shape our future.

Ambition sanctified: a “holy drive” - going, not knowing

“To be ambitious is to be future - minded. 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.” (p. 2014)

It requires faith and obedience based on trust, because we’re going, not knowing. Where there’s ambition, there must be risk. Risk is the cost of ambition; if you eliminate risks, you obliterate ambition. The Christian life is a kind of mysterious suspense, where we’re acting on godly ambition without knowing the result. (p. 179)

When God speaks , we have two options:

  • flee in an attempt to protect ourselves from the risk of obedience

  • move forward in faith, not dismissing the risk, but accepting it as part of the path (p. 173, 174)

Having a godly ambition pushes us to do things we never expected. It incites us to look beyond the borders of our comfort and convenience. The gospel stokes ambition by making audacious claims upon it. Ambition and risk are the human ingredients God uses to put the gospel into circulation. Here’s where we discover a strange irony. God wants to rescue ambition so that ambition, in turn, can rescue us. Ambition rescues us by exerting claims on us that change our lives. (p. 175, p. 176)

If we have our ambitions sanctified, God will use them in turn to sanctify us.

Harvey lists three claims that godly ambition will place upon us and the benefits associated with attending to these claims:

  • claim 1: Step up beyond the unknown!

Ambition rescues us from misplaced security. God puts us where we feel compelled to climb despite the risks; when we don’t know the future, we find out whom we really trust. We’re called not to control the future, but to trust God for it. Risk rescues us from misplaced security by anchoring us in the eternal.

  • claim 2: Prepare for Difficulty!

because ambition also rescues us from distracting comforts, keeping us rooted in what really matters. Godly ambition rescues us from the distraction of trying to follow Christ and seek comfort at the same time. Ambition drives onward knowing that God is glorified in us when the gospel goes forth through our sacrifices.

  • claim 3: Value the Gospel above all!

prize the gospel above reputation, status, income, and lifestyle. (p. 176 - p. 186)

It’s a paradox: ambition needs to be rescued from the “me” trap, but God turns the tables and uses holy ambition to rescue us. He delivers us from flimsy security and harmful comforts. He sets us free to live for what really matters. (p. 188)

Adrian PetriceComment