Ambition | Part 1: Defining Ambition
Earlier this summer, I was asked to speak at a young adult conference in San Francisco. The theme of that conference was “Fanning the Flames of Godly Ambition.” I really enjoyed studying for that theme and was benefited from what I learned, so I thought I would share with you all, as well–especially since we tend to have a lot of young adults from Ironwood with us for Sunday school during the summer months! And even if you’re not a young adult, I am convinced that this topic would be beneficial to anyone. Let’s begin by praying.
As I began thinking about the topic of ambition, it occurred to me that one of the first things we need to do is to define “ambition.” And so, I took to the internet and googled “ambition definition.” And in a moment, I’ll tell you what I found; but first, I’d like to hear from you. How would you define “ambition”?
Here is what I found by googling “ambition definition.”
- “A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.”
- “Desire and determination to achieve success”
Cambridge English Dictionary
“A strong desire for success, achievement, power, or wealth”
- “An ardent desire for rank, fame, or power”
- “Desire to achieve a particular end”
“An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment”
Oxford English Dictionary
- “A strong desire to do or achieve something.”
- “Desire and determination to achieve success.”
- “…from Latin ambition(n-), from ambire ‘go around (canvassing for votes)’”
So, I looked at these various definitions of ambition, and I asked myself, “What are the common themes?” What are some common themes you noticed in these various definitions?
I broke the common elements down into two categories.
First, there were the primary elements. These were the words that were present in almost every single definition. Every definition that I listed includes the words “desire” and “achieve” or “achievement,” and three out of five definitions also include the word “success.” Also, the word “desire” was always preceded by some kind of adjective, like “strong,” “earnest,” or “ardent.” So those were the primary elements.
But I also noticed some secondary elements. These were words that appeared in at least two or more of the definitions. These words were “power,” “wealth,” and “fame.”
Is the concept beginning to take shape in your mind?
Let’s see if we can put that all together. Ambition is the strong desire to achieve success, usually defined as power, wealth, or fame. (Repeat)
Now, some people might use the word “ambition” generically to refer to any type of drive–kind of like part two of the Merriam-Webster definition– “a desire to achieve a particular end.” According to that definition, ambition is basically a zest for life. If you don’t have that type of ambition, you’re probably dead. However, that definition of ambition is not particularly helpful because it’s too broad. That’s why I think we need to stick to the narrower definition of ambition. Does that make sense?
Selfish Ambition or Little Ambition?
Once you have established a definition of ambition, it becomes evident that not everyone has an equal share of it. In his book, “Rescuing Ambition,” Dave Harvey describes two types of people–basically, those who are prone to little ambition and those who are prone to selfish ambition. See if you can figure out which category you fit into as you listen to the following descriptions.
The person who is prone to little ambition is satisfied with a C. “That’s good enough,” she says. Meanwhile, the person who is prone to selfish ambition is dissatisfied with an A, because she wanted an A+! The person prone to little ambition enjoys just “being” (being happy, having a good time, living in the moment). The person prone to selfish ambition is rarely happy unless he is doing something he perceives to be profitable. Do any of you have friends or family members who are always doing something, and it kind of drives you nuts sometimes? Do you sometimes you just want to say, “Dude, quit it; you’re making me nervous! Just sit on the couch and do nothing for five minutes!”
If that’s how you feel, then you may be prone to little ambition. And by the way, that’s not a bad thing! We need free spirits in the world–people who love life and make us laugh! My two oldest daughters are opposites in this way. Anaya begs to go running with me. Felicity would rather go to the park and feed ducks. I love them both! But I’ll tell you, I definitely identify more with Anaya. In his book, Harvey describes the person who has kept a to-do list since he was ten years old. Guilty as charged. That’s me to a tee!
Each personality has its strengths its weaknesses. So don’t be embarrassed to admit that you’re tempted with little ambition. I can tell you this–a brief study of history proves that people with little ambition have done far less damage in the world than people with selfish ambition!
But maybe you are that guy with selfish ambition. You don’t just read for fun, you read so that you can finish your Goodreads reading challenge for the year. Perhaps you’re that person who’s always counting–you know, calories, workouts, wins and losses… you can turn anything into a contest! Harvey quotes the artist Salvador Dali who said, “At age six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing ever since.” You laugh, but maybe some of you dreamed of being President as a kid! I know I thought of that….
So what I want you to do now is check the box in your notes for what you are prone to–little ambition or selfish ambition.
How many are prone to selfish ambition? How many are prone to little ambition? Keep that in mind as we go through the rest of these notes. I am going to hit both sin tendencies today. We’ll start with selfish ambition, but then we’ll come back to little ambition later on.
Ambition and Glory
Before we close this first session, there is one more very important aspect of ambition that I need to share with you, and that is the aspect of glory.
Remember that the three things used to define success in most people’s definition of ambition are power, wealth, and fame. But as I studied ambition more, I realized that those three things are not equal. Which one do you think bears more weight? Is ambition more about power, is it more about wealth, or is it more about fame? I would say that it’s more about fame, but I would substitute another word for “fame” that could potentially encapsulate all three of those other words. It is the word “glory.” So, as we continue to build on our definition, we’ll say, “Ambition is the strong desire to achieve success and obtain glory.” Wealth, power, and fame are means to the ultimate end of glory. Does that make sense?
Now that’s very interesting, because “glory” is a theological word, isn’t it? I did a quick word search in my Bible study software, and the word “glory” shows up 384 times in the NKJV. That’s a lot, isn’t it?
I want you to turn to one of those passages that includes the word “glory” that I think is particularly helpful as it relates to the discussion of ambition. We’ll come back to this passage multiple times today. Please turn in your Bibles to Romans 2:6-8. Let’s start in v. 1 (Rom 2:1-11).
We don’t have time to get too deep into the context of this passage. Basically, Paul is calling out self-righteous Jews. But I want to focus on is how in vv. 6-8, Paul contrasts two groups of people. Let’s fill in the chart.
Group 1 (v. 7)
“patient continuance in doing good”
“seek for glory, honor, and immortality”
Group 2 (v. 8)
“indignation and wrath”
“do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness”
“are self-seeking” [or “selfishly ambitious”]
So what do we take away from these verses? Well, here are some observations.
- Ambition Is the Desire for Glory.
In his sermon on this passage, John Piper defines “glory” as “divine excellence,” “honor” as “the echo of that excellence in the regard of God and angels and saints,” and “immortality” as “the extension of that excellence forever into the future.” In other words, the key word here is “glory.” “Honor” is the recognition of a person’s glory by others, and immortality is glory forever. But the key concept is glory. So Paul defines the first group as those who are seeking glory.
And we know that he is talking about ambition because he uses the Greek word for “selfish ambition” in v. 8! So ambition is the desire for glory.
- There Is Good and Bad Ambition. (Much more on that in the coming weeks.)
- Everyone Is Ambitious. Everyone Seeks Glory.
Either you will seek glory in the proper, God-intended way, or you will seek it in your own sinfully-twisted way. But every single one of you sitting in this room will and do seek glory! You may be one of those who identified earlier as having little ambition. But I can guarantee you this–you have at least some ambition. Because all of us are ambitious.
Why do you think it is that all human beings seek glory? It is because we are all made in the image of God! Animals don’t have ambition! Your dog isn’t trying to figure out how to get on the cover of Time magazine! But human beings are different. As Dave Harvey puts it, we were “wired for glory.”
What does it mean to be “wired for glory”? The human pursuit of glory takes on three forms.
- We Worship what We Perceive to Be Glorious.
Human beings are attracted by glory. Paul David Tripp puts it this way.
“Admit it. You’re a glory junkie. That’s why you like the 360-degree, between the legs slam dunk, or that amazing hand-beaded formal gown, or the seven-layer triple-chocolate mousse cake. It’s why you’re attracted to the hugeness of a mountain range or the multi-hued splendor of the sunset. You were hardwired by your Creator for a glory orientation. It is inescapable. It’s in your genes.”
But not only are we attracted to glory; we worship what we perceive to be ultimately glorious, whether that be our studies, a career, a hobby, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or God.
- We Seek to Get as Close to the Glory as Possible.
Our infatuation with greatness will not allow us simply to admire it from afar. That’s why people will pay through the nose to attend sporting events that they could watch at home more conveniently–and for free! Harvey compares us to storm chasers; we want to get as close to the glory as possible–as close to God (or whatever we perceive to be God) as possible. We’re like bugs on a summer’s night. We don’t want to live in the darkness. We flock to the light!
- We Desire to Share in [Incarnate?] the Glory that We Worship.
It’s not enough just to watch some inspiring documentary about an entrepreneur. I want to be the next Steve Jobs, or Julie Andrews, or Serena Williams, or Steph Curry. This is what we would call, “ambition.” It is the desire to share in the glory I so admire. The desire to obtain glory drives people to incredible achievements. If you don’t believe me, just read some history, or get on Netflix and watch some documentaries. People will go to unbelievable extremes in order to obtain glory! That is why it is often said, “You become what you worship.” Whatever awes and inspires you will likely determine the direction of your life.
All this is why worship is so vitally important! The question is sometimes asked, “Which is more important–worship or disciple-making?” What do you think? Well, disciple-making is certainly the heart of the Great Commission, which is the mission of the church in this age; however, I would argue that worship has to be priority number one! As John Piper says, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” God is seeking worshippers; that’s why the Great Commission even matters in the first place! And when we disciple people, what are we discipling them to be if not holy worshippers of the true and living God!?
In Romans 1:23, Paul’s condemnation of the Gentiles is that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” In v. 21, he says that “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God.” In other words, they held up the wrong thing as glorious. They should have been captivated with the true and living God, but they became captivated with the things of this world and thus became idolaters!
Does that sound like people you know? If you were to ask several unsaved folks some diagnostic questions, you would find out pretty quickly that what they are truly captivated by is a phone, or some other piece of technology, or a career, or accolades from some academic community, or some video game or comic book series, or some celebrity like the Kardashians, or a line of makeup, or their boyfriend or girlfriend, or a politician, or a musical instrument, or a famous athlete, and the list could go on and on! But if you were to drop them into a Sunday morning service at your local church, they would yawn and probably fall asleep! Why? Because they have no concept of the glory of God! His beauty does not fill their eyes! They are not filled with a sense of wonder when they read His Word! They have no fear of God! They have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the stuff that He created.
Brothers and sisters, we must guard our hearts from this sin! Like the hymn writer famously said, we are prone to wander–to wander away from God and become enthralled with the stuff He created–stuff that can only reflect the glory of the Creator but never in a trillion years even come close to becoming an adequate substitute for Him!
Friend, if you are convicted this morning that your heart has strayed in this way, I plead with you to repent and make God first place in your life once again! If you don’t, then the rest of what I am going to say throughout the next several weeks will have little to no effect on your life! Because how can you possibly seek glory in the right way if you are confused as to what is ultimately glorious? You can’t!
As the prophet Joel said, “Rend your hearts! Rend your hearts and not your garments!” This isn’t about the externals! It’s about your hearts! It’s about who you love, who you fear, and who you worship! Now, certainly, who you love, fear and worship will be made clear by your actions! We see that correlation in Romans 2. But what is needed first is not an outward change–it’s a change of the heart!
Once you have confessed your idolatry to God, the next step is to get as close to Him as possible. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” John 15:1-11 talks about the importance of staying close to Jesus. And how do you stay close to Him? According to John 15, you meditate on His Word, you pray, and you keep His commandments. That’s how you stay close to Jesus.
Read the Bible. Listen to it on your phone. Memorize it. Listen to preaching. Read books that explain God’s Word. Pray. Pray in the morning when you first wake up. Get alone with God in your prayer closet and pray. Pray without ceasing throughout your day. Talk to God. Pray! And then obey God’s commands. Do not sear your conscience and do not say “no” to Him.
John 15 tells us that if we stay close to Jesus, He will stay close to us, and He will produce fruit in our lives. We will gradually become more like Him, and we will have the right kind of ambition. Let’s pray.
How many of you would say, “Pastor Kris, there is something or someone that has become an idol in my heart and has captured my attention more than the living God. I no longer see God as all-glorious, I see this aspect of His creation as having all of the glory, but I want to repent of that sin this morning”?
I want to give you a few minutes in the quiet before we go on to our break to talk with God about that issue and prepare your heart for our next session together.
 Paul David Tripp, quoted by David T. Harvey in Rescuing Ambition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 22.
More in Ambition
July 28, 2019Ambition | Part 4: Stoking Godly Ambition
July 21, 2019Ambition | Part 3: Practical Reasons to Forsake Selfish Ambition
July 7, 2019Ambition | Part 2: Symptoms of Selfish Ambition