Ambition is widely recognized as an impulse that can lead to ruin. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan is cast out of heaven clinging to the attitude, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” In Moby Dick, ambition blinds Ahab to all reason in his obsessive pursuit of a white whale: “See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” Then there is the old Chinese proverb: “He who opens his heart for ambition, closes it for the rest.” In our enduring cultural wisdom we have plenty of warnings regarding ambition’s treacherous ways.
But ambition gains an even more nefarious reputation in contemporary Christian piety. It’s viewed as a close companion of pride, one of the foundational sins from which many others gain traction in a soul. And it seems absolutely opposed to important Christian virtues such as patience, contentment, kindness, and most of all, humility, that requisite poverty of spirit for entrance into the kingdom of God. How could ambition, or the desire for greatness, ever find a home within such a contrary vision of human flourishing?
Well, it must. According to Christian Scripture, ambition is a necessary aspect of our given humanity. We are creatures made in the image of God with transcendence sewn into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). That is to say, we were made in the image of greatness with the desire for greatness. Consider, for example, the first command God gives to us:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
It’s hard to read this passage as anything other than a call to greatness. God made us to rule over the entirety of His good world, an honor impossible without an ambitious spirit.
And then consider the other bookend of the Christian story, the vision John receives and records at the end of the book of Revelation. It’s a vision of heaven and earth uniting in a city of overwhelming beauty:
“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:3-5)
The Bible begins with a call to reign and it concludes with a confirmation of reign. As one professor of poetry wisely told his students: “Either we are called to greatness, or we are not called at all.” The Bible certainly warns that wrongly directed ambition leads away from God into perilous darkness. But rightly directed, ambition affirms our God-given dignity and the pleasure God receives as we become more alive to the good possibilities in us and around us.
The Virtue of Magnanimity
Rediscovering the virtue of magnanimity from our Christian past would help in understanding the proper place of ambition in our lives. Taking his cue from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas identified magnanimity as the essential counter to vices such as apathy, complacency, and mediocrity. C. S. Lewis explained magnanimity as the virtue that connects the intellect and the appetites, noting that its absence produces “men without chests,” that is, men without honor and strength.
What is magnanimity and what does it have to do with ambition? Magnanimity is the expansion of the soul toward great things according to the truth of who we are. It is the classic virtue that situates and stimulates good ambition. The last part of that definition – “according to the truth of who we are” – is particularly important because it shows how ambition and humility actually belong together in our discipleship. When we judge ourselves according to truth, we affirm both our deep dependence on God (humility) and our vast calling to reach for noble things (ambition). Humility protects us from overestimating ourselves, while magnanimity protects us from underestimating ourselves.
The person who is truly magnanimous is the person who pursues greatness in proportion to her gifts, resources, and abilities. She humbly considers all that God has given her and seeks to steward His gifts as best she can. She does not consider comfort her highest achievement, but instead “seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” trusting that He will provide all that she needs along the way (Matthew 6:33). She exhibits courage in the face of fear and resilience in the wake of failure. All in all, she possesses the ambition to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Jesus Christ wherever he leads.
The Greatness of Jesus
The crux of any discussion of Christian ambition must center on the story of Jesus and how his life, death, and resurrection transforms our moral vision. Accordingly, in what sense can we look at Jesus and call him ambitious? Does he demonstrate a desire for greatness?
What is most clear about Jesus is that he desires to do the will of God above all else, and to submit himself wholly to the authority and intentions of his heavenly Father (Matthew 28:39, John 5:30). But as we’ve said, submission does not nullify ambition if it happens in accordance with the truth of the way things are. In fact, just the opposite occurs in the gospel. Submission to God is what heightens our ambition so that we never settle for anything less than the greatness for which He designed us. C. S. Lewis famously wrote that God finds our desires not too strong, but too weak, so that failing to submit to Him leads to settling for sandboxes over beach vacations. It’s in our rebellion that we settle, and in our obedience that our ambition receives its due.
There are two particular instances in the life of Jesus when he was confronted with a choice to settle, one in a desert and the other in a garden. In the desert, Jesus was led by the Spirit as our champion to battle with the devil. (It’s important to remember that we lost round one in Eden when conditions were in our favor.) The devil tempts Jesus three times and the ultimate one is the temptation to greatness apart from submission to God. Jesus does not cave, however, because he knows in truth that there is no such thing.
The second opportunity to settle comes in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus closes in on the reward for his obedience. Self-emptying will soon take on a whole new meaning as he dies a cursed man for the sins of the world. With his fate in full view, Jesus asks if there is any other way to accomplish God’s purposes than to be forsaken by Him. The answer comes in the form of deafening silence.
If the desert temptation to settle is the lie that there is greatness available apart from God, the garden temptation to settle is the wish that we might get there apart from suffering. In both cases, Jesus submits and finishes the work the Father has given him to do. The mantra of his ambition is, “Thy will be done.”
The greatness of Jesus’ self-emptying and suffering is stunningly disclosed in the vision given to John in Revelation. In chapter 5, John finds himself in the sanctuary of heaven, the throne room of God. All creation finds its place in coordination around God’s throne, but none in creation is found worthy to open a special scroll revealing the will of God. That is, until one of the elders proclaims, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5). The announcement readies John for an exalted, imposing figure – a Lion, a victor, a uniquely worthy one.
And yet, in the next verse John describes the one he sees ready to take the scroll, not a conquering lion but instead a slain lamb. The implication in the vision is clear: Jesus’ greatness as the promised Lion of Judah comes only through his willingness to become a sacrificial lamb.
If ambition is a desire for greatness, and Jesus stands in heaven as incomparably great through submissive, self-emptying, and suffering love, then might we also expect our ambition to lead us along the same path? Christian ambition will inevitably take on the character of the ambitious love to which it is beholden. Jesus’ ambition to redeem us is what transforms our own ambition from self-seeking to self-emptying.
What does all this mean as we struggle to navigate our own ambitious impulses? How do we discern when ambition is rightly directed rather than wrongly directed?
Let me suggest four things to consider in closing:
Do I view greatness as a calling?
I hope I have made it clear enough that in the Bible God has called us to reign, to be great persons who do great things. To view greatness as a calling rather than just a life possibility is an exceedingly important distinction. If there is a calling, then that implies a Caller. And if there is a Caller, then it stands to reason that I am bound by someone outside myself who exercises the authority not only to call me but also to constrain me. Thus, God is the one who sets the standards for excellence in all areas of my life. The “bottom lines” by which the world judges greatness may often be forms of settling for lesser things. I must resist assuming those standards, and instead prayerfully press the question into my own heart, “What does faithfulness to God look like right now in my life?” Therein lies the path to true greatness.
Does my ambition seek the welfare of others at personal cost?
Too often we assume that ambition is inherently self-centered, and perhaps that is an assumption well-deserved. Scripture warns us repeatedly against living for ourselves. For example, the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit….” However, he also provides an encouragement that should undoubtedly be applied with ambition: “… but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Paul then goes on to admonish us to be like Jesus, who emptied himself, took on the form of a servant, and humbled himself unto death (Philippians 2:5-11).
Ambition rightly directed will have this self-emptying, other-centered, oft-suffering shape. In my striving, do I count others more significant than myself? Is their welfare more central to my efforts than my own comfort and ease?
Does my ambition honor what the world considers small?
So often, the greatness that Jesus commands comes in the form of simple acts of obedience that will never be celebrated as decisive by the world at large. Consider his description of the final judgment, when God accounts for what’s important:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40)
What are the extraordinary demands of God in the passage? A glass of water offered. A welcoming hand extended. An afternoon visit to a hospital or a prison. If ambition fails to account for the dignity in these small moments, or the dignity in each person no matter how small they seem to the world, then it is in conflict with the kingdom of God. My own ambition must have plenty of space for the “least of these” if it is to be godly ambition.
Can I entrust outcomes and personal recognition to God?
Wrongly-directed ambition can often be discerned by the audience to which it plays. Though noble acts that receive worldly recognition are often still noble, the more we make worldly recognition the horizon of our striving, the more twisted our ambition will inevitably become. The Apostle Paul speaks even more strongly of the contrast in his own work:
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
Consider once again the example of Jesus. Jesus went to the cross mostly alone, with little hint that the three years he had spent in ministry had made any difference at all. Even the twelve disciples whom he had poured his love and attention into abandoned him in his final hours. And yet Jesus trusted that his life and death would count in the hands of God. The resurrection is the climactic vindication of this trust, and the promise that God will one day publicly cherish all of our faithfulness to him. Ambition rightly directed entrusts the fruitfulness of our labors to God, especially in those moments when there seems nothing to show for it except the pain we have endured. In times such as these, it’s helpful to remember the words of Pope Benedict XVI: "The ways of the Lord are not comfortable. But we were not created for comfort, but for greatness."
Chad Scruggs, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.