Ambition is a blessing and a curse. When it is God-directed and Spirit-managed, it can bear tremendous fruit. When it is restrained by humility, ambition can be a powerful motivator. But when it is hijacked by self and ego, it can leave a wake of destruction in its path.
I have wrestled with this issue for most of my life. If you have leadership gifts, you know what it is to be captivated by vision. You know what it is to have dreams of what could be. You know what it is to want to do something significant with your life.
Here’s where it gets sticky. Is this drive and desire and motivation about me or about God? If we’re honest, we would have to admit that our hearts are entangled with God-directed motives and self-directed motives. Sorting them out is complex. A discussion of motives and ambition takes us to an inner place that’s hidden from everyone. Part of what makes ambition so dangerous is that it resides in the unseen world of the soul.
God wired into every one of us a creative tension. On the one hand, we have what the ancients referred to as a “fire in the belly.” This is our inner source of vision, our longing to make a difference, our will to achieve. In recent years in the ministry world we have been pouring gasoline on these fires.
At the same time, God also has hardwired into us the need for quiet, solitude, rest, and reflection (a healthy soul). This is one reason God established the Sabbath: to teach us there is a healthy rhythm of life. I like to refer to this part of us as a “spiritual recliner.” It’s a place of rest and peace. It’s more about being than doing.
You need both a fire in the belly and a spiritual recliner to be healthy. In fact, you must have both. The problem is that these two realities create strain in our lives.
Think of it like this. Imagine that the fire in the belly (ambition) is like raw electricity. It’s alive, energetic, powerful, exciting and full of potential, but it can also be dangerous and potentially fatal. Then think of a healthy soul as a transformer. A transformer serves to regulate, channel, direct, and control electricity. A transformer takes what’s potentially harmful and deadly and turns it into something useful and helpful.
It seems to me we are reaping the results of a generation in the church where it has been all about raw electricity. We need to be just as serious about building transformers as we are about generating raw electricity.
My first pastorate was in a rural Baptist church in Arkansas. We were a small church of less than a hundred in a small town that had been the same size for a generation or more. I came out of seminary with lots of ambition and drive. Why couldn’t we be the first mega-church in a town of three thousand?
But all my ambition and hard work didn’t translate into much growth. I remember going to denominational meetings or occasionally running into a classmate from seminary. I dreaded those conversations because I knew the drill. Sooner or later (usually sooner) we would get to the “How are things going at your church?” question. I would try to change the subject as soon as possible. I always walked away feeling inadequate and discouraged.
The emotion and the pressure were mostly self-imposed. The emotions I felt had to do with my own ambition. In my mind the only successful pastor was the pastor of a fast-growing church. Our obsession with size and church growth has set up a generation of pastors who feel like failures.
Now, let me reveal the other side of my struggle with ambition. Fast forward a few years to a time when I was pastoring a church that was the talk of the town. All indicators were up and to the right. By everyone’s measuring stick we were a success.
Unlike before, I found myself anxious to talk to other pastors. I couldn’t wait to get to the “How are things going at your church?” question. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I would find myself in a conversation looking for a way to turn and manipulate the dialogue so that I could talk about our church.
This was a whole different set of emotions than what I experienced in my small, rural church in Arkansas, but it was nonetheless related to ambition..
As Scripture says “Fire tests the purity of silver and gold, but a person is tested by being praised.”
Success can be just as challenging a test as failure. I’m not quite sure when, but somewhere along the way, the measuring stick for what it means to be an effective pastor got switched. The target was no longer personal faithfulness, it became external fruitfulness. My concern is that the measuring stick of size alone can fuel a kind of ambition that is destructive.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s this: numerical growth alone is no indicator of God’s favor or godly leadership.
In the introduction to Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren talks about catching spiritual waves. It is God who creates waves and movements of his Spirit. We don’t get to decide when the wave comes, where it comes, or how big it will be. But it’s our privilege to ride a great wave and participate in what God is doing.
My fear is that Christian leaders will no longer stand on the shore looking for and praying for a wave of God’s Spirit. When ambition does not have a healthy soul attached to it, we can start trying to create waves ourselves.
So, take a few moments to reflect on this issue of ambition. Are there any signs of unhealthy ambition. Ask God to purify your heart and motives!
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