Is ambition a good or bad thing? My response is something of a cop out: I don’t know; it all depends. How would you answer? Like many words, ambition can be used in a variety of ways. Some of the ways it is used make it a bad thing. On the other hand, some of the ways it is used make it a good thing.
The definitions given for ambition suggest both the good and bad. For example, one online definition describes ambition as “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” Nothing wrong with that. But the next description of the word is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” Not so appealing.
Another entry says ambition is “a particular goal or aim, something that a person hopes to do or achieve.” Again, nothing wrong with that. But then comes the description “a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous.” Again, two of the three words are not as positive.
William Barclay discusses the Greek work in his book New Testament Words with the title “The Wrong Kind of Ambition.” He reports that in the beginning it was a perfectly respectable word meaning “labor for wages.” But with the passing of time the meaning of the word degenerated to describe something a person did “simply and solely for his [sic] own honor and glory and for his [sic] own profit.” The word is used seven times in the New Testament and always has a negative implication.
The best known and clearest usage of the word in the Bible is in the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Christians in Philippians 2:3a, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (NIV). I think the NIV’s addition of the adjective selfish to ambition captures the degeneration of the word Barclay traces. The NLT renders the warning, “Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others.” And in The Message Eugene Peterson has Paul caution, “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.”
In the next chapter in the letter Paul doesn’t use the actual word, but I think he is writing about his ambition and what I would call good ambition. He writes in Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
In his review of a book of essays about ambition James A.K. Smith makes a couple of observations that ring true and are descriptive of Paul’s ambition. One is that “the opposite of ambition is not humility; it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.” And he is right to note the ambitious are not always prideful and arrogant. His second observation is that “it is the telos [goal] of ambition that distinguishes good from bad, separating faithful aspiration from self-serving aggrandizement.”
At the age of 66 I am not as ambitious as I was in years gone by, but I haven’t lost all my ambition. I pray my ambitions are not self-serving or arrogant. I hope they are more in line with the Apostle Paul’s—to become more and more the person God has called me to be as a follower of Jesus.
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