AMBITION: GOOD OR BAD?

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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SECRET DISCIPLES?

In the book JESUS AMONG FRIENDS AND ENEMIES (edited by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado) there is a chapter in the friends part titled “Secret Disciples.” David M. Allen presents a thoughtful discussion of two interesting characters in the biblical record: the two Jewish leaders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Allen suggests the night visit of Nicodemus to Jesus (John 3:2) indicates “someone who is potentially sympathetic to Jesus but unwilling to express that publically” (p.158).  Citing John 19:38, Allen suggests Joseph of Arimathea became a “secret disciple, one who wishes to be associated with Jesus, but seemingly not in public.” (p. 167).

When I first saw the chapter title “Secret Disciples,” and still as I think about it now, I’m not sure a person can be a secret disciple. The terms sounds like a contradiction to me. The purpose of this post is not to criticize what Allen has written. His chapter is carefully researched and written, well worth reading. I want to use his essay to challenge and stimulate our thinking.

The New Testament seems to teach that the very nature of being a disciple means one has declared allegiance to Jesus. For example, in Matthew 10:32 Jesus promised, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus used two metaphors to describe His followers that contradict the idea of being a secret disciple. While neither “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) nor “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16) demands a confession as such, it’s not easy to reconcile how a person could be both salt and light as a secret disciple. A Christian’s witness as salt and light does not have to be overt, but both do speak to a disciple’s influence.

One of my favorite New Testament teachings on this subject is in I Peter 3:15b, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The instruction to be prepared to respond when asked about one’s faith suggests the believer’s lifestyle has created interest. Similar to the images of salt and light, living with an obvious hope that others take note of does not have to be overt. But equally important to the instruction of I Peter 3:15b is the manner in which the writer tells us we are to answer. I Peter 3:15c cautions, “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Too often Christians acknowledge Jesus before others and answer questions about their hope and faith without gentleness and respect. With gentleness and respect calls us not to be arrogant, or condescending, or combative, or judgmental.

To be potentially sympathetic to Jesus but unwilling to express that publically, or to wish to be associated with Jesus but not in public, hardly gives a person the opportunity to acknowledge Him, to be the salt of the earth or the light of the world, or to live in such a way that one would be asked the reason for his or her hope.

I have often told the story of a little boy answering the door with his mutt dog when a door to door salesman knocked. Trying to create goodwill, the salesman noted the dog and asked, “What kind of dog is that?” The boy proudly answered, “He’s a police dog.” Puzzled, the salesman remarked, “He doesn’t look like a police dog.” The boy responded, “He’s in the secret service.” There very well may be unique situations when it would be necessary to be a secret disciple; but generally speaking a secret disciple is an oxymoron.

What do you think?

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THE LOSS OF A FAMILY MEMBER

Jan and I lost a wonderful family member this past Saturday. Even though we knew it was coming, we are sad. She was 81, and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer several months ago. After Easter we traveled to Cincinnati and spent a few days with her while she was still alert and active. (The picture above is from that visit.)

Pat was special to us for a variety of reasons. She and Jan’s dad were married after Jan’s mom passed away over 34 years ago. She was a great partner for my father-in-law all those years, enriching his life until the end. As we would expect, at the age of 94 he is deeply wounded and filled with grief.

When my father-in-law married Pat our family immediately expanded. Pat had two daughters and a son; Jan’s dad had two sons and a daughter. Although Jan and her two brothers were gone, Pat’s two daughters (one still in high school) lived with them. Jan and I, her brothers, and Pat’s children and spouses all became family.

Jan and I never felt or thought of Pat as a step-mother; and I’m confident she never thought of Jan or her brothers as step-children. Nor did Jan’s dad ever consider Pat’s girls or son step-children. Having lived with them for a few years, Jan’s dad especially loved her girls and they loved him.

Pat took great interest in our two children and grandchildren as well as Jan’s nephews and niece. She was a real grandmother to our children and great-grandmother to our grandsons. Both our daughter and son are disappointed they cannot travel to Cincinnati to celebrate her life and mourn her loss with the rest of the family. I too am sorry I am not able to join them.

It was always great to visit Pat and Jan’s dad because of her gift and love of hospitality. She wanted everything to be perfect for us. Some of my favorite memories are our visits with them in Tucson during several winters. When in Cincinnati I sometimes felt guilty going out to lunch with friends or going to Skyline Chili because she always loved feeding us.

Pat Kissell was a woman who loved her family and friends and was deeply loved by them. The past few months have been difficult for many of us as we supported and encouraged her and each other through her final journey. As I have said to so many through the years who have lost loved ones, we will never get over our loss.

As I write this tribute the number one movie in our nation is Wonder Women. As a member of her extended family, I join with the rest of the family in thanking God for and grieving the passing of our Wonder Woman: Pat Kissell.

Please join me in praying for Pat’s family, for my wife Jan as she travels, and for Pat’s husband/Jan’s dad Bill.

 

 

THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE

Several times since my wife and I moved to Texas something has happened that prompted one of us to say “That’s why we’re here.” We relocated to help our daughter, who has a full time job, with our two grandsons–ages 7 and 3. We talked and thought about moving for over a year, and finally pulled the trigger this past December. The past six months have proven to be even better than we imagined as we have become a vital part of the daily lives of our daughter and grandsons.

Their dog became ill and needed to be taken to the vet. Jan volunteered and said “that’s why we’re here.” Our younger grandson got strep throat and I stayed home with him one day. I told my daughter “that’s why we’re here.” Jan does so much around our daughter’s house that I have occasionally complained only to be reminded “that’s why we’re here.” It was my privilege to help coach our older grandson’s little league baseball team. One time the coach told me I didn’t have to carry the equipment, but I told him “that’s why we’re here.” I won’t bore you with more examples–I think you get the point.

As important as being fully engaged as grandparents is, there is more. On multiple occasions our new pastor has suggested to us that God had a reason for bringing us to our new church. We’re not yet totally sure what that is, but I have already preached on two weekends and we are talking about other ways I can serve. Not only are we plugging into our new church, I have had a variety of opportunities in other venues to preach, teach, and serve. I am especially excited to fill the position of teaching the Bible class at Amarillo High School beginning this fall.

Through the years I have often been asked by people who were discouraged or depressed or seriously ill, “Why am I still here?” Occasionally I have offered a reason or two, but I think it is better when I ask what they think the reason is. It is not always obvious, but there are reasons why all of us are where we are. The challenge, of course, is to realize there are reasons, explore what they may be, and then fulfill them.

The Texas Panhandle is the fourth place Jan and I have lived in the 43 years we have been married. There was a reason we lived on the west side of Cincinnati and I was youth pastor at Bridgetown Church of Christ for almost five years. There was reason we moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia and I was pastor of Delaware Valley Church of Christ for almost 10 years. There was a reason we moved to Moreno Valley, California, and I was the founding pastor of Discovery Christian Church where we stayed for 30 years.

As hard as it was to leave Southern California, we have not regretted our move to Texas. There is a reason we are here and we know at least in part what that reason is. And we look forward to realizing other reasons why we’re here.

Why are you where you are?

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