Both Opposites of Ambition

This post was written by our pastor of counseling, Brad Hambrick.

This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon “Ambition” preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday June 4-5, 2011.

It is so easy to get caught in the habit of thinking that a virtue only has one opposite. What is the opposite of love? Hate. What is the opposite of peace? War. These are the natural and right answers, although incomplete.

The opposite of love is also apathy. The opposite of peace is also denial. Not caring is as alien to love as wanting to do great harm. Pretending things are okay when they are not is as foreign to peace as picking a fight.

We have a habit of only thinking of the aggressive distortions of a virtue (hate or war) and overlooking the passive distortions (apathy or denial). This may be because we were influenced by the movie Bambi more than we realized. Remember Thumper’s mother’s advice, “If you cannot say something nice do not say anything at all.” Too often we live as if God said that and applied it to every virtue of life.

This is as true of ambition as it is of any other virtue. We naturally think of the aggressive distortions of ambition – selfishness, pride, exploitation, neglecting family, etc… We call these sins (rightfully) and condemn those who practice them (too often self-righteously).

Yet we often turn a blind eye to the passive distortions of ambition – fear of failure, purposelessness, low self-esteem, laziness, lack of faith, insecurity, discontentment, etc… We call these personality flaws (mislabeling them) and treat them as if they only need to be more understood and accepted (offering false comfort; Jer. 6:14).

The aggressive and passive distortions of any virtue are equally wrong.  Both 5 and -5 are equally distant from 0. Their consequences may be different. But they each equally misrepresent the character of God.

The answer for both is the same learning godly ambition through the Gospel.

Aggressive distortions of godly ambition need to die to self. These distortions serve self through consuming others for the purpose of advancing their own kingdom. Their forms of control are also aggressive as they use power, influence, and money to manipulate others to advance their agenda. They are convinced they are right or have the right to act as they do.

Passive distortions of godly ambition need to die to self. These distortions serve self through protecting self for the purpose of not risking their own kingdom. Their forms of control are passive aggressive as they use guilt, inactivity, or dependency to manipulate others to advance their agenda. They would never admit they are manipulating anyone and would continue their self-protection by how offended they feel at hearing such a suggestion.

It is only the Gospel that allows us to live for a kingdom other than self. We realize that neither the advancement nor the protection of our kingdom will ever really satisfy our souls. We were made for something bigger than self (a thought at the very core of godly ambition).

We begin to consider how our talents, abilities, relationships, possessions, education, and time can be leveraged for the advancement of God’s kingdom. Our creativity is freed from fear (the root of the passive distortions of ambition) because the most precious thing we have is the endless gift of the Gospel. There is no risk with what you cannot lose.

Our end product is freed from self-centeredness (the root of aggressive distortions of ambition) because our mission is captured in the theme “He must increase, but I decrease (John 3:30).” We realize that we were blessed in order than we might be a blessing to others (Gen 12:2).

In the end, we find the joy that can drive our souls for eternity without chewing up the things we love most (spouse and children) and blesses those that God is especially fond of (the homeless, orphans, prisoners, unwed mothers, high school drop outs, etc…, cf James 2:26-27). Now our ambition drives those we love towards God through our example and draws those God loves to Him through our service and generosity. We will, then, do great things by God’s grace as our ambition become what God intended it to be all along.

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.