A handful of years back, one of my senior colleagues told me this: “I have been hearing from people in the guild that you are ‘ambitious.'” I said, “Ok, thanks.” He said, “Ummm….that’s not a compliment.” That moment left me both surprised and disappointed. Some were interpreting the hard work I felt I had done as something off-putting and cocky. It made me feel guilty for being “ambitious.” Is ambition really that bad?
I just finished reading Craig Hill’s new book on this subject, Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus (Eerdmans). It strikes me as one of those books that will help many Christian leaders and aspiring professors to reflect maturely on the matter of ambition. It is not a traditional “academic book,” but more like a series of theological reflections on the matter. Here are a few memorable nuggets:
A quote from C.S. Lewis where he likens Hell to the kind of stuffy academic atmosphere of his time: “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment” (Hill, 20-21; from Screwtape Letters, preface, p. ix).
[Hill offers a helpful statement about humility and generosity in our leadership]:
It is only in a specific and limited sense that the NT authors ask us to deny ourselves. They do not teach self-abnegation, that is, the loss or destruction of self. Christianity is not masochistic, and it should not promote, much less require, self-loathing. We are asked to give out of the abundance we have received, and for every loss, there is a corresponding, even greater gain. It is essential to understanding, however, that this is not necessarily a gain in kind. There is no guarantee that finding our identity in God is going to make us famous or wealthy. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely to have the opposite effect. (33)
Note that Jesus did not ask his hearers to become nothing. It is the source of their significance, not their need for significance, that was challenged. (50)
[Hill paraphrasing 2 Cor 12:7-9]: “we can be filled by God only to the extent that we are not already full of ourselves” (103)
These are just a few snippets. At the end of it all, Hill concludes that ambition is neither inherently good or bad. He writes, “[Ambition] is the fire that warms the house or, unchecked, burns it to the ground. A gifted person who lacks ambition will achieve little. Yes, and the worst people in history have been spectacularly ambitious” (150).
Along the way, I have learned that I cannot control what other people think of me. I need to be driven by what I think is right, keep my pride in check, have friends and colleagues who can graciously call me out if I err, and pass on generosity to those who are struggling just as others have lifted me up. I think we will be held back from doing all that we are called to do if we are overly occupied with how our work “looks” to others. I try to believe that if we commit ourselves to quality (and not just quantity), we should not be embarrassed with our work and productivity.