Ambition … is it a good thing or a bad thing? Like with many things, it all depends upon the context in which it is used.
Ambition can be a virtue as it is that strong desire within someone to do or to achieve something. Ambition typically requires determination and a lot of hard work. Making a name for yourself, rising above your peers, achieving the American dream … these are some ambitious goals. And, according to the wisdom of the world, such ambition is, indeed, a good thing. We’re taught in school to dream big dreams, to make bold goals, to work hard, all the while never letting anyone stand in your way. … That last thing on that short list … that we should never let anyone stand in our way … that is what exposes the problems, the ugliness which comes from ambition. Doing whatever it takes, an end justifies the means kind of mindset gets away from what it means to have godly ambition. The “never let anyone stand in your way” mentality is just utterly selfish.
If we want to see a concentrated experiment in “ambition”, we need to look no farther than reality television. Now, I’m not a big watcher of reality TV shows anymore, unless it is something like “Deadliest Catch” or “Master Chef”. I figure there is enough drama, that there is too much drama in the “real” world that I don’t need to watch a group of people going through it on TV. So I don’t get caught up in the hype of shows like “Survivor”, “The Bachelor”, “The Bachelorette”, or “Big Brother” to name a few. Each of these shows people are offered a great deal of money, or the love of some amazing, kind, sensitive rich young hunk or beautiful babe. But in order to get the “prize”, people, contestants, they have to compete to win. The ambitious goal of victory doesn’t come easy and it is not cheap. Quite often, someone has to sabotage or backstab someone else in order to win.
I came across a story in relation to this from the show “The Biggest Loser.” People on the show are competing to see who can lose the most weight, establish a healthy lifestyle, and ultimately win a lot of money. Friendships are created at the beginning of the show and then they are destroyed as contestants use each other to reach their goal. At the end of an episode, one of the contestants was found to have betrayed someone who had trust them. Their response when questioned about it … “I didn’t come here to make friends. I came here to win.”
This kind of ambition, this kind of wisdom of the world is what James is talking about, is talking against today. “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). It’s one thing to have an attitude while on a reality competition show, but it’s a totally different thing when it comes to our daily lives because it’s nothing but destructive.
You know, how often do we hear phrases like, “Oh, it’s only business,” or “All’s fair in love and war” or “The end justifies the means” or something like that? Sure, these selfish attitudes breed success in the eyes of the world … but at what cost? “Oh, so and so did all they could to achieve their goals and now look at their success … even if they had to lose all their friends along the way.”
This so-called worldly wisdom comes the depths of a dark and unclean heart. A heart which Jesus says “from within, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22). All these things Jesus mentions are all focused on one thing … myself. These different things are what people use in order to fulfill their selfish ambitions.
This so-called worldly wisdom, this selfish ambition comes from an idolatry, a love and a worship of the world’s pleasures, or what James calls, “friendship with the world” (4:4). This friendship with the world brings about a covetousness, this desire to get something someone else has and at whatever cost necessary. This “let no one stand in my way” mentality produces quarrels, fights, and even murder (4:1-2). This kind of mentality, this kind of attitude or lifestyle has no place in the heart of a Christian.
And yet we see it all over the place. We even see it in the gospel reading this morning with the disciples. When they get to their destination, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). Not even the disciples are immune from this. James and John especially wanted to ascend to the positions of power and influence in the kingdom of God where Jesus would reign. But the thing is, Jesus didn’t call them to be his disciples so that they could climb the ladder and rule … he called them to serve. He called them to suffer if needed. They were called to serve God and to serve those around them.
And God calls us. God calls as brothers and sisters of His Church to a totally different kind of wisdom than that of the world. James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in humility that come from wisdom” (3:13). Good life, by deeds done in humility … maybe I’m wrong but that sounds a lot like a heart not filled with the darkness of selfish ambition for myself but a heart which is filled with faith. Faith in someone outside of me. A faith which naturally leads me to want to serve those who are around me.
James goes on to say that this “wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17). When is the last time you heard of anyone pursing the American dream praise humility? Gentle, peaceable, reasonable people … they don’t make it in a world which is all about using people in order promote one’s own status. Worldly wisdom says that sincerity is all good and fine, so long as it sells and benefits me. The wisdom from heaven … that wisdom, it is lived out perfectly only in the life of Jesus, who finds no friends in this world.
Jesus is that wisdom which comes down from above, which comes from heaven (3:17). The way of the world, even in Jesus’ day, is so focused on self-preservation, selfish ambitions, and the vain pursuits of glory. This attitude, this mentality and lifestyle … it totally contradicts the way of Christ.
Paul says in Philippians 2, “Jesus: Who being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in the appearance of man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (2:5-8). The whole idea of worship and following of a Jewish man whose ministry resulted in his crucifixion is foolishness to the world. The idea of living with virtues which flow from God, living with things like mercy, meekness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23) is foolishness to the world.
Christ’s only ambition … it’s you. Christ’s only ambition was to do what needed to be done, no matter the cost, so that you would be with him now and throughout eternity.
Like reality TV stars … Jesus came to win, but unlike the reality TV stars … Jesus came to make friends. He came to make you his friend. He didn’t come to backstab and win for himself some big prize, he came to rescue you, to reconcile you, to make you right in the eyes of God.
James calls us today to repent of our selfish ambition and to end our pursuit of friendship with the world. “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:9-10). Turn from selfish pursuits, turn from lustful temptations, turn from prideful, selfish ambition that the world offers. Turn from them because friendship with the world only leads to death. James says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:8). Selfish ambition ruins you. It ruins everyone around you. Drawing near to God, living a life of faith and having the love of God in your heart … that is a life of heavenly wisdom. That’s a type of ambition to strive for. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.