So far in my exploration of ambition, I have concluded that it is important to be content with what you have. It is also ‘a good thing’; to have ambitions that help other people; selfish ambitions are ultimately destructive.
All along I have been hoping to get to the Apostle Paul and in particular in his letter to the Christians in Philippi. What has he got to say to them about ambition?
The first hope mentioned is this:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ…”
This is a hope for others – and a hope for their good. I like the setting the bar high in the “abound more and more” in terms of knowledge and insight for them. He wants them to be able to figure out good ambitions and plans with perfection as a goal – “pure and blameless”. There’s a high bar to aim for!
Here is a perfect balance of the egotistical and the egalitarian fighting within Paul:
“… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith…”
Here he talks about what he wants personally, perhaps selfishly – that he has had enough and wants to die and enjoy heaven – but he can see that his role is to be egalitarian.
He then goes on to instruct the recipients of the letter to do the same:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Which is what he has just done himself – but he is not saying they should follow his example:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…”
Again we have this idea of a tension between one’s own ambition and the service of others. Paul holds up Jesus as the ideal model to follow, encouraging the recipients to take on “the nature of a servant” of others.
Another example that Paul holds up is his protégé Timothy:
“I have no one else like him who takes an interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”
I think the implication here is that the interests of Jesus Christ that Paul refers to are concerned with the “welfare” of the Philippians. Paul seems to find that this “nature of a servant” is hard to come by in people. People generally are selfish.
Paul then comes to a great crescendo in his letter when he writes about his great ambition. The passage begins:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
Here Paul has clearly had his world and value system turned upside down. He has given up everything material and found it to be worth it, in exchange for “the surpassing worth knowing Christ Jesus”. He continues with a clear statement of his ambition:
“I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
His ambition is clear in “I want to know Christ” – but then he separates out the strands of that ambition and what it would mean for him – and as ambitions go, it is certainly mixed! On the plus side, he hopes for power and life. On the down side he also hopes to suffer and approach death like Christ.
Is this a selfish ambition? He wants power and resurrection. It cannot be selfish, surely, to suffer and die? And anyway, he had already concluded that although he would rather die and experience a resurrection – he is sacrificing this, for the time being, for the welfare of the Philippians.
I really like the next section. It has imagery of reaching sporting/athletic goals:
…forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
He sounds very focused, with his hopes set high. He sounds like a runner who can see the finish line a way out in front – and he wants to win – he is ambitious – straining and pressing on.
There is an interesting contrast that he makes with the ambitions that clash with this idealistic and extreme worldview. I think he is still talking about people who technically are followers of his faith, but who set a poor example:
“… Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.”
Paul then rounds off his letter with his claim to have:
“…learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
What do I learn from Paul, in terms of ambition?
He did not look to himself for inner strength – he looked to God for strength to reach the goals set by God. He had the bar set extremely high – beyond his human strength.
He encouraged his readers to look beyond earthly, physical, materialistic life to greater ideas:
“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
He followed the example of Christ’s selflessness and was encouraged by Timothy’s attitude of service.
So, to answer my original question a few posts ago: Ambition – nice or horrible?
Selfish ambition is horrible.
Ambitions that drive us on to lives of service and virtue are nice.
Discontentedness is horrible.
Contentment and altruism are nice.