Beware the seduction of ambition

image credit: Creative Commons user JapInTheGap

Ambition is a double-edged sword. When it is God-directed and Spirit-managed, it can bear tremendous fruit. When it is restrained by humility, ambition can be a powerful motivator. But when it is hijacked by self and ego, it can leave a wake of destruction in its path.

I have wrestled with this issue for most of my life. If you have leadership gifts, you know what it is to be captivated by vision. You know what it is to have dreams of what could be. You know what it is to want to do something significant with your life.

Here’s where it gets sticky.

Is this drive and desire and motivation about me or about God and his purposes? If we’re honest, we would have to admit that our hearts are entangled with God-directed motives and self-directed motives. Sorting them out is complex. Part of what makes ambition so dangerous is that it resides in the unseen world of the soul. This unseen part of your life is actually a very powerful force.

God wired into every one of us a creative tension. On the one hand, we have what the ancients referred to as a “fire in the belly.” This is the source of our vision, our longing to make a difference, and our will to sacrifice for a greater cause. In recent years in the ministry world we have been pouring gasoline on the fires of ambition. Well-intentioned desires to stoke the fires of godly ambition have sometimes been hijacked by personal ambition.

At the same time, God also has hardwired into us the need for quiet, solitude, rest, and reflection (a healthy soul). This is one reason God established the Sabbath: to teach us there is a healthy rhythm of life. I like to refer to this part of us as a “spiritual recliner.” It’s a place of rest and peace. It’s more about being than doing.

You need both a fire in the belly and a spiritual recliner to be healthy.  Think of it like this. Imagine fire in the belly (ambition) is like raw electricity. It’s alive, energetic, powerful, exciting and full of potential, but it can also be dangerous and potentially fatal. Then think of a healthy soul as a transformer. A transformer serves to regulate, channel, direct, and control electricity. A transformer takes what is potentially harmful and deadly and turns it into something useful and helpful.

It seems to me we are reaping the results of a generation in the church where it has been all about raw electricity. The outcome has been a spike in leaders who are coming unglued. I have a growing conviction that it’s dangerous to equip young leaders with vision, leadership, strategy, and church growth principles without equipping them to have healthy souls. We need to be just as serious about building transformers as we are about generating raw electricity.

My concern is that the measuring stick of size and growth alone can fuel a kind of ambition that is destructive.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s this: numerical growth alone is no indicator of God’s favor or godly leadership. I know of pastors whose churches were growing at a double-digit pace annually when they were involved in a full-blown sexual affair. Where do we put that in our theology?

In the introduction to Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren talks about catching spiritual waves. It is God who creates waves and movements of his Spirit. We don’t get to decide when the wave comes, where it comes, or how big it will be. But it’s our privilege to ride a great wave and participate in what God is doing.

My fear is that Christian leaders will no longer stand on the shore looking for and praying for a wave of God’s Spirit. When ambition does not have a healthy soul attached to it, we can start trying to create waves ourselves.

So, what are you doing to build a “spiritual transformer” in your life?  And what can you do to insure that your “holy ambition” doesn’t turn into “unholy ambition”?

* Photo credit: Creative Commons user JapInTheGap

Lance Witt is the founder of Replenish Ministries, an organization devoted to ministering pastors to help them become healthy, holy, and humble. He also serves as the Pastor for Strategic Development at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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2 Responses to Beware the seduction of ambition

  1. Barb says:

    So glad to see you writing about this subject. I’m in the early stages of ministry and have spent the last few months sorting through my pure and impure motives for ministry with God. Once a day I journal with Him or go through Scripture with Him on this subject and He has been doing a workover on me – a badly needed workover, I might add. I’m coming to the point now where I want to write what He wants me to write regardless of the sacrifice or outcome.

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