I’m currently reading Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
One factor associated with higher levels of happiness, reported in many studies and surveys, is some expression of faith and spirituality. During a trip to Qatar, a Muslim colleague tells Wiener that when he’s feeling down, he talks to Allah. As Weiner reflects on his colleague’s comment, he writes, “I wonder: Who is my God?”
“Suddenly, His name pops into my mind and His is not a name I expected. Ambition. Yes, that is my God.
“When Ambition is your God, the office your temple, the employee handbook your holy book. The sacred drink, coffee, is imbibed five times a day. When you worship Ambition, there is no sabbath, no day of rest. Every day, you rise early, and kneel before the God Ambition, facing in the direction of your PC. You pray alone, always alone, even though others may be present. Ambition is a vengeful God. He will smite those who fail to worship faithfully, but that is nothing compared to what He has in store for the faithful. They suffer the worst fate of all. For it is only when they are old and tired, entombed in the corner office, that the realization hits like a Biblical thunderclap. The God Ambition is a false God and always has been.”
I know that false-god. I’ve worshipped at his altar far too often. I’ve made – and continue to make – far too many costly sacrifices to this unrelenting god, and am lesser for it.
Even as a professed Christian believer and an ordained pastor, I’ve flagrantly and frequently violated the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” I’ve frequently bowed to another, lesser – but far more demanding – god. Ambition, in the forms of…
I have a growing theory. The Bible predominantly tells us what we ought to know, but clearly DO NOT. In truth, all of the Bible’s teaching runs contrary to our natural proclivities and inclinations. God made us to worship, true. But, we seem to want to worship anything and everything but the only one true God.
Sex, money, power, possessions, drugs, security, popularity… ambition.
I’ve always been struck by a passage from Isaiah,
The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker;he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:13-20)
Take note: he worships the work of his own two hands. He grows a tree. Chops it down. Carves an idol from some of the wood, making a fire with the rest, to cook his food and warm his body. He then worships the thing he has created, never asking,“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”
“Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself.”
Is there a better description of worshipping ambition?
A deluded heart. That’s me.
Arguably, some of us are more ambitious than others. Arguably, I was more ambitious in my younger years, when I felt like I had more to prove. In fact, my ambition has waned, some, in recent years, having experienced too many years of stress and strain, and struggling to recover from a significant burnout.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ambition or success. Many ambitious people accomplish great things, for which we can all be grateful. Undeniably, even in the Church world, ambitious pastors are leading “successful,” growing churches, accomplishing great things for the Kingdom of God. I hold many of them in highest regard!
Likewise, there’s nothing virtuous about laziness or lack of accomplishment!
But, serving the ambition god, is not the same as serving God with an ambitious heart. The line between the two is fine, and, yet, VERY significant!
While I’m still committed to healthy, vital, growing, quality, life-changing, excellent, creative, cutting-edge Kingdom work, the focus of my ambition has shifted – I hope. Though, earlier in my ministry, I would have claimed Kingdom motivation, the honest truth is my ambition was driven by insecurity and fear, as well as an incessant need to prove my value and worth through my work. If my church or ministry succeeded, then I was a success. If I was a success, I was validated. The problem was – and is – success is subjective, open to critique, and never long-lasting.
Not succeeding – or, failing – became my greatest fear.
But, now, increasingly, I just want to be faithful. I want to do the right things, for God, for the right reasons. Increasingly, I want my ministry to be less about me, and MUCH more about God. While I haven’t given up on anything I believe makes a ministry healthy and thriving, I am seeking to find motivation from a healthier, God-centered place.
So, at least for today, no more worshipping idols of my own creation, or the ashes of their remnants. For today, I’ve torn down the altar to my ambition god.
Hopefully, I won’t start rebuilding it tomorrow.