Monday, August 8, 2011



Modern notions of ambition, excellence, and success are very slippery indeed. They assume you're 'more OK' if you 'get to the top' than those not-so-OK who don't. 'Ambition' comes from the Latin ambire = to go around (canvassing for votes). It's what politicians do. It's the massaging of one's ego by power or adulation. It's loving something other than the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. It's a preoccupation with my destiny rather than the pain of my sister or brother. It's a desire to surpass others, to have more than they have, to be more than they are - ie. to be more like the devil than Jesus.

Our business in life is not to get ahead of others, but to get ahead of ourselves. Selfish ambition produces chronic anxiety, so 'anxiety reduction' is big business today. Often people with the most talent, money or power have the most anxiety. (That's one difference between the poor and the rich: the poor think money will buy happiness; the rich know better). The overly ambitious use power for their own ends, often unconsciously engaging in 'power games' - repeating gossip ('for your prayers' of course), withholding information, discouraging others, etc. James 4:1,2 gives the reason - jealousy.

We've been seduced into thinking that, properly-organized, life can be trouble-free. Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Travelled) says our society doesn't believe life should be difficult, or that solving problems gives life meaning. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering (Jung). But Jesus promised constant trouble and constant joy (because of his constant presence).

Godly ambition, for Paul, meant three things: 1. Pleasing Christ (2 Corinthians 5:9). If you love someone (self, Christ, another) you'll want to please that one. The 'American 5-star system' (success, prestige, money, power, security) is essentially self-pleasing. Christ did not please himself (Romans 15:3). 2. Proclaiming Christ (Romans 15:20). We do that by what we are, what we say, and what we do: these must all be congruent. 'A Christian is someone who's met one'. 3. Portraying Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12) - by 'living quietly and calmly' (you can't do that if ambition is self-centred).

Serenity is a function of contemplation - allowing the Word to descend from the mind to the heart, so that we move from opaqueness to transparency (Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome).


Here's another slippery idea. Maximizing your effectiveness, developing and using your talents to the full, being useful as well as decorative is alright, but for whose glory? A brilliant life for the glory of self is a wasted life. An obscure life ministering to enhance that of others is eternally successful. Arthur Miller says of Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, 'He is writing his name in a block of ice on a hot day'. 'Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not' was the Lord's word to Baruch (Jeremiah 45:5).

Chuck Colson says he read the Bible through three times and couldn't find 'God helps those who help themselves'. On the other hand, as Anthony Campolo put it so well, 'two dangers threaten the survival of Christendom. The one is mediocrity; the other is success...' Mediocrity, he says, has come to characterize the behaviour of most people in most institutions. 'They live out their Christian commitment in a mediocre fashion within the context of churches that have mediocre programs... Holiness is excellence, so there is no excuse for mediocrity. Success is worldly, so there is no excuse for Christians pursuing it'. (Forward to Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success, by Jon Johnston, Baker, 1985).


The species 'pastor' does not easily survive either success or failure. We (Western) humans have an inordinate need to demonstrate our worth by performance. We strive to be luminaries, rather than letting our light shine. We are what we do and achieve. And we have an insatiable appetite for approval: much of the way we behave is a veiled means of soliciting compliments. Paul Tournier decribes a universal comedy of innumerable individuals all motivated by the intense desire to appear in the best possible light. 'They are always on the watch, lest their weaknesses, their faults, their ignorance be discovered; anxious to distinguish themelves, to be noticed, to be admired, to be commiserated with. Some do it openly and naively, and are considered vain. Others hide it better, but are no less vain... The people who fail are those who try hardest to succeed.' Success and/or failure may produce spiritual health - or they may not. As Kipling said, they're both imposters. Winning isn't everything; we need the faith to face failure: 'When I am weak, then I am strong'. I can do all things - even fail - through Christ who strengthens me. How can we learn to make weakness a source of creativity (see Nouwen's Creative Ministry)? Sometimes we give the impression we've 'got it all together'; or 'victorious Christian life' preaching leaves strugglers in confusion and despair.

The Puritans preached that 'success' results from God's blessing, or God's testing, or God's abandonment and judgment, or the devil's seduction. Only one in four was God's prospering. Does the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) teach success as a correlate of faithfulness? Peter Wagner: 'Why were the two servants who put their talents to work faithful, and the one who did not unfaithful? Very simply, because they were successful'. Orlando Costas disagrees: 'The point of the parable is not the money they made, but the fact that they did not hide it away. They were faithful not because they were successful (made money), but because they faithfully put to work the resources the Master entrusted to them'.

The 'possibility thinking' movement does offer some wisdom: 'You may not be what you think you are, but what you think, you are!' (Sports stars talk about 'imaging'). 'I don't know the secret of success, but I do know the secret of failure - try to please everybody'. 'Success is not permanent. The same is also true of failure'. 'The biggest reward for a thing well done is to have done it'. 'Mistakes are to life what shadows are to light'. Albert Einstein's formula for success: 'X+Y+Z where X is work, Y is play, and Z is keep your mouth shut!' Charles Dickens' secret: 'I bestow on the least thing I undertake the same attention and care I bestow on the greatest'. Here's one I don't like: 'The haves and have-nots can often be traced back to the dids and did-nots'. That's not true in half the world...

Hope and optimism are not the same. 'Hope is humble, trustful, vulnerable. Optimism is arrogant, brash, complacent. Hope has known the pang of suffering and the chill of despair. Only one who has cried de profundis can really appreciate the meaning of hope. Optimism has not faced the enormity of evil... What drives some to atheism is not a genuinely biblical hope but an insensitive optimism masquerading as such hope'. Perhaps John Macquarrie could have extended this idea to God's being with us in all our times and testings - when we abound, and when we are abased.

Success is never permanently satisfying: God hasn't made us that way. We're not to settle down here permanently - not even on the top of a mountain. (Looking down on others isn't helpful spiritually; and you expend a lot of negative energy excluding others from the peak).

The reward/prize is offered in the next life, said Jesus and Paul: in this, our badge of office is a towel, serving others rather than dominating them. Life is most enjoyable when serendipitous. Satisfaction is in the journeying, rather than the arriving. Even in heaven we keep on discovering things, growing, says C S Lewis.

The saints have a well-developed 'theology of gratitude'. Their God has another name - 'Surprise'.

'We must make sure', says W A Visser't Hooft, 'that we do not decide that we shall succeed. If we decide to succeed than we may succeed without succeeding in God's way. But if we go on from day to day seeking to do his will then we shall be prepared to receive success from him if he wills it; and if he does not, then humbly to say: it is God's decision that David shall not build the temple, but he will raise up Solomon'. A.W. Tozer: 'God may allow his servant to succeed when he has disciplined him or her to a point where success is not necessary for happiness. The one elated by success and cast down by failure is still a carnal person'.

Finally, Two Warnings

* Never ignore the Prophetic vs. Institutional tension. Walter Brueggemann (The Prophetic Imagination) says Judaeo-Christian communities face 'Mosaic vs. Solomonic', prophetic vs. kingly, alternative vs. 'dominant community' tensions. Prophets nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness to that of the dominant culture, which espouses a religion of static triumphalism and politics of oppression and exploitation. Prophets do theology from below, the royal consciousness from above. The community of Jesus surrenders power to energize others; kings can't do that and remain kings. Prophets dismantle, kings manage. Jesus the Messiah comes to destroy principalities and powers ('royal confiscation'). (Herod and Pilate, not Jesus, are on trial). In this process pathos and amazement, suffering and singing, death and hope, suffering and doxology, weeping and joy, groaning and dancing are counterpointed.

* 'Church Growth' ideas produce 'winners/losers' among evangelical pastors. 'The Lord wants lost people found and the church to grow... and the pastor is the key' produces frustration and guilt in many. 'Numerolatry' or 'remnantism' - growth for the glory of the church (the 'edifice complex') or non-growth as an index of supposed 'faithfulness' - are both bad. The 'homogeneous unit principle' (aim for people and pastors 'like us') may produce ecclesiastical apartheid, country clubs.

Moltmann (The Crucified God) says the church of the crucified Christ has 'solidarity with the alien, creative love the for the "different"'. Very few churches both grow rapidly and prophetically at the same time. Large institutions tend towards culture affirmation rather than the transformation of culture. 'An increase in the size and financial affluence of a congregation is a handy measure of something, but it may not measure spiritual success. Indeed, the 'successful' church may not be serving God's purposes at all; it may be serving the purposes of human egocentricity' (John Sanford, Ministry Burnout). Church growth may worship the 'god of the impersonal calculation' (Fromm) asking 'what works?' rather than 'what is truth?' (How many sermons or songs do these churches have on biblical ideas of social justice?).

The New Testament has little emphasis on a self-conscious strategy for church growth. Growth was celebrated rather than planned. The apostles 'persuaded' rather than 'propagandized'. Church growth is a sign, not an instrument of mission, so aim for 'church health' rather than 'church growth': living organisms grow anyway. The vision of the church in James, Peter and the Revelation is of a suffering, patient, scattered people who are encouraged to face the hostility of the world without losing hope. In the church of the crucified Lord, one's esteem should not be a function of 'better' or 'smarter' or 'bigger'. The only valid comparison is not between me and others, but between my actual and potential. 'Effectiveness' - the appropriate embodiment of faithfulness in given human contexts - is a better idea.

Conclusion: How can we sort out our motives here? First, ask honestly in your prayer, What is my desire? What do I think I need in addition to the Lord to be 'fulfilled'? Why do I need those things? Then, having written down the answers to these questions, talk them over with a trusted friend or spiritual director.

Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. It was his life-work, the fulfilment of a consuming amibition. He was once asked how he'd feel if the Pope suppressed the Society. 'A quarter of an hour of prayer', he replied, 'and I would think no more of it'. He'd cultivated a sublime indifference to temporal success or failure. The one thing that mattered was that Christ was honoured.

The key to the whole business is in a little chorus we used to sing: 'Have I done my very best for Jesus?' In the end, says C.S. Lewis there will be just two kinds of people - those who say to God 'thy will be done' and enter into the joy of their Lord, and those to whom God says 'thy will be done' and sink deeper and deeper back in the chaos.

(This article may be reproduced, in its entirety, with due acknowledgement). 

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