On Ambition

Charles Kiser has written a thought provoking article on his blog. Rather than clutter his comments section with an overlong reply, I’ll post it here.

I’ve just been thinking similar thoughts. I recently asked a mentor whether he was ambitious. He said, “No, because I don’t have ego needs. I don’t need anyone’s approval or praise for what I do. But that doesn’t mean I’m ever satisfied with the level of my performance.” I found that to be a helpful point of reference for self-reflection, because I think the American definition of ambition favors our cultural sense of competitiveness and tends toward the utilitarian.

For Americans, competitiveness is a good that justifies the singleminded pursuit of honor. “Well, this is a competition” is a phrase that covers a multitude of wrongs. But “competition” has been generalized in such a way that it is the framework for the whole of American life rather than, say, just sports. Thus, even to expect gainful employment, one needs a “competitive edge.” Everything is a competition, and therefore everyone is simply expected to strive to be the best in relation to everyone else. We have a very hard time even conceptualizing excellence without measuring the self in reference to the other—those who are our “competition.” In all things, there are winners and there are losers.

Ambition is culturally acceptable, furthermore, because it is a means to an end. This in particular seems to have changed the connotation of the word. “That is an ambitious goal” means merely that it is a high standard, not that the person setting it is a glory hog. In fact, it is no longer possible to call someone “ambitious” as a criticism. Where once it meant that one’s motivations were corrupt and selfish, now is just means that one has significant goals. I suspect that this is because the Machiavellianism at work in our culture allows the end to justify the means in so many cases. The shift in the meaning of “ambitious” bears this out. The focus of the word is no longer on how one achieves but on the achievement itself.

The danger in our case, as church planters, is that the end is obviously good. If, then, selfish ambition is our internal dynamic, it matters little. We might not have achieved as much “for God” had we not been ambitious. And, after all, we should try to be the best. But if I put competitiveness and utilitarianism to the side as ethical criteria and reflect upon the idolatrous and destructive nature of my ego needs, I think I come closer to a position from which to answer Charles’s question (Is ambition for good something to applaud or something to confess?).

Yet, I still want to do some biblical reflection for the sake of theological nuance. First, Charles mentions Phil 1:17, which features the word eritheia. There, two points pique my interest. First is the definition itself, which BDAG’s entry makes extremely interesting. I’ll modify it a little for readability:
eritheia:
found before NT times only in Aristotle . . . where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means. Its meaning in our literature is a matter of conjecture.
A derivation from eris [Engagement in rivalry, esp. w. ref. to positions taken in a matter, strife, discord, contention] is not regarded with favor by recent NT linguistic scholarship and some consider it also unlikely for the sources from which Paul possibly derived the lists of vices in 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20, since eris and eritheia are both found in these lists;
yet for Paul and his followers, the meaning strife, contentiousness . . . cannot be excluded (compare Phil 1:17 with v. 15 . . .).
But selfishness, selfish ambition . . . in all cases gives a sense that is just as probable.
With zēlos Js 3:14, 16. kata eritheian Phil 2:3; . . . ex eritheias Phil 1:17; hoi ex eritheias Ro 2:8 . . . . Plural disputes or outbreaks of selfishness . . . 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20. . . .

It’s noteworthy that there is a connection, especially in the Philippian context, with the creation of division by virtue of eritheia. It has a social, communal effect. Because “ambition” is now neutral in English, eritheia must be translated as selfish ambition rather than just ambition; it is not about just being motivated. In particular, it serves the self over against the other. The NRSV describes the motives of the ambitious as “envy and rivalry,” rivalry being that word eris referenced above. The idea that gives shape to eritheia is, more than just selfishness, strife.

The second point of interest is that Paul actually seems to take a utilitarian view of their motivation. “What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Phil 1:18). The end does not justify the means, however. Paul actually means that he doesn’t mind that his “suffering in imprisonment” be increased if the gospel is proclaimed. Moreover, the attitude of eritheia is precisely what Paul tries to address in the church through the famous poem in ch. 2. “Do nothing from selfish ambition (eritheia) or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (2:3)

Second, Charles mentions Rom 15:20, which employs philotimeomai, which is an especially cool word:
philotimeomai:
. . . special honor (timē) was accorded persons who rendered exceptional service to the state or other institutions, and many wealthy persons endeavored to outdo one another in philanthropic public service (cp. the billionaire Opramoas . . . who probably outdid all)
have as ones ambition, consider it an honor, aspire, w. focus on idea of rendering service . . . Ro 15:20; 2 Cor 5:9 (w. euarestos . . . a term frequently applied to philanthropists); 1 Th 4:11. . . .

Here, the linguists put to use the flattened English idea of ambition as aspiration. At least from an etymological viewpoint, though, “ambition” may be the right word anyway, for the fundamental idea is the love of honor that compels good deeds. Yet, the word is inextricably related to service. And so, we have just the word we are looking for when we try to reconcile the “ambition for good” that, at the same time, brings with it personal glory/honor. The word itself does not speak to the motivations of each philanthropist’s heart—whether good will first or glory first. But it does hold the two in the realistic tension any public good must create. And Paul’s use of the word 2 Cor 5:9 is indicative of the desire not just to do good but to be pleasing, so that he might “receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).

Thus, some interesting questions arise: Is it selfish ambition to strive for recompense? Returning to Romans for consideration: “For he will repay according to each ones deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking (ex eritheias) and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:6-8). Here Paul explicitly contrasts seeking glory and honor through doing good with our word “selfish ambition.” Can we reconcile seeking glory and honor with seeking first the kingdom?

It’s necessary, undoubtedly, to emphasize from whom we seek approval and glory—God. But if that is the answer that releases all the tension from the question, I think it is too easy. Because we are asking about the place of the self in relation to a variety of things, and in guarding against selfish ambition, we may misconstrue other matters. The self-emptying of Christ in Phil 2 is the paradigm for not acting out of selfish ambition or conceit—well and good. But “therefore God also highly exalted him” is part of that paradigm as well. We too easily confuse “not self-seeking” with selflessness. Jesus was not selfless but rather, in full control of himself gave himself for us—and for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2); the hope of vindication and glory beyond the cross (Jn 17:1-12). In fact, the connection between glorifying God through doing good and being glorified is so strong that Jesus in John’s Gospel identifies the cross, which is the quintessence of shame and dishonor, as his moment of glorification:
Jesus answered them, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I sayFather, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Then a voice came from heaven, I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again. (Jn 12:23-28)

Again, his sacrifice is our paradigm, but ever with a view to keeping our life for eternal life and being honored by the Father. Yet, these motives are outweighed in the agonizing moment of self-surrender by the overruling desire to glorify the Father. And so the poem ends: “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).

Through these reflections, I find the need to nuance my own thinking about ambition. There is a place for “ambition for good,” and that is frankly more flattering than “love of honor” as we might call it. But our motivations cannot be limited to the self—whether baser ego needs or higher approval-of-God needs. We must seek foremost his glory. But we must neither be disingenuous about our motives, least of all with ourselves. We seek also for glory and honor. Doing nothing out of selfish ambition is not selflessness, but neither is it false humility. Paul can say, for example:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (1 Cor 15:10-11)
If he worked harder than others, then he did, and he feels no compunction about making the comparison. But it is not a competition. Whether they or he proclaimed, it was just as good. Or, returning to 2 Cor 5 and context, it is likewise by God’s mercy that Paul has his ministry (2 Cor 4:1), and he is a mere jar of clay (2 Cor 4:7), to the glory of God (2 Cor 4:15). But by his honesty he does “commend” himself “to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2), and the church should rightly boast about Paul’s ministry: “We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart” (2 Cor 5:12). This presumes, of course, that the church’s conscience is well-formed; that it is able to view from a transformed point of view (2 Cor 5:16). But presuming it can, then it is right to esteem and honor and boast about a servant who carries out ministry by the grace of God in forthrightness and Christlikeness. It is right for the church to agree with God when he would honor such servants.

From the servant’s point of view, there is perhaps much temptation involved. Even Paul must play a fool’s game when he would boast, and in the end, will boast only of weakness—though making a point all the while that his particular type of ministry is the kind the church should esteem and commend (2 Cor 11-12). But I suppose that we should nonetheless be ambitious for good, seeking honor and glory from God, “commending ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute” (2 Cor 6:4-8)

Yet, I still want to do some biblical reflection for the sake of theological nuance. First, Charles mentions Phil 1:17, which features the word eritheia. There, two points pique my interest. First is the definition itself, which BDAG’s entry makes extremely interesting. I’ll modify it a little for readability:
eritheia:
found before NT times only in Aristotle . . . where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means. Its meaning in our literature is a matter of conjecture.
A derivation from eris [Engagement in rivalry, esp. w. ref. to positions taken in a matter, strife, discord, contention] is not regarded with favor by recent NT linguistic scholarship and some consider it also unlikely for the sources from which Paul possibly derived the lists of vices in 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20, since eris and eritheia are both found in these lists;
yet for Paul and his followers, the meaning strife, contentiousness . . . cannot be excluded (compare Phil 1:17 with v. 15 . . .).
But selfishness, selfish ambition . . . in all cases gives a sense that is just as probable.
With zēlos Js 3:14, 16. kata eritheian Phil 2:3; . . . ex eritheias Phil 1:17; hoi ex eritheias Ro 2:8 . . . . Plural disputes or outbreaks of selfishness . . . 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20. . . .

It’s noteworthy that there is a connection, especially in the Philippian context, with the creation of division by virtue of eritheia. It has a social, communal effect. Because “ambition” is now neutral in English, eritheia must be translated as selfish ambition rather than just ambition; it is not about just being motivated. In particular, it serves the self over against the other. The NRSV describes the motives of the ambitious as “envy and rivalry,” rivalry being that word eris referenced above. The idea that gives shape to eritheia is, more than just selfishness, strife.

The second point of interest is that Paul actually seems to take a utilitarian view of their motivation. “What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Phil 1:18). The end does not justify the means, however. Paul actually means that he doesn’t mind that his “suffering in imprisonment” be increased if the gospel is proclaimed. Moreover, the attitude of eritheia is precisely what Paul tries to address in the church through the famous poem in ch. 2. “Do nothing from selfish ambition (eritheia) or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (2:3)

Second, Charles mentions Rom 15:20, which employs philotimeomai, which is an especially cool word:
philotimeomai:
. . . special honor (timē) was accorded persons who rendered exceptional service to the state or other institutions, and many wealthy persons endeavored to outdo one another in philanthropic public service (cp. the billionaire Opramoas . . . who probably outdid all)
have as ones ambition, consider it an honor, aspire, w. focus on idea of rendering service . . . Ro 15:20; 2 Cor 5:9 (w. euarestos . . . a term frequently applied to philanthropists); 1 Th 4:11. . . .

Here, the linguists put to use the flattened English idea of ambition as aspiration. At least from an etymological viewpoint, though, “ambition” may be the right word anyway, for the fundamental idea is the love of honor that compels good deeds. Yet, the word is inextricably related to service. And so, we have just the word we are looking for when we try to reconcile the “ambition for good” that, at the same time, brings with it personal glory/honor. The word itself does not speak to the motivations of each philanthropist’s heart—whether good will first or glory first. But it does hold the two in the realistic tension any public good must create. And Paul’s use of the word 2 Cor 5:9 is indicative of the desire not just to do good but to be pleasing, so that he might “receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).

Thus, some interesting questions arise: Is it selfish ambition to strive for recompense? Returning to Romans for consideration: “For he will repay according to each ones deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking (ex eritheias) and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:6-8). Here Paul explicitly contrasts seeking glory and honor through doing good with our word “selfish ambition.” Can we reconcile seeking glory and honor with seeking first the kingdom?

It’s necessary, undoubtedly, to emphasize from whom we seek approval and glory—God. But if that is the answer that releases all the tension from the question, I think it is too easy. Because we are asking about the place of the self in relation to a variety of things, and in guarding against selfish ambition, we may misconstrue other matters. The self-emptying of Christ in Phil 2 is the paradigm for not acting out of selfish ambition or conceit—well and good. But “therefore God also highly exalted him” is part of that paradigm as well. We too easily confuse “not self-seeking” with selflessness. Jesus was not selfless but rather, in full control of himself gave himself for us—and for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2); the hope of vindication and glory beyond the cross (Jn 17:1-12). In fact, the connection between glorifying God through doing good and being glorified is so strong that Jesus in John’s Gospel identifies the cross, which is the quintessence of shame and dishonor, as his moment of glorification:
Jesus answered them, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I sayFather, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Then a voice came from heaven, I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again. (Jn 12:23-28)

Again, his sacrifice is our paradigm, but ever with a view to keeping our life for eternal life and being honored by the Father. Yet, these motives are outweighed in the agonizing moment of self-surrender by the overruling desire to glorify the Father. And so the poem ends: “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).

Through these reflections, I find the need to nuance my own thinking about ambition. There is a place for “ambition for good,” and that is frankly more flattering than “love of honor” as we might call it. But our motivations cannot be limited to the self—whether baser ego needs or higher approval-of-God needs. We must seek foremost his glory. But we must neither be disingenuous about our motives, least of all with ourselves. We seek also for glory and honor. Doing nothing out of selfish ambition is not selflessness, but neither is it false humility. Paul can say, for example:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of themthough it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (1 Cor 15:10-11)
If he worked harder than others, then he did, and he feels no compunction about making the comparison. But it is not a competition. Whether they or he proclaimed, it was just as good. Or, returning to 2 Cor 5 and context, it is likewise by God’s mercy that Paul has his ministry (2 Cor 4:1), and he is a mere jar of clay (2 Cor 4:7), to the glory of God (2 Cor 4:15). But by his honesty he does “commend” himself “to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2), and the church should rightly boast about Paul’s ministry: “We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart” (2 Cor 5:12). This presumes, of course, that the church’s conscience is well-formed; that it is able to view from a transformed point of view (2 Cor 5:16). But presuming it can, then it is right to esteem and honor and boast about a servant who carries out ministry by the grace of God in forthrightness and Christlikeness. It is right for the church to agree with God when he would honor such servants.

From the servant’s point of view, there is perhaps much temptation involved. Even Paul must play a fool’s game when he would boast, and in the end, will boast only of weakness—though making a point all the while that his particular type of ministry is the kind the church should esteem and commend (2 Cor 11-12). But I suppose that we should nonetheless be ambitious for good, seeking honor and glory from God, “commending ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute” (2 Cor 6:4-8)

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