Humbly Ambitious “Keeping Ambition In Check”
Updated: Apr 1
An Ambitious World
Admittedly, we live in a very ambitious world and in and of itself ambition is not evil or bad. If you don’t have ambition, then there’s not much reason to get out of bed in the morning? It can be very useful if we are ambitious for the right things, but ambition can often get out of control. In all of us, the lines can blur and cause what I call a humility disruption. One day we’re consumed with pleasing the the Lord, and the next we’ve become dominated by the idol of self-made success.
Keeping a check on ambition is not just recommended, it is necessary. When we’re humbly ambitious, we’ll be far more concerned with how our work reflects on God than how it reflects on us. We’ll be far more driven to develop our skills for the sake of our neighbors rather than ourselves. We don’t eliminate pride by smothering ambition, but by refining and properly directing it. The only way to fight our thirst for glory is to be consumed with bringing glory to God. Over twenty years ago, I listened as Pastor Ray Pritchard of Keep Believing Ministries said the following in a sermon, “There is a strong desire among most all of us to know who is the best and smartest. Who is the strongest and most wealthy. There is a reason why the Guinness Book of World Records is a yearly best seller. There is a reason why we watch the Super Bowl, the World Series and a thousand other events driven by competition. It is why we keep score.”
A Mother’s Request At least in part, ambition is why a mother came to Jesus one day with the request that when Jesus came into his Kingdom, he would have one of her sons seated on his right and the other seated on his left. She wanted her sons, James and John, to have places of high honor. She wanted to make sure they came out ahead even if that meant asking for a favor from the Lord. She had big dreams for her sons and they had even bigger ambitions. (Matthew 20:20-21) The timing of the request made by James and John’s mother is more than interesting - it’s crucial. The request comes near the end of Jesus’ ministry, taking place about a week before the crucifixion as Jesus and his disciples are walking toward Jerusalem. Jesus was coming to grips with his death and his lead men were posturing for the best seats in the Kingdom. I get it. Everyone wants to be somebody. We all want to be as close to the center of power as we can be and if that is not possible, we want to be near someone who is. Posturing and competition was a recurring controversy among the disciples all the way until the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room the night before Jesus was crucified. It wasn’t just an issue with James and John - the other disciples wanted those seats as well. These were very competitive men. They were keeping score in order to get ahead of each other. It’s an age-old matter. We see it in our own children. We see it in the world of employment, and yes, we even see it in the church. The real matter was that James and John underestimated the cost of following Christ while overestimating their own importance. They asked for a place of honor, and seniority was their main argument. With the exception of Peter, James and John had been around longer than the others - and “it was their time!” When asked if they could have the seats of honor, Jesus responded with some extremely sobering words. Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Can You Drink The Cup That’s what it comes down to. Can you drink of the cup?
The idea of the “cup” in the Bible speaks of an intense personal experience. It’s the same image Jesus used in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that the cup of suffering he was about to drink might be taken from him. Let me be very transparent. In all of my experience of being in denominational leadership, I can promise you that there has been more “cup” than commemoration, and there has certainly been more cup than coronation. I can assure you that what is contained in that cup is not always sweet and satisfying. The cup swirls with every ingredient that can try a person’s calling, their confidence, and even their morale. Of course, there are some wonderful benefits and affirmations that come from that cup, but deep down, the dregs of the cup hold evidence of many trying and even crushing experiences. When I set aside the selfish motives of the disciples, I have to admit that there is really nothing wrong with the question the mother of James and John asked that day. Likewise, it’s not wrong to ask, “How can I get on the Camp Meeting preaching circuit?” “What do I have to do to be a State Overseer?” “How do I get elected to the Executive Committee (or Executive Council)?” And yes, I’ve been asked all of those questions at one time or another. For a church denomination that partly functions through an appointment and election process, those kinds of questions are frequently asked by those most interested in who moves where and who gets elected to what. However, those are not the important questions. Still, the greater question is, “Can you drink from the cup?”
Jesus told James and John, as well as their mother, that they didn’t know what they were asking for. However, with great certainty, they replied, “Yes, we most definitely can drink from the cup.” Pastor Ray Pritchard noted that these men were indeed very confident. They were also brave and honest - but they were not very perceptive. Sometimes our perspective causes us to forget our limitations. They didn’t see that what they were asking for would stretch them, test them, and eventually cost them their life. Jesus didn’t turn them down, nor did he reprimand them for their request. However, he did raise the level of expectation by saying, “You want to sit next to me? Fine. Here’s what it will cost you.” James and John wanted to talk about the glory but Jesus replied by telling them about the suffering. The Cost of Leadership
Do you really want a position in church leadership? Great! Pursue it and go hard after it, but know this - it comes with a cost. There is indeed a great price to pay in every possible consideration. Warren Wiersbe once said, “Be careful when you pray because you might just get what you ask for.”
In the preceding verses of Matthew 20:17-19, Jesus explained to his disciples that when He went to Jerusalem, He would be betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, spat upon, and ultimately crucified. When Jesus challenged James and John to join with Him in drinking the cup, He was calling them to suffer in His name. That is exactly what happened. James became the first apostle to die, put to death by Herod Agrippa I. John was the last apostle to die, ending up in exile on the island of Patmos. The other ten disciples became angry with James and John for going to Jesus, likely because they wished they had thought of it first. It’s all perfectly natural because as humans, we are born to compete, fight for the top spot, and look out for number one. It often seems that winning and losing is what life is all about. Whether we admit it or not, getting ahead of our friends is a major motivation in everything we do. We should not condemn the disciples without first looking in the mirror. Ambition is often a dirty word in our time because, to many people, it implies an overwhelming desire for personal advancement regardless of the cost—and regardless of who is hurt in the process. It is true. There is too much of that kind of ambition in the world. In every company, office, school, college, and church. You can always find a few people who are willing to do just about anything to achieve their desires. A Leader Is A Servant With four words, Jesus urged against giving our lives to ambitious cravings. He said, “Not so with you.” Jesus then offered a different perspective of ambition. “Do you want to be a leader? Then become a servant. Pick up a towel and wash someone’s feet. Think of yourself as a slave and not as a master.” In saying this, Jesus totally rejected the world’s way of doing business. Instead of using people, serve them. That’s what makes a good leader - the ambition to “serve” others. Otherwise, we are position seekers with self-serving agendas. On my desk at home, sits an inspirational plaque that I look at everyday before I leave for the office. One contains the words of Jesus in Mark 9:35 - “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” When I read those words, I ask myself, “Am I willing to be a servant to others as I walk with Christ?” Only if I answer yes, am I then qualified to lead.
May our greatest ambition be to follow Christ and build His kingdom while serving “the least of these.” Tim Hill Sources: Amy DiMarcangelo, Ray Pritchard, Warren Wiersbe