Ambition—Recipe For Moral Leadership or Failure

I have been confused for most of my life about what to do with my ambition—the dreams to do great things and accomplish amazing feats.

Was that drive from God or Satan? Was it promoting the spirit of Christ or was it advancing the spirit of the Devil? Was it a source for moral accomplishments and moral courage, Or was it a shortcut away from moral obligation, the morally mundane and moral duty?

When I was a boy I wanted to conquer the world by becoming a great athlete. That motivated me to faithfully practice hours each day to perfect my abilities. It kept me out of trouble and taught me discipline, but then I read Ellen White’s views on sports and realized that was not the right motivation or direction. I was wrong to make a god of sports. It also didn’t always translate into faithfulness to home chores and the mundane “discipline” that comes from work.

Then I wanted to become the world’s greatest speaker, and read widely to help have more ideas for my words. I watched and listen to people I admired like George Vanderman, the Richards, the Tuckers and others to learn the art of delivery. I even got speaking opportunities and took advantage of them. Then I read 1 Corinthians 13, “though I speak with the tongue of angels but don’t have love I am nothing but a loud playing instrument.” I figured I needed to work with Jesus on the love part, and toned town the world scope of my vision to focus on spirituality instead of oratory and being taught instead of teaching and on godly visions instead of visions of fame.

I turned to being a faithful Adventist in the world, and wanted to excel at that, but soon discovered that George Knight had already beat me to that point. In his book I Used to be Perfect he tells of his hard fought battle to be the greatest Adventist ever, a truly and finally faithful representative to God. He and I both discovered soon that that was too miserable of a journey to stay on forever. It was a path of self-exultation but without any real joy or satisfaction or even some pleasure. Not good!!

So what is a young heart to do with their ambition, whether that young heart is beating in a 12 year old middle school boy, a 21year old college woman, or 61 man facing retirement or a layoff.

Should they just give up, sit back in a lazy chair and passively move through life.


Ambition can be a great thing and a powerful tool for moral development. It just needs to be shaped….shaped by something beyond the individual. It needs to be shaped by the hand and mind of God. Only then can it actually really accomplish something more than it originally had planned. A bird may want to fly, but it needs air to do so. A person may have ambition, but it needs lift and that lift is a God-thing, a design within His creativity, to give meaning to our ambitions and our dreams.

I admit, I have much to learn from this and even at 50, still feel like, I don’t know how to help my students with this, but I have some preliminary observations and invite comments on this.

I agree with Chip Ingram’s message on Holy Ambition. (He has become one of my favorite world renowed speakers and authors. His DVD’s and Books are some of the best out there. Not as academically rich with social science insight as I have come to like in books, but solidly biblical to the core, amazingly wise in analysis, and superbly and professionally delivered.)

Basically, the ambition needs to be shaped and the shaping process will take out of us the evil (eventually and only if we are willing for Christ to take it out). His chapter titles tell it all and I have added my commentary on my basic lesson from these:

A Dislocated Heart: God gives us a sensitivity to local as well as world needs. We see that something is not right, that some people are not served as they should be, and this grows in us. That is ambition’s safest root. A passion for someone in need or something wrong.

Experience a Broken Spirit: We see how miserable our efforts and how much we have failed God in responding to need. We see our deep selfishness and are amazed at how many years we have wasted living for our own comfort, our own selfish needs and our own failure to follow Christ with all our heart, mind and body.

Practice a Radical Faith: You can’t just sit their with the world’s needs going unmet and overwhelmed with your selfishness. Eventually, even though these fears and brokenness dwells in our psyche, we are moved to act, to take initiative. Even if that is feeble and defective at first, it is a radical step to help someone somewhere somehow.

Create a Strategic Plan: Once you start and get in over your head, then you start realizing this this needs a better plan and there is more than you can do. You need a plan. You need a team. You need more resources. You start scrounging around for people who have the same dislocated heart and skill sets you don’t have.

Exercise Personal Commitment: Then as things get going, you realize you can’t be lazy at the task. You have to keep committed are the . You have to keep with it. Start it, continue it, finish it. (This is where working with coaches can be helpful because they have a way of keeping you motivated and committed. They are notorious for pushing people beyond their comfort zones. pushing limits, moving past the vomiting stage!)

Grow a Courageous Soul: All this should make you MORE dependent upon God, not less. You should be inspired to do more, not less. You should be motivated not by small accomplishments but continue to pray and plead to God for more of His spirit. It is courage toward God, not just toward others.

I felt inspired by Chip and other stories of people around me who seem to accomplish more than I have for the good of others, to see Holy Ambition as necessary, desirable for a truly moral life.

Morality is more than merely trying to subdue our desires and passions but channeling them, by the teaching and ministry of the Holy Spirit, into more noble directions.

Here is some ideas to help in the contrasting between holy ambition and unholy ambition

Sacrifice Yes, they say no to lots of pleasures for the sake of someone’s need Yes, these individuals make deep sacrifices but prefer others make more than them or the sacrifice good for the sake of less important Very little, get by people, “not today” approach
Attitude God, can do it in and through me I can do it I can’t do it. I won’t do it. Someone else should do it
Fame Glory for God Glory to Self Suspicious of those who are famous or complain or condemn successful people
Inspiration God’s will Money, Fame, Sex Very little rouses them.
Amazed by Small things, simple people, small events Big things, famous people, big events Nothing—flat emotionally in responding to the world
Desires Cultivated by love to God and others Cultivated by Lusts Given up too easily, lack strong personal taste, interest or passions
Scope All levels—local and personal as well as regional and global Only focused on wider scope and can neglect local needs Rarely look beyond their own small world
Communal Want others to have holy ambition Seek only to grow one’s own projects, goals Too crowd pleasing, willing to be moved by status-quo instead of a higher goal
Goals Continue to be obtained, but also exchanged for God’s further revelation Once obtained, may lead to bigger goals but not always better goals. Too mush self-aggrandizement Let the goals of others dictate your life, instead of fostering one’s own goals
Celebration More for those who have shared the journey than about oneself More about one’s accomplishment than the shared journey Too pessimistic about celebration
Purpose Improve the world Improve your fame Comfort and status quo
Outcomes Others are empowered to be BETTER than you Others are supported only if it benefits your dreams Little


For those who have been following my blog (which may be only a few right now but I have greater ambitions J!),  you know I have been inspired by Daniel lately. His book has been huge asset to my own growth.

Well, Daniel has a lot to say about ambition.


First, God ultimately is in control of a lot of big stuff….what nations rise and which fall and when. And the whole point….he is trying to take care of his children in the world—not only the spiritual Jews but everyone. That is His big commitment.

Second, He works through personal and even national ambition, but most of the time he works DESPITE these ambitions. The rock that was cut out without hands was HIS KINGDOM—the simple little church He founded on the principle of humble service. It grows because he wants it to. The temptation it faced was to grow to be like the kingdom’s of the world instead of the kingdom of love and service. (what do you think the message of the little horn that learned to boast is all about. It is about a church gone wrong.)

Third, His ambition does not force worship but win’s it and those willing to practice HIS approach will have better long term results. THIS IS BIG. THOSE WITH HOLY AMBITION DON’T FORCE THEIR WILL AS MUCH AS THEY WIN THE WILL OF OTHERS.

Three FINAL caveats:

Daniel 4 Caveat: The good news of Daniel 4 is that ambition, even kingly and worldly ambition, is something God can work with. God used this pagan king with his pagan ambition. Jeremiah 27 is clear about that. Jeremiah tells Judea to serve the king because he was God’s servant….even before he was converted. God used King Neb’s ambition for HIS purpose. God needed to make changes in the world to help His people—the saints as well as the sinners.

But there eventually was an ambition in King Neb’s heart that needed to be subdued and weeded out. He needed a better ambition or it would kill him. I love the metaphor here of the tree. Daniel would have recognized it as applying to a life (see my blog about trees to understand that). King Neb had been planted but the winds of pride were about to topple the tree. In this case cut down. However, the roots were left to note that something could still be grafted in (notice the tree metaphor is dominant). King Nebuchadnezzar could have saved the tree if he would have listened to Daniel’s suggestions, Dan 4:27.

There will probably never be anyone more impressive in worldly power than that “head of gold” but in reality, there is ONE who is so much more amazing: Jesus. King Neb—through 7 years of humiliation—learned a far better ambition: to give God glory.

God had grown King Neb so that he was a big tree that helped millions of people. But like Satan, he got mesmerized by his own glory (see Ez 28, Is 14). He was a tree that gave shade in the dessert, but was rotting from the inside because of pride, self-assurance, and neglect of people around him. Had he remembered Daniel’s role in building the kingdom and given thanks to others, he would have spared himself much heart ache.  God knew that. God sent warning by the prophet (the symbol of the church), but the king did not listen. Thankfully, he eventually did. Unfortunately his grandson, Belshazzar didn’t and the whole of Babylon was destroyed, root and trunk!!!

If you have ambition, repeat Dan 4:27 often: “be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” Ambition that stops receiving advice from others and stops seeing the role of others and the building of great systems is an ambition headed for humiliation or worse, annihilation. Both leaders and nations need to learn that truth.

Jeremiah 45:4, 5 Caveat:

“The Lord has told me to say to you, ‘This is what the Lord says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’

For some, this is the biggest kill joy. Why shouldn’t I seek great things?  You can, but not for yourself….for others. This is  the biggest reality statement in the world. It is a kill pride, not a kill joy. Joy comes from the last phrase that God will take care of you through it all. You are fortunate HIS AMBITION is always at work.

The Final Judgment Caveat:

Ultimately we stand before His throne of grace. Hearing him say well done will be worth whatever sacrifice we make here. Plus, we know he knows all the facts. He knows whether we have done the little thing because of personal glory or His glory, and He will also know whether we did the grand and big thing for personal glory or His glory. That allows those of us, who are like King Neb, to have freedom to do great things, and those who find a quieter direction for their ambition to live at peace that God sees their great work of love and devotion. There is amazingly diverse ways to have the heart of God and live passionate ambition.

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