The Ambition that Kills Us

Several years ago, my pastor reflected on what he believed to be the most pernicious temptation for those in ministry. He did not mention sex scandals, financial impropriety or theological heresy. Rather, his prime concern was one word: ambition. The desire to achieve, to build a movement or grow a church or be revered as a leader with real savvy — all these seductions are particularly vexing because they appear so noble. If a pastor siphons church funds to build a vacation home in Miami or pursues a string of affairs with parishioners, these transgressions are easy to rebuke. So long as the church grows and the stats trend upward, however, the scenario fits our Western model of inevitable spiritual progression and, because of this, resists deeper discernment.

Yet we do have cues indicating how we pastors have surrendered our calling. If a pastor always has to have the first (or final) word…if a pastor always pushes for more, for bigger and faster — and never encourages anyone to slow down… if a pastor never has time for a slow, meaningful conversation…if a pastor never exits preaching-mode…if a pastor induces fear or nervousness or icky-reverence but never kinship… if a pastor never trembles before a text or quotes a line of poetry or offers those immensely spiritual words: “I don’t know.”… if a pastor never says “I love you” in ways that do not manipulate but come tender and flow deep into your soul… if a pastor’s ego fills up every room he enters…

I highlight pastors because our errors seem particularly egregious and especially difficult to call out. However, similar things could be said for those of us who are writers, for entrepreneurs, for plumbers, for teachers, for PTA members, for any of us who are consumed by the greed for accolades, driven by the lust for successful performance. Whenever achievement is our end, then our end will ruin us. And it will wound all those in our path.

A publisher once asked Thomas Merton to write a piece on the “The Secret of Success,” and he refused. “If I had a message to my contemporaries,” Merton wrote, “it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…”

I don’t entirely understand how to parse this. It is not as though failure is a preferred virtue. I suspect, however, that we intuitively know what Merton means. We know, in our age of unbridled ambition, how this way of being in the world rakes our soul bare. We know the pride and the vaunted hubris. We know that it wearies us. We know that we want something better.

21 Replies to “The Ambition that Kills Us”

  1. These words are life-giving, Winn. I guess I’m looking for something akin to making progress as it relates to my life spiritually. I would hope that I continue to “press on” in that regard. Do you think there’s a biblical notion of success, maybe something suggested by”Well done thy good and faithful servant”? I’m somewhat annoyed by the word success today for the very reasons you’ve shared (not that I’m beyond them), but wondered about growing in my faith.

    1. I’m with you, Doug. If we want to redefine (or maybe just return to the idea of) success as faithfulness, as “growing up in the Jesus” (as Peterson would say) or as being transfigured more and more into our true likeness in God (as the Orthodox would tell us), then I’m all for it. I think in this kind of ‘success,’ however, there is always joy and peace and rest in the kingdom of God.

  2. Winn your words are really speaking to me, right where I’m at. I am in the midst of wrestling with the emotions of this, because of promoting my novel. I have been resistant to the whole idea ever since I signed with the company.

    Just this morning I was journaling my resentment about the whole shebang. I like it when people read my blog and like it when Author Central peaks. (It’s in a dive now.) But I have been very ambivalent about the disruption of publishing this book has caused in my life. I’d so thoroughly given up my dream to be a writer other than FB statuses that it has been hard to come back, to push through my own internal resistance to promoting the book, that has been there all along (when I wouldn’t keep sending work out back in the day.)

    It would be easyish to not work at this, but I’m not sure that’s what’s required of me. People say I have a gift and they want to read the next book, but I have to sell a number of copies to make that happen without paying again. People tell me I am a writer…

    It’s an interesting spiritual journey. I also think the Lord hears our cries through the whole process. I think the ground to stand on is looking at being faithful to the call whether or not success comes. (Success with books requires so much work and spending a beautiful Saturday afternoon doing a book signing isn’t my idea of fun. Nor is traveling.) It’s kind of comforting knowing that success isn’t the be all and end all. Sometimes these quiet, hidden lives can be deeply rewarding and rich.

    1. I believe this ground you describe is exactly right. Faithful – and I’d say that itself is the right kind of success.

  3. Winn – 2 thoughts on your excellent article. Thought #1 Dr. Joseph Stowell, former president of Moody Bible Institute, echoed the same thoughts of yours in his wonderful book, “Perilous Pursuits: Overcoming Our Obsession with Significance”. Thought #2 Someone once said that the word “success” appears in our Bibles only once (and perhaps they’re right, according to a search of the “Old King James”), in Joshua 1:8, “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good SUCCESS.” It seems like Joshua had it right, as per the Lord, that true success is measured ONLY by one’s meditation upon the Book. Hmmm. Then how come we don’t take more time to spend in the Book?
    Thanks for your weekly insights.
    Jeremy Stopford
    Earlville, NY

  4. Winn thanks for this one. I just spoke on this at an honorary induction ceremony. I find it interesting that the common definitions of success all deal with outcomes or our ability to “make ourselves” into a self-defined ideal or a societally defined ideal. Yet hidden in those concepts of success lies the reality that we define success by our ability to be self determined and to control that which only belongs to God. In other words, we define success by our ability to achieve that which Adam and Eve sought in the fall. Anyway, I don’t know if my words were well received by some, so inevitably I beat myself up feeling as if I’m a failure 😉 Finding satisfaction in the simplicity of seeking faithfulness within the limits of what it means to be a contingent creature is such a freeing reality, yet is so hard to truly accept.

    Always love your words brother.

    1. Yes, Eric. Contingent – that’s a mighty fine word. Hope you’re well. I’m glad you are where you are doing what you are.

    2. “Finding satisfaction in the simplicity of seeking faithfulness within the limits of what it means to be a contingent creature is such a freeing reality, yet is so hard to truly accept.”

      That is a great sentence.

  5. I am aiming to be a success in God’s eyes, not my own or in others. Our “vision” is much flawed. God’s eyes see perfectly and to be the “apple of His eye” is truly the success I seek to attain. Thanks all for sharing! Great food for thought.

  6. Winn:

    In the day since you published this post, I keep coming back to it. I chew on it bit by bit. While not long, and while easily readable in one (short) sitting, the truths that this post contains cannot be digested in a hurry. The post needs to be savored.


  7. Our mega church is going through an amazing transformation in this very direction and it is bringing life back to us all. The ways of the Lord are so different from ours but perhaps it takes time for this to be learned in a way that we utterly cannot deny. Thanks be to God for His faithfulness to His church and to this world he so dearly loves. Your words are again, well written and hopefully ones we will strive to live by within our lives and fellowships as He gives us the grace to recognize our need to bow down in deeper humility before this amazing God we serve.

  8. Winn, you nailed it in your last paragraph: PRIDE is the sin described here. C.S. Lewis has a whole chapter on “The Great Sin” (or Self-Conceit) in Mere Christianity. And the opposite is Humility. I just re-read it. It matters not if you are wildly successful or pathetically unsuccessful; it is truly about your heart’s motive and only God can judge it. I believe it actually IS this same sin that causes pastors (and ALL of us) to promote ourselves, have affairs, steal church funds, and on and on and on. It was Adam and Eve’s sin. This VERY same sin expresses itself in a million different blasphemous ways. And the minute we pride ourselves on being humble, BAM, we’re guilty again!

  9. Are you refering to being overly ambitious or just being ambitious in general?

    I believe that without some level of ambition most people would lead apathetic lives filled with regret. Well placed ambition is the fuel that some people need to reach their goals and have better lives. Especially if they are either from an impoverished background or are trying to start over after losing everything.

    I agree with your viewpoint that Pastors should focus more on the spiritual and temporal needs of their congregation then on projects that are self aggrandizing such as the next book deal, tv show deal, next church building project etc.

    1. Thank you for saying this, because I have found the same thing. Ambition can be a fuel to get things done and if a person tries to eradicate it, then it’s very hard to do that work. Isn’t there a proverb that says, without a vision the people perish? I have been wrestling with these issues because of my own work, not feeling like I have ground to stand on because I’m not supposed to be ambitious.

    2. Patricia, I’m certainly not advocating for laziness or for some cynical or beaten-down sense that what we do doesn’t matter. Good work is essential, our work matters. You’ll notice in the description I spoke of pastors who “never” or “always” — so I think you could say I’m referring to over-ambition. These days, however, I personally find myself allergic to the word ambition and instead prefer words like “faithfulness” and “sturdy work,” ideas such as “integrity” and “an ethic of meaningful responsibility.” I personally feel that these ideas help us to resist both inappropriate ambition and a helpless kind of apathy. That said, I’d be all for simply rehabilitating and re-imagining a proper kind of ambition. I like that kind of work. Maybe I’ll just do that… : )

      1. Yes, that’s a great way of describing it! We all must try to achieve and maintain that balance of ambition. Thank you for your illuminating reply and for writing the article to begin with.

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