Ambition. Is it desirable or deplorable? The dictionary calls it a desire for distinction; a wish to be or to do; an eager, sometimes inordinate longing for honor, power, and fame: a determination to distinguish oneself above others.
Surely the desire to achieve one's fullest potential socially, politically, economically, educationally, and spiritually is not necessarily bad, for what would the world be without these kinds of people? The Bible declares a fundamental guiding principle in this context. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom" (Eccl. 9:10, NIV).
Ambition is not a characteristic only of the talented or the rich. It is, rather, a quality of those who are easily inspired or self-motivated; who aim high and work-hard; who follow their goals to the utmost.
With these general points in mind, what about the pastor, specifically? Should he be ambitious? If so, in what way, and to what degree?
The ministry is one of the most challenging vocations imaginable. Its psychological, ethical, and moral demands, when taken seriously and in their true light, can be enough to dissuade those considering it halfheartedly. In other words, a person should feel truly called to be a pastor. He needs to be ambitious on behalf of Christ, using this consecrated ambition to improve his talents for service twofold, threefold, and fivefold.
Many individuals attracted to the gospel ministry develop faulty ideas concerning the kind of ambition appropriate for a pastor. Not everyone who has been baptized has experienced conversion. In the same way, not all who have found their way into the ministry are suited for it. In addition, there are those who, though once called, have lost their vision through neglect and irresponsibility. Pastors in these two categories may mistake worldly ambition for consecrated ambition. They fall prey to desires of honor, fame, and power as ends in themselves rather than receiving them as gifts of divine grace that should engender a sense of humility, gratefulness, and privilege on the part of the one who has received them.
The question that still begs for clarification is this: How does the pastor identify ambition in his own heart? The success or failure of a pastor's lifework often depends on his perception of, and attitude toward, ambition.
Some dreaming takes place before the actual task of ministry begins. All along the way, a person picks up ideas about the kind of minister he would like to be, particularly as he begins to discover where his real talent lies. In this context, a desire to pursue a certain model of ministry may be quite legitimate. One basic wish on the part of every red-blooded, and I dare say, sober-minded ministerial intern is to be ordained. This, of course, is embedded in the call itself. Beyond this, there is often (and quite rightly so) a wide range of ministerial ambitions. God's call to pastoral ministry is usually, though not always, in the area of pastor-teacher or pastor-evangelist. Even though opinions vary as to the purpose of individual calls, no other call supersedes this, and whatever else the pastor does is subservient to this.
The calling often becomes complex when the basic pastoral ideal, the main thing for which God has called a pastor, becomes subjugated to an inordinate ambition to become a famous evangelist, the president of an institution of higher learning, a departmental director, or a professional counselor, to name a few.
If a person has specialized talents and training, there is nothing wrong with desiring a position in which he can best be of service. Obvious dangers exist, however, in striving for the highest place or what might be considered enviable positions of responsibility, which are best obtained through the collective will of the people directed by the Holy Spirit.
Dangers also are inherent at the other extreme. For example, some potentially successful pastors make no effort to improve their skills in ways that would fit them for certain necessary tasks in the Lord's work. This lack of drive for self-improvement on the part of some workers often leaves an unwelcome void that, if filled, would result in personal advancement as well as the carrying out of the church's mission. Too often this gap is not bridged.
A pastor should be ambitious to the extent that he uses every ability to its utmost and seizes every opportunity to do service for God. The motivating factors should be a realization of the importance of God's work, an acknowledgment of the pastor's own role in fulfilling that work, and a desire to perform that role with excellence.
God's view of ambition
It is clear from our discussions so far that ambition may be either "right" or "wrong" in the sense of good or bad.
Ellen G. White, steeped in a knowledge of God's Word, has referred to what one might call "right ambition." She declares, "Jesus sees His true church on the earth, whose greatest ambition is to cooperate with Him in the grand work of saving souls." 1 This statement is for the general body of which the minister is a part. She, however, has stronger words for the ministers themselves when she remarks, "The men who now stand before the people as representatives of Christ have generally more ability than they have training, but they do not put their faculties to use, making the most of their time and opportunities." 2 Some may contend that this comment does not pertain to current times, because training and further opportunities have much improved, and there is no doubt about this. However, the counsel is still relevant in that it is essential for ministers to "aim high." 3 Ellen White's definition of ambition in this context involves the minister putting his power to the test and aiming for an' 'elevated standard in knowledge and in religious intelligence.'' 4
Ellen White regards diligent Bible study as "ambition": "Let the ministers' ambition be carefully to search the Bible, that they may know as much as possible of God and of Jesus Christ.'' 5 This obviously will result in a more forceful proclamation of the gospel. Ellen White also says that' 'the joy that sustained [Christ] . . . was the joy of seeing sinners saved. This should be the joy of every follower of His, the spur to his ambition." 6
To those who dream of attempting some great work or mission while neglecting the small duties at hand, the advice is "Let your ambition be aroused to be useful." 7 Being ambitious in the positive sense and being useful are the same. The context here seems to suggest that in seeking to do some great thing, the individual might miss the degrees by which he must ascend. Instead of ambition arousing him to be a workman in the world, he would end up being a spectator. 8
On the subject of "wrong ambition," she observes that "vainglory, selfish ambition, is the rock upon which many souls have been wrecked and many churches rendered powerless." 9 It is sad to contemplate the fact that "through a selfish ambition some have kept from others the knowledge they could have imparted." 10 Selfish ambition parallels the desire for supremacy. Both "will die when Christ takes possession of the affections." 11
The conflict between good and bad ambition is still with us, and this honest discussion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can inspire each pastor to reflect on his own ambition and what form it takes.
Ellen White says that worldly ambition "is death to spiritual advancement." 12 We should understand that there is "ambition for riches and honor" and there are "lovers of the world even among those who profess to be waiting for the Lord." 13 Ambition keeps company with pride, prodigality, and indulgence, all of which bear "fruit in cruelty and exaction." 14
Ambition was the cause of Solomon's demise: His desire "to excel all other nations in power and grandeur led him to pervert for selfish purposes the heavenly gifts hitherto employed for the glory of God." 15
The saddest evidence of the travesty and tragedy of ambition, originally a good thing planted by God in the human heart, has been the pride and ambition of Satan, which resulted in his banishment from heaven. To counteract this, "we should seek for true goodness rather than greatness." 16
Isaiah describes how "wrong ambition" can enter: "For thou hast said in thine heart . . . , I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: ... I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High" (Isa. 14:13, 14). Little did Lucifer know that to be great in God's kingdom meant to eliminate all pride, overcome all jealousy, and give up all ambition for supremacy. 17 The words of the prophet Jeremiah have relevance here: "Seekest thou great things for thy self? seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord" (Jer. 45:5). Total trust in God will cure this malady of the soul.
It must be understood that a movement away from the mark of the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus is failure, but a striving toward the mark always constitutes the central ingredient of righteous ambition.
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1944), p. 19.
2 Ibid., p. 194.
5 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Re
view and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 181.
6 Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), p.
7 Ellen G. White, Testimonies (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 2, p.
9 Ibid., vol. 5, p. 174.
10 Ibid., p. 554. (The dualism of the "ambition"
motif throughout Ellen White's writings
ought to be well understood.)
11 Ibid., p. 170.
12 Ibid., p. 419.
13 Ibid., p. 456. (Ambition characterized by this
worldly emphasis must be corrected along with all
other worldly emphases.)
14 Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 55.
16 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 242.
17 Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education
(Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn.,