Earlier this week I posted a short blog post promoting a new book of Advent reflections I’ve contributed to. But even before beginning writing the blog, I felt an inner conflict. A conflict I’m sure many of the creatives reading – and many more of us – have experienced at some point or other.
A conflict between wanting to share something I’d helped create with people, in order to help bless them – because I genuinely believe the book can and will do that in so many ways – and my own pride and ego, which is desperately wanting people to read it and give me great responses to boost my confidence.
It’s a conflict between healthy ambition and selfish ambition.
A conflict between that part of me that wants to honour God with what I create and see it help others in their walk with Him, and my own ego which wants success for selfish reasons.
It’s also about my own insecurities – that I can’t quite believe that I have had even moderate success at something I love doing and might actually have a gift for, because some part of me just won’t accept that I can be successful, or that God might actually have made me for a purpose and that this might a pointer to what that might be.
Promoting something you’re a part of or have helped create feels a bit selfish, and not very Christian – and certainly, it’s very tempting, especially in the self-centered ‘i-culture’ we live in, to simply promote things for those reasons.
We all want to be loved, and something we often do is look for that in people, rather than simply embracing the unconditional love & grace of God, which doesn’t value us according to our achievements, but sees us in all our nakedness, all our fear, doubt and all our sin – as well as our achievement – and loves us anyway.
A love that would love the same if we lived our whole lives and achieved nothing and got it all wrong every single moment.
I wrestled with this issue for a while, and finally came to the decision that it was okay to promote the book – and indeed other things I might be involved in – as long as the way it was presented, and the heart behind it, pointed away from myself and towards God, and helping others connect with Him.
The whole process taught me an immense amount about how to deal with success and ambition as a Christian. It’s something that’s not often talked about, but in fact it’s an issue many of us face, and we often feel guilty for feeling ambitious.
But the problem isn’t ambition, it’s the heart behind it – the type of ambition, in a sense.
Ambition can be a beautiful thing – we just need to reclaim it and present a more healthy interpretation – one more in tune with how God originally designed ambition to be, you might say.
As someone who writes I have always aspired to have my work published in a hard-copy book & to broaden my reach and influence further, so I can help point more people toward God – or at least, that’s what I tell myself. Although that reasoning is good, and might be true a lot of the time, I’m certain there are times the truth isn’t so righteous or God-centred.
To be honest though, that’s perfectly human. I suspect all of us, deep down, have ambition of some kind – and as I’ve already suggested, in it’s best form, ambition can be a great thing, a beautiful thing.
Well, it can drive us on to succeed and give of our best in what we do, and to achieve more and be who we were made to be, and to help and serve many people, and ultimately achieve amazing things for God & bless His people and creation.
Like anything, it’s when we take it too far and make it our idol that we start to encounter problems. Then it can become malicious, selfish, greedy and proud.
In a word, ugly.
The interpretation of ambition that we’re more used to.
We all want to be the best we can at what we do – and there is a part of all of us that loves success and the adulation and praise that can come with it. It’s human to want to be loved – God made us to be loved.
The problem is that we often seek out that love from people instead of the person from whom we were designed to receive it from. The person who created us, who actually is love. God.
It’s easy to substitute earthly praise for the unconditional free gift of the love of God – we put it in place of God. That’s never a healthy thing.
You see, God doesn’t mind us being ambitous. But He wants us to have His kind of ambition, beautiful ambition, not the ugly ambition of self.
Beautiful ambition points points people towards God, and at the same time can drive us to become the people we were originally designed to be, to fulfill the destiny God planned for us – and only by following Him and being obedient to His will are we ever going to be truly satisfied.
The secular world would say that meeting ambition satisfies you. But the most successful people out there, I find, are never satisfied. They achieve one thing, and they always need the next thing, the next project, the next achievement – and although in one sense that’s a good thing, their real problem is that because they are looking for their identity and security in achievement and ambition, they ultimately are never going to be satisfied. It could be their idol for the rest of their days.
Those people will never find the true shalom of God. The sense of completeness, wholeness, peace and joy that comes from having your security in the unconditional love of God.
I feel a sense of ambition both creatively and with my writing – but ambition, I hope, in the healthier sense of the word.
Ambition in terms of working alongside God to become the man He made me to be, to achieve the things He made me to do, to impact the people He made me to impact.
God has inspired many, many ideas in me – only some of which have yet to see light of day. For example, I have about four book ideas at least in my head right now, ideas that God has given me. I’m working on a couple, but there will always be something new, another vision, idea that God has given me to make into a reality.
Those books will be ‘ambitions’ in one sense, and ambition will help make those into reality, but it will be a different type of ambition, one hopefully driven by God, not men.
That is a more healthy view of ambition, and that’s the kind of ambition I hope I have.
Ambition though is one of the areas in that balancing act of faith where we often overtip the balance in the negative sense, and where it’s very easy to fall into sin. None of us will get it right all the time – and so we need to learn not only how to have a healthy view of ambition, but how to try and keep ourselves humble, to have a proper sense of perspective – which when you’re successful at anything, isn’t an easy thing to do.
I think that the best way to do this is, again, to be honest with yourself about who you are. I know from experience that if you don’t humble yourself, God will eventually humble you, and being humbled is often a lot more embarrassing and uncomfortable than humbling yourself.
Rob Bell (right) spoke this summer at Greenbelt, after arguably one of the most successful years of his life professionally, where his most recent book ‘Love Wins’ sold loads of copies, more than any of his previous books, causing a controversy in the process – indeed, it was the controversy that paradoxically assisted in it’s success.
Many were expecting him to speak on the topic of his book, but he took me and others by surprise by giving what was essentially a testimony – and including many never before told stories – but not ones of success, but of personal humiliation and failure.
It was almost like he was taking this big ‘Rob Bell’ many of the people watching had built up in their mind and was deconstructing him – reminding us that he is human as well and has made many mistakes and had huge failures too.
But I ultimately think it was for his benefit too – he wanted to stay grounded, to ensure that his ambition and ego never got bigger than God, and that He was willing to laugh at himself – as he encouraged us all to do as well.
It was a great example to me of how to approach success. With humility, a healthy sense of perspective, recognising it’s all a gift from God and being willing to laugh at yourself – because ultimately, none of us are perfect.
In relation to my own life, the reason I’ve been reflecting on this is that as I touched on earlier, this autumn God has been opening up more opportunities and avenues with my writing. As well as the book I mentioned, later this month I will be publishing the first of a bi-monthly guest blog post on the Big Bible site, on issues relating to church and social media – becoming a ‘digi disciple’. My blog is gaining readers and I have more twitter followers than ever. This has all been very positive and encouraging for me, and given me a lot more confidence.
At the same time this has been all happening, I started a new job. Part of being trained in this job meant I had to learn all the skills, from top to bottom. That meant instead of working with data and analysing it and working on computers, I was instead collecting, stamping in and sending out the post. It’s a job that is actually a pay band below mine, but it’s a skill I needed to learn to do the job I would ultimately be doing.
I have to admit, when I first started doing it, there was a real sense of inner frustration. I felt that with my experience, skills and gifts that I shouldn’t have to prove myself at that kind of job.
But as things progressed and I actually struggled with the job – largely because of these frustrations I think, in hindsight, I actually began to realise that my pride and ego were getting in the way.
That although I may not have said so or let on to anyone, in my heart I thought I was above that kind of job. I was made for better than this, I should have been doing something else.
Funnily enough, the Sunday afterwards the talk in church was on pride and humbling yourself. No surprises for guessing what happened.
God put me firmly in my place, He opened my eyes to see that I was being proud, I was being selfish and my attitude was way out. It wasn’t a very comfortable thing to hear, but it was absolutely dead on right.
The fact was that I was in that job, and that He had put me there very deliberately, to humble me, to learn how to be a servant and to humble myself. To learn, in fact, how to deal with success.
Because the reality was if I had that attitude in that job, I’d have it in success as well, and the harsh truth was that if I kept that attitude, I’d never be able to do the things God was calling me to.
How I responded to a supposed failure would be echoed in how I dealt with any success God gave me.
If I was wanting to follow Jesus, I needed to humble myself and seek to simply serve – no matter what that meant.
If that meant only one person ever read my work again or that I never found out how many people, if any, God has blessed through what I create, then that’s how it had to be.
I was reminded again that it’s not about me. It’s about God.
If I don’t humble myself, God’s only going to humble me – and from experience, that’s far more painful and difficult.
Having been through that process though it now allows me to deal with the good things God is doing in my life from a much healthier place.
The progress I’m making, both writing and creative wise is, in reality, still on a very small scale comparatively. But it is clear to see God is moving in this area of my life and opening doors, and it’s something I’ve not experienced before in the same way.
It is a strange feeling.
I am always shocked when I get messages from people saying how things I have written have spoken to them. I feel so humbled every time, not only because it is always such a surprise to me (which probably has to do with my own insecurities more than anything else) but the shock is more down to the fact that it has usually impacted them in a way I could never have imagined or conceived of when I wrote or created it.
God did something with the words I wrote which spoke into that persons life in a unique way, something I could never have done and an impact I could never have imagined, and it’s genuinely humbling.
The more time has gone on the more I appreciate how the gift of writing & creativity is not just a gift, but a calling, and indeed a responsibility. God hasn’t given me this gift to show off, to impress, but to share humbly with others and use it bless them and ultimately serve His kingdom.
It’s not about getting popularity, success or status.
It’s about playing the role God designed for me, in order to help bring His light to the world, to use what I’ve been given to point people towards Him.
I still don’t get it right all the time. I can still feel twangs of selfish ambition and ego. God still has to humble me now and again. But thankfully, it’s less often than before. I’m learning how to humble myself a bit more. Not to perfection, but I’m improving – and ultimately, that’s the journey. Becoming a bit more like Jesus every day.
So where does this leave us? How can you put this into practice?
Well I think it begins with us examining ourselves, as scripture says to do.
We need to keep our eyes open for whether we’re beautifully ambitious, or we suffer from ugly ambition.
Ugly ambition has large doses of pride and selfishness, and aims to point people towards you. If you are afflicted with this, then you’re the focus, the object, the centre of everything. If you have ugly ambition then your whole identity and security rides on how successful you are – even if you say it doesn’t. At the times you fail or don’t meet your expectations, everything’s going to fall apart.
That’s ugly ambition.
Beautiful ambition is different. It’s much more healthy. It’s defined by large doses of humility, and ultimately aims to point people away from you, and towards God. It’s willing to laugh at itself, at all times, and learns how to be content whatever the circumstances.
It’s security and identity doesn’t rest on the outcome of the ambition. It resides in the simple truth that you are loved unconditionally and chosen by God, a truth that doesn’t change no matter how high you climb or how low you fall, and so is able to embrace both with a much healthier perspective.
Healthy ambition, in a sense, forgets itself, and focusses it’s attention on God.
That’s beautiful ambition – and it’s the kind of ambition we should all aspire to and desire to grow into.
It’s the kind of ambition God wants for us.
Okay, now join the discussion! Some questions to ponder:
How does ambition work itself out in your life?
Are you trying to be beautifully ambitious, or do you suffer from ugly ambition?
How do you deal with success?
How do you think you can develop more beautiful, God-centred ambition?