According to writer Karen Heller, ambition is the number one narcotic within the business and professional community today. As a Christian who has been involved in the business community, I would include the church in that scenario. Ambition is a rather obsequious compulsive behavior, which has been growing steadily in the world for at least four decades. When one is driven by ambition, momentary exhilaration is experienced whenever a goal is achieved, whether long-term or short-term.
However, the thrill is short-lived because one is already being compelled to reach for even greater heights.
During my career with the Better Business Bureau, as I reached one goal after the next, I would continue striving for another. Yet, when I reached the top (“BBB of the Year”), there was still a void which needed filling. Now, there is nothing wrong with having an attitude of excellence; in fact, that is a biblical principle: “The righteous is more excellent than his neighbor…” Proverbs 12:26 (KJV). But there must be a healthy balance which is achieved only by getting one’s priorities in the proper order. Being obsessed with getting ahead, just for the sake of experiencing the intoxication of achieving one goal after the next—at the expense of your family, friends, church, charitable efforts, etc.—is wrong. And if you are obsessed by your own self-propulsion up the ladder to success, then you need help!
With each gain, I had my temporary “fix.” But in the professional community, success is based more upon your performance (translate that: what you can do for them!) than on the real person you are inside; success compares us before people while excellence is being the best at what God calls us to be. I was buying into a codependent behavior (or a vicious circle, if you prefer)… my ambition was transfixed upon the demands for worldly approval to feed my self-esteem and need for fulfillment, a never-ending dilemma.
I am reminded of our Lord’s words in Luke 16:14,15:
“Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
I don’t believe that I was deliberately and knowingly seeking the approval of men, for I told myself I simply wanted to be the best BBB executive in the country. Yet, there was a deep God-shaped vacuum, caused by a deficient relationship with the Most High God, which man’s recognition could fill only temporarily.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, I believe these same issues plague today’s Christian leaders as well. Doesn’t most every pastor seek to be the very best one, seeking the approval of both God and man? In his mind, he may argue—but in spite of admirable-sounding motivations, it is highly probable that some ungodly ambitions are sneaking into his behavior in very subtle ways.
Shakespeare gave us a solution to the obsession with ambition when he wrote:
Fling away ambition. By that sin angels fell. How then can man, the image of his Maker, hope to win by it?
Of course, he was echoing God’s Word, which puts it this way:
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21)
Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life… (Matthew 7:14a)
We are told in Colossians 3:2 to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things, and in Matthew 16:26:
For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?
We cannot afford the luxury of self-aggrandizement, selfishness, and “me-ism.” When our focus is on pleasing the Lord, and we let Him fill our needs for self-esteem (by understanding our identity and position in Him), we more easily can “fling away” the ambition with which the enemy gradually diverts us from the truth, or distorts the truth.
As an ex-workaholic, I know first-hand how far being excessively goal-oriented can take one’s senses, turning your focus away from the really important areas of life. In addition to those mentioned earlier, one that most fail to consider is what can happen if you neglect to care for your physical health. Stress is one of the greatest killers of the ambition-driven person, followed by heart attacks and any number of other physical ailments.
The workaholic never discovers the balance, which we admonished earlier, for “careerism” evolves into idolatry. (Church leaders, this can mean YOU, as well; “if the shoe fits,” etc.) Exodus 20:3 speaks of us “having no other gods before the Most High God.” And in the New Testament, remember the parable of the Great Banquet? Everyone had an excuse which kept him from receiving a feast fit for a king. Are you that busy? … that far out of balance?
I remember the story of a major corporate executive who worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day, to reach his pinnacle: CEO and president of a multi-billion dollar corporation, earning in excess of $1 million annually. During the years of his climb toward the world’s view of success, he married and had a family. Sadly, immediately after reaching his goal, his wife divorced him and his children disowned him for having made his business his god and totally ignoring them. Reflecting back (most of us have 20/20 hindsight), he said he would have given everything to reverse time and just stay a clerk. Perhaps he could have saved his family; as it was, now that he had reached the pinnacle of success, he had no one with whom to share the feelings of accomplishment and all the “perks” that went with it.
King Solomon, for all his wisdom, suffered a similar experience. In Ecclesiastes we read:
“There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment? This, too, is meaningless—a miserable business!” (NIV)
Why deprive yourself of the privilege of sufficient time for a close, deep relationship with the Lord, as well as with your family? You need God’s love, and He deserves yours, as does your family. As for your job, God led you to your occupation and it is He who blesses it. Don’t let Doug Sherman’s truism (from Faith Has Become a Weekend Hobby) catch you preoccupied with your vocation. Instead, believe Isaiah when he shared, “Say to the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings” and in Proverbs 16:3: “Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts shall be established (shall succeed).” And don’t overlook the scripture that tells us “promotion comes from the Lord.”
Another temptation for the businessperson, professional, and church leader is defined by C. Wright Mills, social critic, in The Power Elite:
Of all the possible values of human society, one and only one is the truly sovereign, truly and completely acceptable goal of man in (America) (read this “the world”). That goal is money and let there be no sour grapes about it from the losers.
Doesn’t this typify the average person, both believers and unbelievers? Are you an avaricious person, appearing as a sandy desert which sucks up all the rain and dew with greediness, yet yielding no fruit? One with an insatiable appetite for a singular goal of instant gratification? Do you not live up to your income level? When we feed our appetites to that degree, our reason becomes starved.
By and large, Christians have been programmed by the world to passively accept the falsehood that they themselves are the source of their income and blessings, even though they may verbalize otherwise. Leaving God out of one’s business is a sin of presumption. Many verses point out this vain premise; get your Bible and check out these verses: Luke 16:13, Proverbs 15:27, 1 Timothy 6:10, and Luke 12:13-21. Here are two more that carry a strong message to both the businessperson and the spiritual leader.
Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches and does not know who will gather them (who will get it)… (Psalm 39:6)
He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This, too, is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
2 Corinthians 3:5 says that God alone is our source of wealth.
God measures our heart’s love for Him… not our bottom line! The cost/benefit calculation of a life controlled by ambition and greed is abominably low. Psalms 1 and 37 describe the proper attitude one should have when assessing the true sincerity of their alleged commitment of everything they own to the Lord. It is an easy test, a quick evaluation. Just ask yourself—and be truthful!—how you would respond to Jesus today if you were in the shoes of the rich young ruler when He told him, “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” He has a way of getting right to the heart of where our treasure is, doesn’t He? Have you ever heard of anyone on their deathbed saying, “If only I’d just made one guilder more, I would have been fulfilled.”
Whether we are business and professional men and women, spiritual leaders, or hourly wage earners, we must not wallow in denial about whom (or what) we have made our god and replace the idol(s) with the Lord Most High. Ambition, workaholism, and greed have no place in the heart of a man or woman who is sold out to God. Instead of climbing the ladder of success, we must strive for excellence in all that we do.
Even right now, you can allow His Word and Holy Spirit to convict you of any gods you have established in His rightful place. Then repent and allow Him to love you into His likeness.
Copyright © 2011: Ken Thornberg, Executive Director, Freedom Encounters