I came out of the womb with lots of ambition. I wanted to do well. I wanted to make my parents proud of me and be popular with my friends. Soon that ambition met the bigger world and translated into a desire to succeed. I wanted to make good grades, be the best player on the baseball field, win every tennis match, be elected to every position, be popular not just with the cool kids but even the trouble-makers. People kept telling me I was very competitive but all I really knew was that I wanted more than whatever I had. It continued into college. Still I wanted the good grades and to win every tennis match but I wanted more and more learning too. I wanted my professors to think I was the best student they had ever had. I kept looking for the profession that would line up with all this ambition. Ironically, perhaps, I landed on priesthood, feeling a tug from God. But the ambition certainly didn’t wane. I wanted to be the best seminary student, the very best priest. Even before seminary, I decided I wanted to be rector of a big, fancy, historic downtown church. Well, it has been said that whatever we set our hearts on in life we will likely get, and then have to deal with having it.
Scripture seems to frown on people like me. Those who want more and more seem constantly to be challenged by scripture. The people who are on top or want to be on top are warned repeatedly: those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Don’t pick out the seat of highest honor. Pick out the lowest seat of honor. Blessed are the poor and the meek. Woe to those who are rich and those who are strong. Don’t fret about tomorrow. Take what is given to you today and be satisfied.
Yet here I am, seasoned in the study of scripture and serving in the holiest of settings, still not being quite satisfied with what I have, still wanting more and more. I’ve got more than I could reasonably expect to have and the drive won’t go away. It’s actually fueled by what I have received. I forget what good things have been accomplished: I keep looking for what else can develop. It feels exciting and heady. It also feels a little greedy and compulsive.
My heart sinks as I read 1 Timothy 6:6-21. Paul starts that passage by reminding the readers that we brought nothing into the world and cannot take anything out of it, that we should be content with whatever we have, that the rich and the ambitious are trapped by senseless and harmful desires, that the eagerness for more and more causes us to wander away from faith. Ouch. Right between the eyes. Shame almost makes me quit reading right there. Paul is right: I feel trapped always wanting more.
And then Paul addresses those who actually have the most, the rich and ambitious. Don’t be haughty, he says, if you have much. Remember it all comes from God who provides everything for our enjoyment. If you have a lot, do good with it, be rich in good works, be generous, share, take hold of the life that really is life. Grace be with you, even if you are rich and ambitious, Paul says. Rather than changing being rich, change your heart. Thinking that being rich is the problem is just like thinking being poor is the problem. It’s our heart that can lead us into dangerous territory, not how much we have or don’t have.
Hmmm. So being rich and ambitious isn’t the problem. Being attached to it, that’s the problem. The love of money (and ambition I might add) is the root of all evil, not money (or ambition) itself. Being in the world isn’t the problem. Being of the world, that’s where we get into trouble. Being defined by our own accomplishments, being self-centered and harsh toward others, that’s where we lose sight of the kingdom. That’s where we’re likely to think we are the kingdom ourselves.
The secret, perhaps, is to live more lightly with what we have and not to cling to it as our value in life. Being on top of the world probably isn’t judged by God as unrighteousness. Thinking we are better than those who aren’t on top, or dismissing the poor as lazy and good for nothing, that’s not kingdom sort of behavior. Thinking we have gotten where we are on our own, that’s what pushes God away. Who, after all, wants to be with someone who keeps saying, “I have no need of you; you’re just holding me back.”?
Worldly ambition brings a lot with it. We want more so we work hard to get more. And then we are likely to forget humility and our need for help from God and others. The problem with ambition is not the success it brings but the sense of entitlement that often goes with it, the thought that we should have what we have because we went out and got it. That puts us on dangerous ground.
So maybe you’re not poor and lowly. Maybe you’re a rich big wig. Well, the gospel has some challenges for you. But it also has some great hope. All that you have is for your enjoyment. Share, be generous, give, use your ambition and gain for someone other than yourself. The kingdom includes even those of us who have more than others. God doesn’t really care that much what we have. But, from those who have much, much is expected.
Wanting more and more in life leads us to acknowledge that what we really want more and more of is God himself. Ambition can lead us to nothingness or to the very God who has blessed us so richly.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
EFM Classes Forming
Education for Ministry classes are now being formed for the fall. EFM is a theological study course offered by extension through the University of the South – Sewanee and is designed for lay people. It is a series of 4 one year courses which involves individual study and group reflection. The purpose is to deepen in knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith and to be further formed for ministry in the world. St. John’s is fortunate to have 4 EFM classes: Thursday night 7:00 – 9:00; Sunday nights 5:30-7:30; Wednesday morning 9:30-12:00; and an on-line course is offered Fridays 9:00-10:30. If you are interested in any of these classes, please contact our EFM coordinator George West (285-4317 or firstname.lastname@example.org) or Robert Wisnewski (email@example.com) or one of the other mentors (Dudley Perry, Maria Pacheco-West, and Karen Pirnie).