Ambition and the Christian

March 20, 2017

I don’t know much about Napoleon and I never have. He is a towering figure in history who needs no reference to his last name, but I don’t know much about the guy other than the fact that he was a short, successful general and a bit of a showoff. That’s it.

So I picked up a book about him.

Among other things I learned that Napoleon’s first ambition was to become a writer. Here is a quote from a teenage Napoleon on ambition… “Ambition, like all disordered passions, is a violent and unthinking delirium…Like a fire fed by a pitiless wind, it only burns out after having consumed everything in its path.”

How’s that for irony?

His story has me thinking a lot about ambition and the Word of God, and the right balance of ambition for a Christian.

In the New Testament there is really no clear word that translates for our English word, ambition. The Greek word, “zeloo” and “orego” are used to express the ideas of “desire” or “covet after”. “Dioko” can mean “to follow after”, but it is used mostly in the negative sense of “to persecute”.

In 1 Corinthians 14:1 we read, “Pursue love (dioko) and strive (zeloo) for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” In other words, we should zealously strive for love and desire spiritual gifts for the encouragement and uplifting of others (not ourselves).

One of the few occasions where the word “ambition” is used in any translation of the New Testament is in 1 Thessalonians 4:11— “make it your ambition to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you”. But there is no Greek basis for the word “ambition”. It is the translator taking a measure of rhetorical license.

Our modern-day sense of ladder-climbing-ambition as a good thing (the only thing?) for achieving successful is non-existent in the New Testament. It seems as if Napoleon had it correct when he was a teenager.

Do you? Do I?

Sometimes, yes. Other times? No.

Let’s give the Apostle Paul the last word, so that we will set our ambitions on the things of God and not the things of this world…

1 Timothy 4:6 If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, 8 for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. 9 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
11 These are the things you must insist on and teach. 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. 15 Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.

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