Is Ambition Dangerous for the Christian Creative
Is ambition dangerous for the Christian creative? Shouldn’t we want Christians who are the best in their field, who are willing to work hard, long hours to get there?
Award season is in full swing here in Los Angeles – from Grammys and Golden Globes to the Oscars. While some dreams are dashed, the careers of the winners are launched into a new stratosphere. The desire to win these awards can be healthy or selfish, but usually they are a combination of both. Yet, even when it isn’t award season, countless men and women around the world are focused on fame, without asking themselves the very important question: Is ambition dangerous for the Christian creative?
Success or failure has little to do with the answer. There are people who win countless awards and remain spiritually mature, while others may never find success, but their pursuit of success has corrupted their soul. Somewhere along the road, our desires and ambitions lead to either healthy, or destructive ends. The question that arises is this: What does healthy ambition look like?
The Caution of Cultural Baggage
Ambition is like a dirty word in some cultures. One of our friends from Central America told my wife and I how their Spanish word for ambition included the idea of taking advantage of other people in order to get ahead. It was one of the reasons entrepreneurs were always looked down upon in her country. Even as she worked hard to learn English here in the U.S., others accused her of thinking she was “too good for her own people” simply because she wanted her family to learn English and she wanted to “provide for her family” in America.
Such an idea of ambition is not biblical, or even true. Ambition is not evil. But, if this idea resonates with you, or people in your community, you need to take a moment to consider how those views do not fit the way the Bible speaks of ambition, or the desire to improve your life. The reality is this: Cultures may help us, or hold us back. Our cultural heritage cannot be the source of truth and identity. The only thing in which we can place our identity and in which we can trust, is God’s word.
Ambition in Scripture
The New Testament describes both positive and negative ambition:
• Paul shares about his “ambition to preach the gospel” (Rom 15:20).
• Paul tells Timothy that it is a godly ambition to desire being an elder. (1 Tim 3:1)
• James criticizes those who have “selfish ambition.” (James 3:14, ESV)
• Paul warned us against unbridled appetites (Phil 3:19).
Even this quick view of the idea of ambition in Scripture shows us that ambition is not the problem. We need to look below the surface.
The Nature of Desire
Ambition is tied to desire. Without desire, we would not work, we would not pursue relationships, and we would not have families or children. Desire is an essential part of humanity and society, and part of the way God made us. From hunger and thirst, to the desire for affection and love, desires are an essential part of life.
There is nothing wrong intrinsically with desire. We can desire something good or something wrong. The tenth commandment forbids us from coveting, or “desiring something in your heart” which belongs to someone else. This is the clearest example of desire that is misdirected and sinful in the Bible. But we are also exhorted to desire to become more like Christ, and to desire for God’s will to be done. Nowhere does the Bible exhort us to be passive and void of desire. The sin of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, is the danger for those who lose all desire.
Ambition vs Desire
Ambition is more than a simple desire. Ambition is a strong desire that drives us to overcome obstacles and challenges in order to achieve our goal. Thus, ambition requires sustained effort and takes significant time. Consider the ambition to get your degree in Film Studies or Design at a top university. That would qualify as ambition. Maybe your ambition is to produce a blockbuster film or video game. These ambitions are not intrinsically good or evil.
The Temptation of Ungodly Ambition
Genesis 11 paints the picture of a group of men who come together to erect a tower that reaches to the heavens. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with building a city, or a grand tower. The act itself was not problematic. The problem lied within their ambition and their motive. The Bible tells us their ambition was to make a name for themselves. It was “selfish ambition.” We find the warning against such ambition in James 3:14.
Here in Los Angeles, there are all sorts of people, many of them Christians, who come here to make a name for themselves. Many of them have quarantined their faith from their creative life and see little connection between what they do spiritually with what they do in their creative work. Naturally, they end up using their ambition to chase selfish ends and sometimes questionable means to get there. Sadly, their faith becomes weaker and weaker, as their witness is compromised. They fail to be salt and light.
The Pursuit of Godly Ambition
Like the apostle Paul, we must have our ambition redeemed by the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the Philippians,
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,
whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Phil 4:12)
Paul can say this because he has learned that contentment follows Godly ambition. This is to be our model. If our focus is on our own name and success, we will be crushed by rejection and elated by awards and approval. If we are consumed by our own career goals, we will compromise more easily and drift away from what God has called us to pursue.
If, on the other hand, we are focused on what God wants for us, then we can accept rejection knowing God is in control, and that he will provide another way. Alternatively, when we succeed, we will acknowledge that God is opening the doors and giving us favor so we do not become inflated with pride. This is the model of “being content” which Paul is illustrating for the Philippians.
Directing our Passions, Desires and Ambition
Wise women and men take time to examine their heart, and they invite God into the process. We cannot assume our hearts are pure, because Scripture tells us our hearts can deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9). We need to pray as David did:
“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
– Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)
Here are a few questions that can help expose what is going on in our heart, and where our true desire lies:
1) What would give you the greatest joy, or drive you to the darkest despair?
2) If your art is called a failure by the critics but the fans love it, how would you feel?
3) If your art is praised by the critics by fails in the marketplace to find an audience how would you feel?
These questions are never meant to place guilt and shame upon you. They are meant to shine the light of the gospel into our hearts. It is only then that we can know how to repent, and then remind ourselves that God will be faithful to forgive us of our sins. The goal here is to keep growing in faith, to keep learning how to honor God in all we do, and how to be faithful witnesses wherever we live and create.
Humility in Community
I am not speaking to you as one who has arrived, but as a fellow traveler, seeking to grow in Christ. We will all face temptations. We will all make mistakes and fail to act as God wants us to act. The challenge is for you and I to keep getting back up and learning how to work out of salvation (Philippians 2:12). There is never a better time than now to examine our hearts, and to recalibrate. The more we grow in Christ, the more our focus and passion will be His glory instead of our own. May you and I keep learning to focus on Christ, and finding the freedom he has promised to give us as we worship Him in all we do.
What About Your Journey?
Where are you in this journey? Are you just starting out in your creative career, or are you a veteran who has seen all the ups and downs? Have you been tempted to despair over failure, or tempted to become too elated by taking your identity in your successes? We are all human, and we will all struggle with these things, but hopefully as we grow in Christ, each year we will become less focused on our own failures and successes, and more focused upon Him.
One favor: Would you take a minute and share with me in the comments, your challenges with ambition. Have you been able to remain humble while pursuing your calling and your creative projects?
Have you ever realized your ambition has become selfish, and needed to take time to ‘recalibrate’ your ambition?
I would love to hear your stories, and I’m sure our other readers and creatives would be encouraged by them too!
Asking God to recalibrate my heart and yours, as we seek to make an impact and to glorify Him.
Copyright © 2023 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
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