Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ambition, Arrogance and Theologies of Glory

Here is an interesting post arguing for a distinction between arrogance and ambition.

Here's how it starts:

There’s a word many Christians are afraid of. It’s almost a bad word. If you have it, many people assume it means you’re self-serving. Power hungry. But most of all, arrogant
I’m talking about ambition
It’s almost like if you want to excel at something or do big things with your life or organization, then you must have a God-complex. An all too elevated sense of self-importance. 
There’s no denying that that’s definitely true in the case of some people. But I also fear that our fear of ambition is severely limiting other people who have been called to do great things for God. Why should we put a cap on their potential because some people can’t put a cap on their pride? [bold's original]

On one level, I agree that ambition and arrogance are not necessarily synonymous. I confess that I have yet to buy and read "Rescuing Ambition" by Dave Harvey (I'd love to get it but book budget is a little tight--I'll accept gifts...). I'm sure he probably makes similar points that ambition is not all bad. I assume that you could argue that Adam had ambition before the fall and that Jesus had the ambition to do his Father's will.

I am saying this because I want to prove that I too think that not all ambition is bad. But I think you can distinguish ambition from arrogance and still say there may be non-arrogant ambition that is still bad. This is particularly true if ambition becomes synonymous with accomplishing big things for God. 

Let me further distinguish. I am taking about ambition to do good things. So you may have non-arrogant ambition to do something bad--and obviously that is bad ambition. I want to ask/argue that there can be a non-arrogant ambition to do good that can still be bad or arise from the darkness of my heart.

I'm not arguing that we should not have ambition though either. 

Here's a little more excerpted:

I wonder if people accused them of being arrogant? Maybe. But then again, if you’re never accused of being arrogant, it’s probably a sign that you’re not being ambitious enough. You’re dreaming too small. Your goals are too easily attainable. 
Let me free you: it’s ok to want to be the best at what you do. It’s ok to want to achieve as much as you can with your life for the sake of the God who gave it to you. I sincerely doubt God is going to look at you at the end of your life and say, “You did too much for me.” But I do sincerely believe that God is going to look at many people and say, “You were too 'humble' for your own good and the good of countless people you could have impacted if you'd had a little more ambition.” 
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that ambition is synonymous with arrogance. Godly ambition is what God uses to do incredible things in our world.

(1) This isn't the main point I want to make it seems to be a little self-serving to say, if you are never accused of being arrogant its because your not ambitious. So a mark of good ambition will be that people misdiagnose it as arrogance? Maybe the writer has taken truly sinful accusations and slander like this, however using as absolute like "never" is dangerous. The implication is: if people don't accuse you of being arrogant then "you're doing it wrong." Follow that thought a little, then the mark of your sincere ambition is it might look like arrogance, but hey, you know better. 

Don't forget, Scripture says wounds from a friend can be trusted--and just because people say your ambition looks like arrogance doesn't mean they are wrong and you are right to know its just healthy ambition. The idea gives cover to a whole manner of human sins that arise from the heart--not the least the inability to be corrected. We are even told:
If that makes you look arrogant, don’t back down from what God has called you to do. Instead, mourn for the people who are living so far beneath their potential that anything greater must be arrogance.
I agree, we should follow God's call. Yet God's call may not always be: bigger is better. That's the wisdom of the world that operates on sight not faith. Even if you can step into a position where you can do more good for more people, God may not be calling you to that. The need is not the call. [Let's not forget the parable of the talents: we should use what God has given us and not bury our gifts though].

Lets honestly assume the best--that the author is talking about people who hate all ambition and slander all of it as arrogance. I think we can agree that is wrong too. 

(2) The bigger issue is that even non-arrogant ambition for good can be a cover for a 'theology of glory' rather than a theology of the cross.

It is assumed that results of good are good and ambitions for results of good are be default good ambition. In fact, if your ambition isn't big enough maybe you are holding God back. [that really uncovers some bad theology that we won't address here]

What if God wants to crucify you and grind you down into being little, who humanly speaking accomplishes very little for God in terms of visible justifiable results.

The greatest in the kingdom of God is not necessarily the one who does the biggest good things for God but the one who makes himself the least and dies as servant. So you can say "Hey I don't want to be arrogant, I just want God to us me" and assume that this ambition must necessarily bigger and better results. Thats what I mean by non-arrogant ambition for good and that can still be a 'theology of glory' that is looking for results and establishment rather than crucifixion and self-giving sacrifice. 

So according to 1 Corinthians 3, there will be ministers who built a very larger kingdom ostensibly for God in service of the church. They had big dreams and big ambition and all of that was to do good. I would even argue they weren't arrogant, they wanted to do things for God. Perhaps their boast was even "God is doing great things through me." But in the end they find out they built not on the foundation of Christ. 

So the article writes:
"But ambition for the sake of God’s glory is not only condoned, it’s commended. It’s a required asset for anyone wanting to rise above the mass of men and do something extraordinary."
The first sentence is true so far as it goes. Whatever we do we are to do all for the glory of God. The problem is the second sentence. What does "for the sake of God's glory" in the first sentence look life? Well: "rise above the mass of men" and "extraordinary." We assume that godly ambition will necessarily rise above the mass of men. It will do something extraordinary.

Bonhoeffer famously said: "when Christ calls a man he bid him come and die." Maybe many Type-A ministers feel like they are doing that with the pressures and burdens of ministry--but the reality is I can by "dying" for a theology of glory not a theology of the cross. I should not assume my "ambition for the sake of God's glory" must mean rising up above others. In most times and places in church history, except for a rare few for whom God has marked a different path, ambition for the sake of glory really is never marked by any distinction, success or extraordinary results. Why should we think we are any better? Any better than Paul or Jesus or countless unnamed sacrificial servants?

It really isn't all that extraordinary to die and to crucify oneself for others. The way that Paul's ministry was extraordinary was not that he did big things for God or that he accomplished much. His ministry was extraordinary that it constantly made him a nobody before everybody and it was that humiliation of being ground down that enabled others to be raised up. It is much like the pattern of Christ.

"2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; 8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10   always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12  So death works in us, but life in you."
But the article has little to say about this kind of ambition--an ambition to be the least among people so that God might raise up--not in this life but the life to come.

I was trying to get at some these things in this previous post. Self-exaltation can mask itself. It does not have to appear pretentious or arrogant. It can be for a great good--or at least great good as we perceive it.

Ambition that is driven by a theology of glory, even if is non-arrogant in seeking to do good for others, is still a theology of glory. Our ambition needs to eschew not only arrogance but glory as man perceives it. The glory of God is accomplished in a theology of the cross and thus my ministry must model a theology of the cross.

In a day and age where we "brand" ourselves and must publicize our effectiveness in order to get a hearing, the minister of the gospel can have all sorts of ambitions and may even decry being arrogant--but bigness of ambitions that are not ambitions for lowliness and self-crucify may just be a theology of glory. Hear me very clearly: big ministries and successful ministries may be a sign of God's hand upon them and we should never be jealous or assume guilty motives. But a non-arrogant desire to do the most good and a hope that our actions of good will be extraordinary and rise about the mass of men so that there good is distinguishably good may just be ambitions for self-exaltation rather than ambitions of the cross and humiliation like our Lord. We need to do more than juxtapose arrogance with ambition and assume the former is bad and the latter is good. The sin of pride can ensnare my ambition in ways far deeper than arrogance. 

In the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther wrote: "22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened." While someone doesn't have to proclaim themselves arrogantly, when our ambition "sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man" we have a theology of glory not of the cross. God's divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross--and so his divine power may be revealed in the weakness of our ambitions not necessarily their strength. Or maybe we should have strong ambitions, like our Lord, strong ambitions to die and be nobodies so that God's kingdom may be exalted.

(For an introduction to Luther's Theology of the Cross see this essay by Carl Trueman)

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