Ambition … Virtue or Vice? (RJS)

We’re in the middle of a nice series of posts with brief meditations by Jeff Cook from his book Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes. The first meditation on envy started me thinking, and I would like to put up some of these thoughts and start a conversation on the concept of ambition and the view of ambition as a virtue.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary online defines ambition as (a) an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (b) desire to achieve a particular end. This is viewed as a virtue in much of our culture – certainly in academia.

But is ambition a virtue? Should it be viewed as a virtue from a Christian perspective?

What role does ambition play in our church? What role should it play?

I’m skeptical. It seems to me that ambition is playing with fire. It is not inherently negative, in fact it is good to have goals and to work for those goals with perseverance. But ambition uses people, destroys relationships, and destroys community. Ambition is intimately coupled with envy, pride, and perhaps greed. We are fully embodied creatures and ambition feeds on our chemistry and biology and it shapes our natural responses, it  is addictive.

I’ll go one step further. Ambition, although not always clearly recognized and acknowledged as such, wreaks havoc in the church. Sexual sin, despite the attention payed to it, is of less significance if we consider impact on community and pain caused. The difference in impact is primarily because we recognize sexual sin as sin – there are consequences. In contrast we often value and reward the  result of ambition. We brush under the rug or rationalize away its impetus in envy and pride. This is a spiritual problem and a physical problem.

We are, I believe, fully embodied souls. Sin is a product of mind and will, but it is a fully embodied mind. I’ve posted on the embodied nature of sin before and borrow from those posts to start this discussion. You can find the original posts through the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar. This is background and necessary insight into the direction I would like to consider thinking about ambition. And yes, it is related to science.

Scientific developments have impact on our understanding of human behavior and human response. There was an article, Seven Deadly Sins, in the September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine that posed the question “Why does being bad feel so good?” and describes research being done these days to explore the science of sin. Scientists are using techniques such as  functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and PET (positron-emission tomography) to map the active areas of the brain as a subject responds to certain stimuli.

Lust is a big one – Research into brain response connected with lust indicates that (in males at least) the response is all-encompassing. “All said, the most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.“  The signals are unique, distinctive, unmistakable and uncontrollable. This isn’t surprising. We know that lust is a problem, we know that behavior can shape response, that there is a biological and chemical aspect that shapes not only the present, but the future. The biochemical response can be addicting and destructive. The lure of pornography is an excellent case in point. We could go on here, but this isn’t really the point of today’s post.

Envy is interesting – in a study of envy a number of volunteers were observed using fMRI while they read one of three scenarios – the key one described a student similar to the volunteer, but better in every respect.  The conflict detecting regions of the brain fired and the response was similar to that for pain. This leads to the suggestion that envy is a kind of social pain.  Later, when reading about this student’s downfall, the reward and pleasure  regions of the volunteer’s brain fired.  Not only this but the greater the pain in reading about the student’s success, the greater the reward in reading of the student’s downfall.  The reward response is along the same line as that experienced from food – or sex. It feels good.

And now the queen of vices – Pride. Gregory the Great in commenting on Job noted (p. 489-490): “For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders is immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. … For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin.

Does pride show response in brain scans? The science here is rather interesting.

For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities. … volunteers who imagined themselves winning a prize or trouncing an opponent showed less activation in brain regions associated with introspection and self-conscious thought than people induced to feel negative emotions such as embarrassment. We accept positive feelings about ourselves readily, Takahashi says: “Compared with guilt and embarrassment, pride might be processed more automatically”. (p. 51)

In another experiment a part of the brain could be stimulated to turn off the protective influence of pride.  When this happened “they saw themselves as they really were, without glossing over negative characteristics.” (p. 51)

Even more interesting, the experiments demonstrate that righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise. The brain activation is the same. “Both are forms of one-upsmanship. ‘They are in the same location and seem to serve the same purpose: putting oneself ahead in society.‘” (p. 51)

What does this mean? Self confidence, ambition, pride, envy – this is a slippery slope.  It is insidious – affecting our very make-up inside out. We are wrong when we cast it “simply” as a battle of wills. And our capacity for denial, blame-shifting, and self-deception is also rooted in our make-up.  It is interesting though, because studies also show that we can train our brains and influence response – especially true of sins of envy, wrath, and pride. Feeding ambition, with its corollaries of envy and pride, is like feeding lust. It changes our very being, our function, our chemistry, our brain paths. On the other hand intentional pursuit of virtue is also self reinforcing.

So why is it playing with fire? …  an example and an application. I’ll give the only safe example – one arising from self-reflection. I’ve been watching with interest the discussion on Rob Bell’s new book. Scot has posted on this from a number of different angles. The response has been amazing. This has raised more impassioned response than any other topic on the blog over the last six years. More than women in ministry, evolution, or Brian McLaren. Wow.

The example here, though, is not the response of everyone else in this discussion – the example is in my response to this firestorm.  As I watched the response to Scot’s posts on Bell’s book, the comments and the attention, I would have to say that envy and pride influenced my reaction. After all, the “success” (however defined) of others diminishes my own influence and accomplishment. The question immediately arises – how can I capitalize on the firestorm and enhance my own influence and reputation? No, it isn’t put so baldly as that – but as I think about embodied response this certainly plays a role. There is an intoxicating aspect to knowing that at least some people read what I write and appreciate it. It is physical and chemical – not “just” emotional. As a result there is a natural embodied response to try to maximize that feeling of influence and importance.

This current post arose from my contemplation of my response, how much it surprised me, and consideration of my ultimate purpose in writing on Scot’s blog. I could tailor my writing – even staying within the science and faith discussion – to build a following. I could be confrontational and provocative. I could design posts and choose topics to build a large following. I could justify it in a deluded way as working for God’s kingdom. It certainly happens all the time in the creation-evolution discussion.

It happens all the time in our church more broadly. The goal becomes influence and power hidden behind a veneer of righteous humility.

Thinking about it brings me to my knees. Lord, help me stay focused on the goal, the edification of the church and the kingdom of God. … And may they forget the channel, seeing only Him.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the issue of hell and judgment is a pressing question in our church and I admire the way that Scot has approached and engaged the issue. If I have something I feel led to contribute I will, and I did in my post on Polkinghorne on a Destiny beyond Death. The response doesn’t negate the value,  it just increases the need for reflection, caution, and prayer.

This reflection leads me though, to an idea that I would like to pose for consideration. Within the American evangelical church we view ambition as a virtue. We condone ambition, we reward ambition, we cultivate ambition, we admire ambition, we feed ambition. And this is a serious problem.

In fact, I think it is one of the biggest and most destructive temptations active in our church today. Ambition, accompanied by, and inextricably intertwined with, pride and envy.

What do you think?

What role does ambition play in our church? What role should it play?

How do we guard against pride and envy and stay focused on Christ?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Rick

    Great post. Very interesting.

    “It is interesting though, because studies also show that we can train our brains and influence response – especially true of sins of envy, wrath, and pride. Feeding ambition, with its corollaries of envy and pride, is like feeding lust. It changes our very being, our function, our chemistry, our brain paths. On the other hand intentional pursuit of virtue is also self reinforcing.”

    This is a wonderful example of how science can impact religion, especially application for the “person in the pew”. It shows the deeper impact of various mindsets, reflects the tighter connection between the “spiritual” and the “physical”, and adds a deeper appreciation for all the “mind” references in the NT.

    If pastors shared such data in sermons, would people view sin, spiritual disciplines, etc… somewhat differently? I would think so.

    Again, a very interesting post.

  • http://Deetsjohn.blogspot.com Deets

    This issue is a big problem for those who are seeking to elevate the rights of women. If women stand up and demand the right to lead, as many are doing, they lose the humility necessary to lead in a godly way.

    On the other hand, of course, men who demand that no woman can lead them have already lost that humility.

    It is a difficult place to be when really all we should want is for every follower of Christ to have the freedom to exercise the gifts that God gives to humble people. But what if he give a gift of leadership.

  • http://www.theamplifiedlife.blogspot.com Chris

    Wow, very interesting post. It’s scary to think about ‘spiritual abuse’ happening in the name of humility and righteousness. As a leader of a church I’m now really looking into my own context ni hope of seeing how this is present so it can be addressed (which may be partly what you wanted from this post).

    I think perhaps the apostle Paul was onto something in
    1 Corinthians 3:6 when he wrote: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” There appears to be an inherent humility and full reliance upon God for all things. Thus, no one can take credit for what happens. Just a thought for whatever it’s worth.

  • MatthewS

    RJS,

    I’ve been burned by ambition wrongly aimed but I’ve also been burned by passive-aggressive manipulation, which can be at least as deceitful and pernicious as bald ambition. I suppose they are both forms of loving one’s neighbor less than oneself.

    But what I really wanted to say was how much I appreciate your example of self-reflection and the honesty and transparency. I’m listening to some lectures from John Coe (available for free from Biola’s spiritual formation site) and he quoted someone, perhaps Teresa of Avila, about “sitting in our weeds” in God’s presence. We would far rather sew up moral fig leaves and hide behind good pretenses than to let our less-than-noble desires peek out. But that is itself part of the heart’s deceit. But thanks for modeling honesty. Your example inspires me to be honest with myself about those feelings that I’d rather keep under wraps.

  • http://rbrague.rhymeswithplague.com Bob Brague

    Thank you for this post. Coming as it does during the first Lenten season in which I have actively participated in over 50 years it gives added food for thought and reflection on what and who we really are.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    This reminds of many conversations I’ve had about self-interest.

    Ambition, like self-interest, is a neutral idea, neither good or bad. The issue is egoism.

    One of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr., sermons is The Drum Major Instinct, grounded in the text from Mark 10 where James and John ask to be seated at the honored places when Jesus comes into his kingdom. King points out that Jesus does not rebuke them for their request. On the contrary. He says something like “You want the honor positions? Go for it! Here is how you do it. Put everyone ahead of yourself and when you are better at doing that than anyone else you just might get that honored seat.”

    Ambition … a strong feeling of wanting to be successful in life and achieve great things … needs to broken out of egoism and placed in the broader of human community and God’s vision. The never ending struggle is the endless tendency to collapse everything into an issue of purely, or primarily, what happens to me.

    Are we really saying that as we seek the Kingdom of God we don’t desire success and hope to achieve great things?

  • rjs

    Michael,

    I think ambition – as in definition 1(b)desire to achieve a particular end, is neutral, even positive. And working toward this desire and goal is inherently good if the goal is good (in line with God’s mission).

    But ambition – as in definition 1(a) is not neutral, and it corrupts or represents the potential, the temptation, to distort and misdirect even the neutral or positive ambition. This is egoism of course. But I think it is unrecognized at times, an implicit but not an explicit desire to collapse everything into me and mine. We unconsciously fall into the trap of feeding (unrecognized) envy and pride – and only prayer, honest accountability, and intentional reflection and discipline will prevent it.

    So no – we are not saying, or at least I am not saying, that as we seek the Kingdom of God we don’t desire success and hope to achieve great things. I am saying that we hope, I hope, when all is said and done, I am incidental to what is achieved – not central to it. Hence the quote from the hymn “May the Mind of Christ” … and may they forget the channel seeing only him.

    I am also saying that the connections between body and mind, the inherent physical responses and sensations, play a role in our perception of and reaction to the world. We need to be conscious of this at all times.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Thanks rjs, this is a complex issue.

    For the past few weeks I have been thinking about the framing of faith and works in our participation of Jesus salvation. I am believing that there may be a better way to frame it up, perhaps along the line of the specific actions one takes is irrelevant to salvation but the motivation for the actions is paramount.

    So too with ambition and the difference between the first and second definitions of ambition. The first definition – an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power – deals with the motivation for the action of people. Your second definition – desire to achieve a particular end – deals with the specific action, namely an attempt toward achieving a particular end. Ambition in the second sense is neither good or bad, but ambition in the first sense is generally bad.

    I did not participate in the management of my last church for quite a few years. The pastor would regularly say that we all should use our gifts and contribute to the church. As it turns out, many of my gifts are in the areas of leadership, organizational effectiveness and strategy. So when I started to step up and take some of that on I was met with name calling, fear and hate. It seems that one can be seen as ambitious in the bad sense when that is not the case. Again, the motivation seems to be the key.

    Someone can step up and take some leadership without it being bad ambition. A litmus test of that would be whether they would be willing to give it up and let someone else do it instead of themselves.

    So we also have to be very careful whether we are judging someone’s motivation and heart when they are acting in what we will call an ambitious way.

  • MatthewS

    From Eccl 9
    7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

    11 I have seen something else under the sun:

    The race is not to the swift
    or the battle to the strong,
    nor does food come to the wise
    or wealth to the brilliant
    or favor to the learned;
    but time and chance happen to them all.

    From John 15
    No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

    I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

    I think that sometimes wrong ambition has an element of protecting oneself against God, of taking charge and making things happen. At least in my experience, I’ve seen an attitude of “OK, God, you are the focus on Sunday but I’ll take over on Monday, when the real work needs to be done. I’ll see you again next Sunday.” There is something different about abiding in Christ, letting his life flow through. I’m not pretending I really know how that works, it’s just some thoughts that have been floating around recently.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    In short, Jesus basically says “No prominence; no hierarchy” qualified by οὐχ οὕτως δέ ἔσται ἐν ὑμῖν ἀλλ “among you, not so.”

    Yet we still go by “Dr” or “Rev” or we put a few letters following our name.

  • Aaron

    When I think of ambition as a virtue, I think of it as the inverse of sloth.

    The problem is, I think, that there isn’t a very positive image of ambition that has been painted in our culture. When it comes to ambition, we often only see two options: the driven egomaniac that will sacrifice anything and everything for success, and the disinterested slacker.

    We really need ambition, though. We need people to see big, troubling problems and step up with the unction to tackle them. We need people to acknowledge the gifts they’ve been given and to apply them with confidence and purpose. We in the church are very comfortable resorting to prayer, giving, or introspection as a way to deal with problems, which is fine, but we also desperately need people to be bold and earnest enough to own these issues personally and believe that they can make a contribution in a direct way.

    We can be ambitious, but also humble and caring. We can strive to accomplish significant things with our lives, all while realizing that we are only successful because of what we have been given. We can aim high with our dreams, but at the same time refuse to sacrifice our principles along the way.

  • http://www.shanescottonline.com/ Shane Scott

    Hi Scot
    I think a related issue is competition. How should Christians approach competition? Just competing to crush other people seems incongruent with Christianity. But competing to bring out the best of what God has given you to glorify Him is a different matter. You were an athlete in college, so your perspective would be interesting.
    Shane

  • Rick

    Jeff #10-

    But isn’t there value in being able to recognize experts in a field? Aren’t they providing a service for us all?

    Do they hold those titles to say, “Look at me!”; or do they hold them to say, “I might be able to help.”

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    RJS,

    Thanks for being so honest and open. I think the alternate definitions you cited give space for the good and bad sides of ambition, as some of the comments have pointed out. If we seek to enter the kingdom, or love like Jesus does, we seek to accomplish a particular, even particularly fantastic end. We may even seek this for our good as much as anyone’s. But ultimately, I see ambition in a bad sense as wanting to accomplish this or that thing for pride’s sake, for my ego. Jesus wanted to accomplish some great things. And he did so. But he did not seek to do them for his pride’s sake, for the sake of his status among people, or out of a sense of competition.

  • rjs

    Chris (#3),

    I hope the post does provoke some thought by others in their circumstance.

    It would probably not surprise anyone that the thoughts that eventually led to this post began in a context of “seeing” faults in others and only later reflecting internally.

    T (#14),

    Bringing in the idea of competition and competitiveness is a good addition. Ambition in the bad sense is competitive. I think the sense of competition creeps in unexpectedly – even slinks in inch by inch – and taints goals and aims more than we tend to realize or admit.

  • Dana Ames

    Thanks, rjs. I agree with you in every respect.

    It is difficult to judge oneself rightly, without delusion. During Lent, Orthodox say this prayer often every day, and with it, if physically able, do three prostrations (kneeling down and then bowing from the waist forward, touching the head to the ground) as a reminder that we are indeed embodied souls:

    The Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian (late 4th century):

    O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk;
    but rather give to your servant the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.
    Yes, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brother, for You are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.

    Dana

  • DRT

    I want to push back on the idea of competition being bad. Competition involves seeing the results of others and drawing inspiration from that to achieve even bigger results. There is nothing inherently bad about competition.

    Competition does not mean a win/lose arrangement. Sure there are competitions that are set up that way, but that is not what defines competition. Competition is the act of determining the relative extent of an endeavor.

    Yes, people can compete to see the other person do bad, or compete to give themselves glory, but people can also compete to help push themselves to achieve a higher level of performance.

    If someone is a poor winner (throws it in other people’s face etc) then that is not good competition. But if someone is a good loser and a good winner, then competition is not bad.

    As Buddhism teaches, things can be afflictive or non-afflictive. It is the context that determines whether they are one or the other. The west is unique in its insistence on something intrinsically being good vs. bad. Most things are contextually dependent.

  • rjs

    DRT,

    When competition causes us, within the church, to ask the wrong questions and set the wrong goals, it is bad.

    bigger church
    better coffee
    more people
    better facilities
    more charismatic pastor
    bigger organ
    most baptisms
    most page views
    most comments
    most facebook shares

    Personally I think competitiveness almost always causes us to ask the wrong questions, set the wrong goals, value the wrong things. It requires care to evaluate motives honestly, ask the right questions and set the right goals. (Right = in line with God’s purposes)

  • DRT

    Rjs, @18, your examples are compelling. The issue is that the goals seem to be non-virtuous, not the competition. It is easy for me to come up with goals that are not deleterious to life and would not be hindered by competition (e.g. more sit ups or push ups than the rest of the class, lower cholesterol level than your spouse), but in the context of church it seems that the goals are not the same character as others.

    Good points, need to further refine to reach a good conclusion.

  • Ting

    I just want to say thanks for this post. A good reminder for myself to continually examine my own heart, and why I post :)

  • DougC

    I read another blog entry today that speaks to the issue of pride:
    http://www.orthocuban.com/2011/03/of-whom-i-am-the-worst/

    A passage is used starting at 1 Timothy 1:15 where Paul says “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

    The focus of the entry was to ask and answer why would Paul say of himself “of whom I am the foremost” (sinner)?

    The conclusion was not that it was out of righteous humility or deliberate self depreciation, but that “The attitude that Saint Paul has is the only one that will protect us from pride.”

    I recommend a reading of the above mentioned blog entry for some peripheral reading on this topic.

  • rjs

    DRT,

    It seems to me that competitiveness is part of the problem. Not all competition – but an underlying competitiveness that compels us to come out on top.

    This competitiveness, coupled with ambition, pride, and envy distorts even good or neutral goals and activities into negatives. It distorts us from what we are called to be as Christians and as a church.

    Do I want to blog here to get the most comments or page views, the most influence in some circle? There is an underlying competitiveness that tempts me to tailor response to the wrong sorts of goals. And it can be rationalized as doing good (reaching more people with an important message about the compatibility of science and faith). But it will also be set up, in that case, as a fight and will hurt as many or more than it helps (my opinion anyway).

    Scot had a post several years ago about rebaptism – and in this post was a note that many churches push baptism numbers to show that they are successful – and this creates a culture of rebaptism at times. Baptism and evangelism is a good thing – competitive instinct here is not.

    And then we get to what churches sometimes do to increase attendance – reaching more people is a good thing. Hurting others in the process is not. Here see my post and Mercer’s posts (last Tuesday). But I think there is a competitiveness involved here as well that wins over the gospel and the body of the church.

  • J.L. Schafer

    For a long time, I have been part of an evangelical ministry that treats ambition as a virtue. I just love this article and will posting a link to it in the hope that many others will read it as well. Thanks for writing this.

  • Adam

    RJS,

    Do you think God has an active roll in keeping our ambition in check?

    There are times that I will write a comment on a blog or a page long exhortation of my thoughts and beliefs and I think how amazing my words are and that nobody could read this a not be persuaded. And then it doesn’t happen and I say to myself “Adam, you’re an idiot.”

    After, years of this I’m learning to delete my comments after I write them because I’m realizing I just want my voice to be heard. And in that situation, my silence is much more pleasant.

    So, back to the original question. Do you think this is a way God teaches us to not be so ambitious? Not only non-ambitious, but actively making space for others to be heard by shutting-up?

  • rjs

    Adam,

    Perhaps. I am sure that listening is sometimes the best option.

    But rather than just staying quiet it might be useful to ask if a comment contributes to conversation, if it asks a question or contributes insight into a question someone else has posed.

    It is also worth asking if the comment is designed to win an argument rather than contribute to conversation.

    I’ve learned a great deal from commenters who contribute insights and allow for give and take.

  • Fred

    Adam, what a refreshing admission. That makes two of us.

    I am one who has been “burned” by (several) ambitious pastors in the past. But, no one likes a naysayer so I hold back for fear I will sound negative, critical, not a team player, always seeing the glass as half empty, whatever.

    Whether a comment “contributes” seems to depend upon how positive it is. How then do we deal with legitimate complaints? Ambition and ego are, in my mind, a serious problem in the church.

    On the other hand, my heart goes out to pastors who truly seek to minister in a humble, servantlike fashion. Their “success” is evaluated upon whether they are “packing them in” or whether their sermons are entertaining enough or whether they pay enough attention to me or whether they offer the right kind of music, blah, blah.

    Let me know if this is too much complaining.


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