Is Ambition a Christlike Quality?

Recent events in my life have caused me to think about ambition in a deeper way than I had before. So, first a definition from the Yahoo dictionary:

Ambition
An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or power.
ETYMOLOGY:
Middle English ambicioun, excessive desire for honor, power, or wealth, from Old French ambition, from Latin ambiti , ambitin-

I have spent most of my life thinking of ambition as a negative quality. I view it as similar to greed, covetousness, and selfishness. Something that is to be avoided. Something that has no place is the church, in the workplace, or in life.

A few scripture verses that express my feelings about the quality of ambition are from D&C 121:36-37

The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our VAIN AMBITION, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

With the above scripture, and all the talk about humility, meekness, being childlike, etc., hopefully you can see why I have always looked on ambition as a bad and dangerous thing.

In the workplace, ambition can be readily seen. I would feel that in an ideal world simple personal ambition would be undesirable and would have no place in the workforce. This is a naive thing to hope for. Ambition will always exist in the workplace, and in some ways may even be encouraged. Personal ambition in an employee can be a motivating tool for managers and business leaders to use, perhaps to meet their own ambitious ends.

I also like the example of military leaders like George Washington and Moroni who looked forward to a simple life after the war, and not necessarily to take advantage of their fame to seek personal gain. Moroni wrote, ‘Behold, I am Moroni, your chief captain. I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my God, and the freedom and welfare of my country.’ (Alma 60:36)

There appear to be those, however, who may view ambition as a good quality in a person. Something that you may hope that your own children may develop in order to be successful in life. Can ambition be a christlike quality in the church, workplace, and life? Was Christ ambitious?

A few thoughts on this come to mind. In the council of heaven Christ says, ‘Here am I, send me.’ He does not say something like – Well Father, if you like Lucifer’s plan, perhaps you should send him. Nor does he say – there are many noble and great spirits here, perhaps you should send them. He doesn’t even say – whatever you think is best. He says here am I, send me. Looking at it objectively, from the outside, is this not an ambitious thing to say?

Also during his life Christ says, ‘Come follow me.’ Does this not assert a leadership model for him, a followership for others. Sure he is right, and he is the Savior after all, but was he not also ambitious in a way when saying ‘come follow me’?

We are not perfect. We are not the Savior. But should we at times assume a bold, confident, assertive, even ambitious approach to things? Should we be seeking for power and influence in the church and in the workforce? Is ambition something to be admired, emulated, and developed? Is it something to be loathed, avoided, and repented of?

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16 Responses to “Is Ambition a Christlike Quality?”


  1. 1 Geoff J June 12, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    Well ambition and vain ambition are hardly the same thing. We are commanded to seek the bst gifts for one thing. Secondly, isn’t our goal exaltation? Isn’t exaltation divination? Or in other word, godhood? What could be more ambitious than to seek that?

  2. 2 Eric Nielson June 13, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Thankd Geoff, some thoughts:

    I would view ambition and vain ambition as synonamous. I think that is consistent with the given definition. Hopefully this is more than just an argument over definitions of words.

    When we are commanded to seek for the best gifts it is not for personal power and glory, but for the benefit of all. Tose who ambitiously seek for the best spiritual gifts for their own glory will be disappointed.

    Exaltation is as much Gods goal for us as our goal for ourselves. He says this is my work and my glory. Again if one seeks exaltation with the motivation of personal power and glory, they may be disappointed.

    Some other statmennts come to mind. ‘He that will be the greatest shall be the least and the servant of all.’ This again brings to mind that it is the humble servant who does not set himself up to be better than the other servants who will gain the reward.

    Also, ‘He that seeketh his life shal loose it, and he that looseth his life for my sake shall find it.’ Again brings to mind a complete lack of selfishness on the part of those who seek eternal life.

    And again, in the council of heaven, Christ says, ‘and the glory be thine.’ This also points to a lack of personal ambition that seeks for power and glory for the self.

    I think a good question to ask ourselves is, ‘Why do I want eternal life’? What is the primary motivationfor us here? If it is merely to seek for power and glory for ourselves we may be disappointed.

  3. 3 Kristian June 13, 2006 at 11:17 am

    I think that some amount of ambition is healthy. Without ambition to succeed in life, one won’t be able to finish school. An extention of this are those who sit at home and who waste life away. One needs ambition to develop the talents we’ve been given. How many times have adults lamented a talented youth who does nothing serious with that talent. It takes ambition to do well in any endeavor, including Church callings.

    We’ve been counciled by the Bretheren to set goals in our lives, in our callings, etc. Isn’t this a process of ambition?

  4. 4 Eric Nielson June 13, 2006 at 11:52 am

    Kristian:

    Thanks for your comments, hope all is well.

    The more I think about this the more I think that my issue is with what is behind the ambition. What is motivating it. I think I assume an amount of selfishness and greed with the word ambition.

    So, the individual who goes to school or does well at work, what motivates him? Is it ultimately a lust for power and wealth and fame and pride? Or is it something else. Is it a desire to provide for a family. Is it based on enjoying your wrok – just happiness. Is it based on a level of self reliance and survival if you will.

    When I think of ambition, I think of it as a motivation based on a desire for personal power and glory and wealth. There are other more christlike motivators than these things.

  5. 5 a June 13, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    I think you are thinking way too much. You are looking for an exact definition of a word which obviously has different connotations to different people, regardless of how the dictionary defines it. What matters is who you are, and like you said, what your motivations are. Seek the Lord’s guidance in all things, follow that guidance, and you will be right. However anyone else may label your actions is irrelevant.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson June 13, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    a:

    Thanks for your comments. You are probably right. It is just that lately, in my personal life, I have seen what appears to be vain ambition. I am really wondering if I should be more ambitious. I have lost opportunities possibly because of my lack of outward ambition and assertiveness. I am trying to decide if that is the person I want to be or not.

  7. 7 Mogget June 13, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    What about this, from 1 Ti 3:1)?

    Whoever aspires to the office of a bishop desires a good work.

    I have never been comfortable with the idea that all pride is bad, nor am I comfortable with an absolute prohibition on ambition.
    Context is key. What are you proud of? What are your ambitions? What will you sacrifice to achieve them?

    And now, let me subvert my own comments and say that I’d rather not have a bishop who actually wanted the job…

  8. 8 a June 13, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    I agree with mogget. You (meaning me, you or anyone) need to decide what you want in life. Then you need to pray about it. When you get an answer, then you proceed. Don’t stop yourself from setting goals you’d like to acheive just because you’re afraid it might be too ambitious, especially after you have consulted with the Lord. He wants us to be happy, successful and to enjoy the good things in life. In return, we can’t be stingy with the good things we are given.

    We had a lesson on prayer in church recently. There was a quote in it from Wilford Woodruff. He said, “Whatever is necessary for us to receive and enjoy, it is our duty to ask the Lord for. We should go before Him in secret places and make our wants known, that our prayers may be heard and answered upon our heads. Herein lies our strength.” If we want something it is our DUTY to pray for it. Of course this is not referring to only temporal things, but I do believe temporal things are included. And of course, He might tell us no, and will impress upon our hearts a feeling of whether or not what we want is appropriate for us.

    I am speaking of mostly temporal things, because I get the feeling you are hesitant to pursue those things in life (although I also sense a humility in not wishing for yourself “power” in the church). Great things can be done to serve the church and others with temporal means. There is nothing wrong with “making lots of money,” to put it bluntly. As long as we put what we are blessed with to good use. Many of our church leaders have acheived great success and financial increase in their careers. That is a blessing from God, but would they have acheived that without aspiring to better themselves and taking those opportunities that, through their diligent efforts, they were given? Whether or not this is categorized as “ambition” I don’t know. Ambition is just a word. Call it what you want, these are good men who sought out good things in life through hard work and faith in the Lord. And in this they were blessed.

    My advice to you is to stretch yourself, set the goals you feel the Lord wants for you and your family, and go for it.

  9. 9 sean p. June 13, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    “We are not perfect. We are not the Savior. But should we at times assume a bold, confident, assertive, even ambitious approach to things? Should we be seeking for power and influence in the church and in the workforce? Is ambition something to be admired, emulated, and developed? Is it something to be loathed, avoided, and repented of?”

    Hmmm… I believe that when one is squarely in the ‘right’, that one has the authority of truth about them which empowers them to be ambitious, so to speak. Christ had the ultimate authority of truth, and so his direction to ‘come follow me’ was for the good of all mankind. But in doing this I don’t believe he was any less meek or humble.

    We saw the same thing in Joseph Smith. He spoke the truth plainly, boldly, and with authority for the mere fact that he KNEW it was the truth. He could not deny it, nor dared he deny it. But this was the humility in him, not necessarily ambition.

    I think yours and mine ability to be assertive, bold, and ‘ambitious’ rests squarely on our own personal integrity and testimony of what we know to be true. Any other ambition (i.e. to deceive, lie, cheat, etc.) is selfish in nature as it is usually for personal gain.

    As to the question of how you should be… You are who and what you are, and to try to pretend to be anything different is probably prideful. The word ‘enthusiasm’ however, might be substituted as a different word in some circumstances as a more applicable term… (???) You’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

    The implied question here then is ‘What is your passion?’ Maybe that’s a topic for another posting.

  10. 10 Eric Nielson June 13, 2006 at 8:49 pm

    Wow! Great comments y’all.

    Mogget

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I had not seen that scripture before. I guess if one desires to be a bishop in order to serve others and for their benefit I can see that. Again motive is key.

    You ask some difficult questions for me. What am I really proud of? Not all that much really. I am proud to have a good wife. The goodness I see in my kids. I am proud so-to-speak of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not all that much more than that. Professionally I just want to be good at what I do, and be able to provide for my family. That’s about all.

    Where are my ambitions? I’m not sure. I hope for eternal life, and to develop christlike qualities. I really don’t care that much to be in charge of people. Things I can handle, people…..

    What would I sacrifice to reach my ambitions (see above)? I would hope everything necessary. Even career goals if necessary. They are way secondary to me.

    a

    You’re right again. I need to pray about all this and see if there are changes I ought to make. Perhaps refer to my patriarchal blessing again. I like your quote you provided as well.

    Sean

    You know me to well. I like your example of Joseph Smith. Many of my current issues rest in the workplace as you know. Things in this realm seem so less clear. Engineering decisions are so often based on opinion and who expresses that opinion and how assertive it is expressed. This assertiveness is not in my natural wheelhouse. I feel at times that I should be more assertive, but when I try I feel like a bully. This is not how I want to feel. I don’t see the world in black and white/right and wrong. My integrity often leads me to caution, not assertiveness.

    You ask the question, ‘what is your passion’? Does it seem a bit pathetic to not have a firm answer here? I seek for eternal life mainly. Sports has been a passion of mine for much of my life. A passion without the talent. Of necessity it is just an occasional hobby for me. I have strong feelings for the well being of my family. Most everything else is just stuff. Is this so wrong?

  11. 11 sean p. June 13, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    It sounds to me like you know exactly what your passion is, and what is most important to you. You have much to be grateful for, and I envy you. We should all be so lucky. 🙂

  12. 12 Mogget June 14, 2006 at 9:37 am

    Well, well. I took a little look around the Good Book on this one.

    The KJV never uses the word “ambition,” but it does appear in more modern translations. This is curious to me because, like Geoff J., I had made a distinction between ambition and vain ambition. I also associated it with the Bible. Not so, apparently. Now, I dunno where it come from.

    In the RSV, there’s a positive use from Paul:

    …thus making it my ambition to preach the gospel not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation (Rom 15:20)

    The Greek word here is filotimoumenon and it has positive associations with honorable behaviors and a desire for respect.

    By contrast, in the NAB the word “ambition” makes three appearances, in Phil 1:16 and Jam 3:14, 16. In each case the English noun is modified by the adjective “selfish,” such as:

    “The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not from pure motives, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment.”

    Interestingly, the Greek word behind the translation of the phrase “selfish ambition” is not that found behind the RSV translation of Rom. Instead, it is epitheia and it has negative associations with strife and contention.

    More good distinctions. Causing strife and contention? Bad. Honorable behaviors and a desire to earn genuine respect? Good.

    BTW, when I asked about what you were willing to sacrifice, I was really asking if, for example, you’d sacrifice your family life for a job. I didn’t think you would, but if someone did, I’d be inclined to quietly think the phrase “vain ambitions,” using vain in the sense of emptiness and meaning an empty goal.

    Thanks for the new thougts.

  13. 13 Eric Nielson June 14, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for your scriptural insight yet again mogget.

  14. 14 Robet C. June 15, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Good thoughts Eric, and from the commenters (I esp. liked Mogget’s scriptural analysis).

    I think your point is a very good one which I agree with, there is a tension between the notions of ambition and meekness. I would say err on the side of meekness, though ambition for building the Kingdom is naturally a good thing

  15. 15 Aim August 10, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    I agree with Robert and Geoff. I think we should be ambitious about building the Kingdom of God on Earth. I associate the word ambition with the word motivation. In my perspective, those who don’t have these traits are lazy and slothful. If you are not willing to strive to keep the commandments and obtain Celestial glory do you really desire to have them in you life?

    We must be motivated, and have ambition to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, otherwise we need to ask ourselves “are we really doing all we can for the Lord or are we being a mediocre ‘on the side lines’ servant”. Ambition to exercise is not bad – it keeps our bodies (that house our spirits) healthy, yet when we cross the line and focus more on our image rather than the gospel for our priority, we have developed a vain ambition.

    Vain ambition is definitely not what we want – there is a definite difference. I like to think of the parable of the talents. Did not the Lord bless those who had ambition to multiply their talents, while the one who did nothing actually lost all that he had? Adding the adjective vain adds “conceited, characteristic of false pride; having an exaggerated sense of self-importance; an attitude of self-conceited arrogance; an egotistical disregard of others” to the characteristic of “a cherished desire; a strong drive for success” or makes a good thing bad.

    I think we do need to have ambition in life, personal ambition from within to keep our souls striving for that what is right, or else we become bystanders to the great work that is taking place. I have ambition to succeed in this life and to make to the Celestial Kingdom someday. If I didn’t the choices to stay away from temptation would be all the greater.

  16. 16 Anonymous August 10, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    a: you are right – Eric is thinking way to much into this – no where can I find selfishness tied to ambition, only to vain and vanity. The word vain is what separates vain ambition from ambition – otherwise I don’t believe to would be necessary to describe ambition as vain. It takes an amount of ambition to do anything in life – even get out of bed….or else we are just here for the ride like barnacles that become hindrances to the Lord’s work.


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