The World Is Not Enough

From time immemorial, ambition has been both an engine of achievement for individuals and groups of people and also a source of considerable stress and difficulty. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech called the Lyceum Speech [1] in which he spoke about the figure of towering ambition (in which some have seen Lincoln himself) who seeks the highest glory not in overthrowing his republic as did Napoleon, but in serving it. Rather than seeing the highest glory in baubles and power, Lincoln saw the highest glory in service to one’s fellow man, if necessary by laying down his life for those he served. It is strange, and somewhat melancholy, to think that decades before he laid down his life for his country at the hand of an assassin, Lincoln had in his mind already laid a course for his life that he would follow to the grave, not denying the engine of fierce ambition within him but putting it to noble goals.

It is easy to assume that ambition is either a good thing or a bad thing on its own. For those who are restless strivers, unable to rest while they draw breath [2], ambition is often equated with a sense of personal responsibility, as if those who lack such a drive are lazy and unworthy of success. On the other hand, for those who seek to preserve their place and power and see in the restless striving of ambitious commoners a threat to their own glory, ambition is often equated with the worst sort of evil, as to that satanic spirit of not being content with one’s place, and for a desire to seize a dominion that is not rightful or proper. Neither of these views are just. Ambition itself, like any other longing or drive or hunger, is not in itself good or evil, but the actions that we take in service to such ambition can be, and the ends to which our ambitions are directed can be either good or evil. It is to these means and ends, and not to the existence of ambition (or the lack thereof) that moral praise or blame must follow. There are some people who naturally lack the hunger of ambition, and one ought not to blame them, any more than one should blame those who lack other forms of hunger. Our longings and hungers exist to drive us on to action, and exist to be properly filled in their proper time and in their proper way, and it is in filling those hungers appropriately that we are judged for by our Creator.

The fire for ambition exists because we know we are designed for more than what we are. At times, this fire for ambition leads us to disrupt our lives and the lives of others because of restlessness and dissatisfaction, constantly searching for and never finding greener pastures [3]. On the other hand, sometimes this fire for ambition is precisely what is necessary for us to develop our gifts and abilities and seek those opportunities that best serve both ourselves and others. Whether the fire of ambition leads us to satisfaction through effort and struggle to develop that which God has given us for His purposes, or whether it leads us to resist what God has appointed for us is often a delicate matter that is not easy for us or others to determine. It is far too easy to excuse the exploitation of others because of our ambitions in a facile assumption of a utilitarian benefit, and also far too easy to condemn those whose ambitions are great and obvious but directed to moral ends and achieved via godly means. We are not good at being fair and just judges in either our own ambitions or the ambitions of others because where we stand often depends far too much on where we sit.

Yet the fire for ambition need not be a sign of discontent or dissatisfaction. The Apostle Paul claimed a sense of contentment in any state in Philippians 4:10-12, which he wrote while in prison, saying: “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” There is no need to doubt Paul’s sincerity in saying this, yet at the same time there is no doubt that Paul was an immensely ambitious person, seeking to spread the Gospel over the entire northern Mediterranean, even if it meant traveling by foot and risking perils of thieves, of the hostility of his countrymen, and even of imprisonment and death. Paul was a person of immense ambitions, but those ambitions were achieved in a godly manner and directed to godly purposes. This is not always the case when it comes to ambitions, but such ambition does exist and must be considered a possible way by which the fires of ambition can serve godly purposes while retaining one’s sense of contentment and faith and trust in God.

This is not an easy balance to achieve. It is far too easy for ambition to be perverted, and for us to consider ourselves as something special merely because we have been driven to great achievements. If we assume that our achievements trump our conduct, we will be led to focus on an area of strength that can lead us to be blindsided by our areas of weakness. If we assume that the ambition of others is a threat to our well-being, we can harm ourselves, others, and those institutions that we serve by rejecting people for reasons of style or prejudice rather than for reasons of character, and prevent ourselves and others from gaining the benefit of their service. Think of what a loss the United States would have suffered to reject the services of Abraham Lincoln merely because he was ambitious, or for the early church to have censured Paul on the same grounds, apart from considering the fact that the ambitions of both men were focused on the well-being of the people they served. Determining the character of others (and ourselves) is a tricky business that requires a great deal of time spent getting to know someone and seeing who they really are. Yet if we truly wish to serve others, we must take the time to determine to what ends and by what means our ambitions and the ambitions of those around us are served, while there is time for us to be refined and for our character to be improved, so that we may better serve the needs of others while we fuel the fires within.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The World Is Not Enough

  1. Pingback: Rock The Boat | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Enough: True Measures Of Money, Business, And Life | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s