Is it possible for religious people to be ambitious? Our media present us with certain negative stereotypes—the financially grasping megachurch pastor, the Machiavellian church bureaucrat angling for moving up the ladder while caring little for people’s souls.  Both inside and outside the church today, many assume that being a disciple of Jesus means giving up all ambition. Somehow, ambition just doesn’t sound “spiritual” to us.

That’s why I find what Jesus says to his disciples James and John so fascinating.  They come to him with an ambitious request: “let us sit on your right and left hands in your coming Kingdom.”  In other words, “give us the privileged positions of power next to you.”

We expect Jesus to say to James and John, “Your ambition is evil or anti-spiritual…”  But what he actually says is this: “Are you ready for where your ambitions will take you?”   

But Jesus said to them,  “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

As we know from his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from my lips,” the cup refers to Jesus’ death by crucifixion. 

Then Jesus raises the real question: “What is true ambition?” Here is his answer:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 

In other words, society around us keeps score of greatness by symbols of social power: who is higher in the social pecking order, who has the nicer car, whose Facebook feed shows vacation photos at the most exotic places? But Jesus says, “God keeps score of greatness in a different way: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” 

And then Jesus gives another example of what it means to be his apprentice or disciple. He says “My apprentices need to watch me and do what I do. “For the Son of man also came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus says two paths to greatness stand before all ambitious people—James and John, you and me.

They are symbolized by Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, the two runners in the move Chariots of Fire.  Harold Abrahams says in the movie that he “runs to win”—to prove something to the world that looks down on him as a Jew and especially to prove something to himself. 

Eric Liddell also wants to win…but do you remember in the movie the reason he gives his sister who thought his ambition to run in the Olympics was getting in the way of returning to China as a missionary?  He says, “Jenny, I know God called me to China.  But God also made me FAST…and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”  

Both men were ambitious—both were gold medal winners at the 1924 Olympics.  One man ran to serve his ego.  The other man ultimately ran to serve to God…to give God pleasure. 

I found an even better example of contrasting ambition in the English novel Middlemarch, written by George Eliot in 1871.  It’s widely considered one of the greatest novels written in English.  It follows this topic of ambition through two characters in the novel—Dr. Lydgate and Miss Dorothea Brooke. 

Dr. Lydgate is an idealistic young doctor determined to improve people’s lives, just as the new era of modern medicine is dawning.  He could make far more money treating wealthy people in an urban center like London, but instead accepts a position in a charity hospital for the poor in the provincial town of Middlemarch. 

Lydgate gets along well until he meets Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of the town mayor. Rosamond’s ambition is to improve her social status in the only way open to a 19th century woman—by marrying well.  She marries Lydgate and is soon spending money he doesn’t have lavishly decorating a house he can’t afford. Lydgate’s dreams of serving the poor ultimately bow to Rosamond’s dream to serve herself.

To please Rosamond, he moves to London and establishes a lucrative medical practice to earn the money she needs to finance her social position.  Lydgate dies at a young age thinking himself a failure, even though in the eyes of the world he is a great success.  George Eliot presents him as a tragic figure because he let Rosamond’s ambition for the world’s version of greatness overrule his own idealistic ambition to serve others.

The heroine of the novel is another idealistic young person Miss Dorothea Brooke.  She is the heir of a wealthy landowner who has recently returned to Middlemarch after attending a French finishing school for upper-class young ladies. Dorothea shares Dr. Lydgate’s idealistic ambition is to improve people’s lives—in her case, the lives of the many sharecropper tenants on her uncle’s estate by building better housing for them. 

Dorothea’s idealistic nature suffers greatly when her dreams are shattered and her efforts to serve are repulsed by her society.  But unlike Lydgate, she never gives in to the world’s agenda; she remains “odd” in a society that never understands her or the choices she makes.

The last words of this novel made a profound impact on me.  In fact, I first heard them in the movie version of the novel on PBS Masterpiece Theatre. They so moved me, I read the novel for myself.  George Eliot’s last paragraph in the novel that sums up the impact of Dorothea’s life begins this way: 

Her finely-touched spirit has still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.

What is this metaphor of “Cyrus breaking the strength of a river?”  It refers to the ancient King of Persia who punished a river in which one of his favorite horses drowned.   He had 360 channels dug outward from its banks, one for each degree of the compass.  The power of this rushing river was destroyed by being diffused into 360 tiny channels into which all the water petered out.  Each tiny ditch each in itself insignificant, but taken together they tamed a mighty river.  So I think the author wants to contrast Dorothea’s life that seemed to amount to so little with Rosamond’s, whose self-centered ambition seemed to make quite an impact in society.

Here is how the last paragraph describing Dorothea’s life ends:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I expect to live a hidden life.  History will not record anything about me.  No one but family will ever visit my tomb. Yet you and I can channel our ambition into a life like Dorothea’s, which although not widely visible, nevertheless had the effect of her being on those around that was incalculably diffusive.

Become my apprentice,” Jesus says to James and John and to you and me.  “Harness your idealism and ambition to me and live a life of true greatness.”  

Question: how do you think our society considers ambition? How might you follow the alternative I’ve described? Please share your thoughts in a comment.

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