I turned 50 in June. To celebrate, to console myself, I bought a motorcycle, a low-slung cruiser that looks enough like a Harley that, at 100 yards, it's hard to tell the difference. I bought it before I was licensed to ride it, so straightaway I got a learners permit, recruited a supervisor, and began preparing for the Motorcycle Skills Test.
The MST involves a series of tight maneuvers through an obstacle course. You have to turn on a dime. You have to weave between cones barely wider than your bike is long. You have to come to sudden stops without skidding, and creepy crawl a lengthy straight stretch without veering. My supervisor was supposed to get me ready for all that.
Only, I liked riding the open road so much, we paid little mind to fiddlesome details. Occasionally, we'd pull into an empty parking lot, I'd do a few U-turns and figure 8s, declare myself a master, and off we'd go again, blazing down the highway.
Born to be wild, I guess.
The day of the MST came. I was dangerously unprepared. Orange cones bristled up like warheads, terrifying me. The radius of the turns I had to execute would, I'm sure, have tripped up Houdini. I bombed. I hit those cones as though that was the goal. The adjudicator failed me inside of a minute.
I was humiliated. Dejected. Angry. Ready to quit.
And then, fiercely determined. I had to wait two weeks to retry, and in those two weeks I became Evel Knievel. I turned that bike in circles tight as a pirouette. I Latin danced between cones. I think I could have ridden that bike across a tightrope. When I retook the test, I nailed it.
I tell you all that to tell you this: failure made me ambitious. Tasting defeat made me hungry for success, and that in turn made me disciplined, focused, strategic.
Maybe, a tad obsessed.
I wouldn't want to live without ambition. Actually, I wouldn't be able to live without it. Ambition is what keeps us at it. It rouses us from slumber, pushes us out the door, gets us reaching beyond ourselves. It calls us to sacrifice and risk-taking. Ambition is what keeps us in the fight or in the race when everything in us wants to quit.
But ambition is not a pure good. It easily taints. It can become a drive to win at all costs. "What good is it," Jesus asked, "if you gain the whole world but lose your soul?" What good is it if your desire to succeed destroys you? If ambition undoes you? Many evils, great and small, are committed by those in the grip of skewed ambition.
The writers of the New Testament use two separate words to talk about the two sides of ambition. One word is often translated "strife" or "selfish ambition." It describes ambition exclusively in the service of self. Even if it benefits others—Paul uses the word to describe those who preach Christ, but with selfish motives—that's never its intent. (Maybe my motorcycle thing edged close to this?)
Some of us hide this kind of ambition under a thin veneer of piety.
The other word—Paul uses it in Romans 15:20, for example, where he says it has always been his ambition to preach Christ where he was not yet known—is ambition in the service of someone else. Even if it benefits you, its real aim is to bless others. Much good, great and small, has been done by those brimming with noble ambition.
The movie Invictus is about Nelson Mandela inspiring South Africa's failing national rugby team to win the World Cup. That took drive. It took a hunger to win, a desire to be the best. But the team's deeper motivation was more than all that: it was to unite a tragically divided nation.
That took ambition.
Some of us bury this kind of ambition under a thin excuse of piety.
Maybe the best thing you could do for the Kingdom right now is lose your selfish ambition.
Then again, maybe the best thing you could do is find a worthy ambition.
Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community church in Duncan, British Columbia, and a contributing editor of Leadership.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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