Monday, May 04, 2009

What is Ambition?

Stepping away from the more contentious subjects of Disability Rights and Bullying, I would like to look at something that this week, observant Jews would have given consideration to as they count the omer to Shavuot:Ambition
So, what is ambition?
Is it right for a person to have ambition?
And if it is, what sort of ambition can/should we have?
Simply put, Ambition is the 'Strong desire to achieve something' It is used in phrases like “What is your ambition in life?” and “the person has no ambition.” A few years ago, everyone was talking about their 'personal vision statement' or 'corporate vision statement' (for companies), and you would walk into a business and they would have framed on the wall a 'VISION STATEMENT' and people were urged to have their VISION STATEMENT written up and displayed prominently, if not for general viewing, at least for your own viewing, to keep, as it were, that vision at the forefront of your mind, and to allow that Vision Statement to shape your daily activity, as to whether or not you do something. It didn't matter if you moved in Christian or secular circles – this 'Vision Statement' philosophy was everywhere you looked. What it boils down to, is, “What are you ambitions?”
Often, this is associated with what career we hope to take up in life, and having undergone the training and taken up a career, our ambition becomes more fine tuned, to address what status we have in regard to that career. You may want to join the army, and then when you have joined up, and undergone your training and induction, you may aspire to become an officer, and of course, not every private becomes an officer, but a few rise up through the ranks and gain the status of officer. Having achieved that goal in life, you may find that you actually want to become a high-ranking officer, maybe even to take up the rank of 'commander in chief' or whatever it is called – I am aware that the 'Commander-in-chief' in the USA Army is the President, but he has generals who report directly to him.
For others, ambition lies beyond the career itself, and is more focussed on the 'fruits of our labour' i.e. the money, status in society, and lifestyle that results from our earnings. How the money comes in is not the focus in this case, but the amount that one can earn. For some people there are 'no holds barred' – that is they are willing to engage in any activity which will maximise that bottom line, even to the extent of breaking the law. Of course that is extreme and most people, will while seeking to maximise their income, remain within the constraints of of the law. These sort of people are entrepreneurs, can turn their hand to any kind of business and make a success of it – they have a knack to see gaps in the market, and to exploit them so as make more money. These sort of people will often have more than one iron in the fire.
On the other side of the coin, there are people who seem to lack any ambition, when it comes to work, and seem to live by the philosophy 'why work when I can get it without working.'
Famously, the cartoon character Andy Capp, who does his best to avoid working at all. Such people are quite happy to live off 'unemployment benefits.' Unless, due to physical reasons a person cannot work, every adult should be seeking to 'earn their crust' and not be a burden to society. If for some reason you are disabled, I would hope that you too have enough ambition to do whatever you can to be part of the working community. I have seen people with disabilities working in places like supermarkets, and though their job may not be very high powered, they do their best and take home a pay packet once a week, or month. I was encouraged to see a young lady with Down Syndrome, working at a fast food restaurant near to where I live. She is a cleaner, but such a pleasant young lady who while she goes about her cleaning job, will smile and chat with the customers. I thought to myself at the time that there are a lot of people who could learn from this young lady. Ambition for one's career is one aspect of ambition – but I think there is more to this than just what career we take up in life.
Going back to our definition of having a strong desire for success: we can have such success in many realms and as such we can ambition for all sorts of different things.

People may have more personally orientated ambitions – to lose a certain amount of weight (or to gain weight – if they are too thin), to give up smoking, to be a better communicator, listener, writer; to learn a language, to improve their marks at school, and the list may continue.
All of these things are good things to aim for in life – whether you call them ambitions, aspirations, goals, or visions, they come down to the same thing – they all destinations that help us plot our path in life. It is not enough to have an ambition, we must DO SOMETHING in order to realise it. If I want to achieve something in life, I need to not only look in that direction, I need to start moving towards it. The longest journey, still starts with one step. Having set our goals in life, whether for the day, the week, the month, the year or our lives, we need to then start working towards achieving that goal. All the the things I have mentioned can fall under the category: self-improvement, but they do not seem to have any spiritual component. I'd like to suggest that we can have ambition in terms of our spirituality also. Indeed, I would even go as far as saying that it should be the spiritual ambitions that we set before looking to the more temporal issues of career and self improvement.
I try to make these commentaries appeal to both believer and non-believer, and realise that many of my readers will have different religious and philosophical views to those that I express here. Obviously what are about to state here are my views and I do understand that within your own religious context there may be different aspiriations. Even if you don't agree with me I urge you to read on.
In my view, true success is only found if one is in a right relationship with God.

Jesus Christ told his followers: “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these
other things will come naturally as a result.” (Matthew 6:33, my paraphrase).
Jesus set the priority. SEEK FIRST.
Jesus said: “What does it profit a man, if gain the whole world and yet forfeit his own soul?”
(Matthew 16:26)
Our ambitions are often shaped by our perspective. If we we have a worldly perspective, whereby we measure success in terms of what one possesses, and what status one has in the eyes of others, then our ambition will be worldly too. What would really matter to us is the size of our bank balance, and how important we are in society. However, if we gain an eternal perspective – if we realise that life is more than what we see before us – that beyond this natural world – bound in time and space, as it is, lies a world that is SUPERNATURAL, that cannot be defined either in terms of space, for what dimensions can we use to measure God, or time, because our Creator is timeless with NO beginning, and NO end – i.e. ETERNAL. If we realise that that which we see before our eyes today will be gone and have no value in the world to come, then it brings these huge ambitions into perspective. Many people, and maybe some of you reading this today, will regard yourselves as atheists and believe that there is no here-after – there is no 'eternity' – that the only thing that matters is what happens between our birth and our death. That it is all about how we fill those days, months or years. Such people can become consumed by ambition to be more famous, more wealthy, than anybody else. However, when that day comes, when we 'breathe our last, all the effort, all the striving, all the money and possessions will be of no value. As they say, “You can't take it with you."

Paul the Apostle put it like this: “We brought nothing into this world, and clearly we can take nothing out of it.” (1 Tim 6:7) More poetically, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there, for the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21) In Ecclesiates, the Preacher said, “As he had come naked from his mother's womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labour that he can carry in his hand.”(Ecclesiates 5:15,16)

So I have to ask you, what is the point? If nothing lies beyond this existence, what is the point in living? As Christians, we do acknowledge a Creator, and we do have a purpose in life. It is more than just about what we can acquire, and what reputation we can build for ourselves. We have an eternal creator, and our greatest ambition, is to be with Him for all eternity. Just as I pointed out above, it is all very well to have an ambition in life, but the ambition remains unattained as long as we do nothing to achieve it. So, naturally, the question will be asked and has been asked countless times, “What can I do to gain eternal life?” On one level, there is nothing WE can do – it is beyond our capacity to attain eternal life. The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) and it also says that “That the wages of sin is death” - clearly we were doomed before we started – rather heavy isn't it, except that we are dealing with a merciful God who is not only righteous and just, but is merciful and kind, and where we could not reach Him, because of the chasm of sin that divides us, He built a bridge, over which we may cross. That bridge is Jesus Christ, in whom we put our trust. I live in London, and over the River Thames that snakes through the city are many bridges, that people cross over, in their thousands, and they do so confidently, knowing that the bridge can hold them. If we have that ambition, to spend Eternity with Christ, we need to pass over that bridge – i.e. we need to put our trust in Jesus Christ, and accept the free gift of God. I started to quote a verse above – "the wages of sin is death," but I didn't quote the whole verse – so here it is: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God, is eternal life.” (Rom 6:23) If your ambition is to spend eternity with God, you need to do something today, something as simple, and yet profound as crossing over – acknowledging that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to eternal life and confessing your sins. But having crossed over, we keep moving forward, we have entered into a daily relationship with Jesus Christ, and that does not mean we sit back and wait for that day, we are called to be with Him. We are workers, in vineyard, having crossed over the bridge, taken up residency on the other side, we are employed, and like any employer, the Lord, wants to see us working hard at the task that he has set us.

An ambition, once realised, is no longer an ambition. So, having crossed over, and thereby have gained assurance of eternity with God, but does that spell the end of our ambition. I would say a very loud and very clear NO! We should further aim to deepen our walk with God and become more like Him, our master. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The picture there is of a labourer carrying heavy burden – laying down, and taking a rest. What is interesting, is that while Jesus does take those heaven burdens off us, and gives us time to recuperate and regain our strength, he doesn't leave us burden-less. He says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus gives us a new burden, it is light in comparison to the one we bore before and what is more, he shares the load.

A yoke was used to harness two cows together to pull a plough. He shows us how – if we are willing to learn from Him. Even the most ambitious person must allow himself or herself some 'down time' – time to relax and not be striving every minute of the day, every day of the week. Yes, we come to the Father, and we have our 'down time' and He lets us have it, because he knows we need it – but He does not expect us to be having a permanent down time – there comes a time when we must pick up our tools and return to the work. “Take my yoke upon you" Is working for the Lord easy work? I think not! The Greek word that is translated “easy” in this verse is CHRESTOS and occurs three other places in the New Testament – in none of those places is it translated EASY.

Luke 5:39 – No one who has been drinking old wine wants new wine. He says, 'The old wine is better!'"
Luke 6:35 - Rather, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind even to ungrateful and evil people
1 Peter 2:3 - Certainly you have tasted that the Lord is good.

The definition of this word according to Studylight is -, fit for use, useful. (virtuous, good)
2.manageable (mild, pleasant – as opposed to hard, harsh, sharp or bitter)

The yoke that we bear is one that has been custom designed for our own necks – i.e. the task that Jesus sets for us to do is one that is within our grasp – He will never ask us to do something which we cannot do. Now, the truth, as many a labourer in God's vineyard will tell you, that sometimes, the burden we carry is tough, and its a difficult path we walk along, but as with every yoke, it is not made for one animal, but two, and so, even as we take Jesus yoke on ourselves, we are not bearing that burden or going through that tough time alone, but He is there yoked right next to us, and all we need to do is follow his lead.

Not only is the yoke easy – because it suits us, but His burden – is light. The Greek work elaphron is used in one other place in the Bible – 2 Cor 4:17 – For our LIGHT afflictions. Did I read that right – yes – light afflictions. Afflictions are the tough things that happen to us as we journey in this thing called life. Hardly things we would regard as 'light and trivial' – but when we bear the burdens that he gives us, they are light in that we bear them with a purpose in mind – and we see the end of it. We know it will come to an end – and that makes our bearing up much easier. When Jesus says “His burden is light," He is not belittling the turmoil and difficulties that we as believers must endure for the sake of the Gospel. People have endured many terrible things for the Christ's sake. There is a Christian missionary couple serving a year's imprisonment in an African country, because they dared to denounce the president for corruption – their charge – Sedition. Christians in China, North Korea, and other godless nations who are imprisoned or even killed because they dare to exalt the name of Jesus – hardly light afflictions – but you see the one who wrote about those light afflictions was the Apostle Paul, who was not living in some ivory tower – but had endured much for the sake of the Gospel. He writes:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:7-12)

Paul considers these afflictions light – and Jesus told us that his burden is light – the same word is used. Yes, times, may become tough. If we have to live thrugh the tribulation – it will become very much worse. As you read this, you may affected in some way, but world events these days. You may have lost your job or your home because of the Credit Crunch, you may have contracted pig flu, or AIDS, or you may be suffering from the effects of pollution of our industrial age. Whatever it is, it is not an easy time for you. You may be wondering what is the relevance of having career ambitions when the likelihood is that you won't be able to find work, and if you do, it probably won't be the type of work you were hoping to do. It's hard to keep motivated when you are in the wrong job. When you feel that your efforts are not noticed, or that you are not appreciated. It's easy to become angry when a customer unreasonably shouts at you or makes some accusation, and the boss refuses to hear your side of the story. It is when we are in situations like that, that life does not make sense. It is in times like that, that we have to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him as he says “Come to me all you, who are weighed down, come to me and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on yourselves and carry the burden I give you, because my yoke will fit you well, and you will find the burden I give you much easier to bear. I will be helping you with that load. Before reading on, listen to this song, and listen carefully to the words.

So, as a believer, we don't only have the ambition of spending eternity with Christ, but we have the ambition of getting to know Christ better and serving Him more faithfully.

Typing this made me think of a song from the musical Godspell – Day by day.

Day by day, day by day
Oh dear Lord three things I pray.
To see thee more clearly
To love thee more dearly
To follow thee more nearly
Day by day.

If we truly aspire to see the Lord more clearly, to love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly, yes we pray, because without His empowering we are defeated before we even start, but we also need the daily discipline of reading the Word, spending time in prayer, for ourselves (to be better people), for others, and for the world, and making sacrifices – giving up something we would like to do, for the sake of something that needs to be done.

* A bit late on the posting when I was writing this it was still May the 3rd. It is still the 25th day to the Omer because the Jewish day starts at Sunset.


Plumbline said...

You had me at the onset...I was wondering what the link was but my interest in learning more about the Jewish Culture kept me transfixed...

This piece also addresses the misinterpretation of the word 'Ambition' because a good number of religious folks automatically add the prefix 'inordinate' before it to excuse the general lack of drive we see today...Ambition, like you pointed, is right when placed in proper perspective...

John Blog said...

Jeff - I took your hint on the introduction and have cut it down radically. For those of you wanting to understand a little more about what I was speaking about in terms of "Counting the Omer" you can read it in my next comment.

John Blog said...

For those of you who are not aware of what this is: Shavuot, (also known as the feast of Pentecost) is the occasion on which they recall that God gave them the Law – in the form of the Ten Commandments. The period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost) is 50 days. It is customary in Judaism to formally count these days and each day at or soon after Sundown the Jewish family will formally count the day. During this period, the intervening period between Pesach and Shavuot, they give thought to seven atributes (sefirot) and each day of the Omer consideration is given to a combination of two of them. The seven attributes of God – Divine Atributes are mirrored in Seven human attributes (since we are created in the image of God). The seven Divine attributes and their corresponding human attributes are as follows:

Divine Attribute < - - - - - - - - - - > Human Attribute
Love < - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -> Kindness
Strength < - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - > Restraint
Beauty < - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - > Harmony
Victory < - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - > Ambition
Splendour < - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - > Humility
Foundation < - - - - - - - - - - - - - --> Connection
Sovereignty < - - - - - - - - - - - - - - > Receptiveness

On each day of the Omer, as they recall their ancesters journey towards Mount Sinai, and the receiving of the Law, they give concideration to each of the human Sefirot in terms of a combination of two of them, The first day, they consider kindness in kindness, the second, Restraint in kindness, the third, harmony in kindness and so forth.

Tonight, 3rd of May, at night fall they will count Day 25 to the Omer* – and being the central day, the give consideration to Ambition in ambition. And that is why AMBITION is the focus of today's blog.