In the broadway musical, Hamilton, Lin Manuel chronicles the astonishing rise of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary. Aaron Burr’s opening line from the show artistically catpures the question on everyone’s mind:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a /
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten /
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor/
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
The response to the question of Hamilton’s rise comes in the story of a man who is never satisfied, will not throw away his shot and who lives and dies like he’s running out of time. In other words, Hamilton’s feverish ambition fuels his astonishing success.
But besides his incredible success, Alexander’s frenetic approach also leads him into the dangers of war, the follies of an affair, and eventually an untimely and well-chronicled death. As one reviewer of the musical concludes, “In the end, perhaps unbridled ambition is a one-way street that ends in disaster.” [mfn]Chris Meyers. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrismyers/2016/06/29/take-it-from-hamilton-why-unyielding-ambition-is-a-blessing-and-a-curse-for-entrepreneurs/#36cb78f52552[/mfn] But if unbridled ambition brings success only at the hands of tragedy, then is there another approach for managing the passions that drive us?
From a Christian viewpoint, many would advocate the value of humility in opposition to ambition. But while the biblical story of Jesus celebrates his humility, his expressed intention of saving humanity speaks volumes about his ambition. Instead of rejecting ambition, followers of Jesus need to understand what it means to embrace a healthy ambition. Doing so involves an appropriate response to 3 aspects of ambition: opportunity, agenda and identity.
When Opportunity Knocks
In John 7, the story opens with Jesus in psuedo-hiding, after threats on his life chased him to the outskirts of Galilee. As it appears these concerns will keep him from attending the Feast of Booths, his unbelieving siblings try to coax him to go public with his ambitions. “No one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly,” they chide. “If you do these things, show yourself to the world.”
The answer of Jesus reveals the sense he has of a distinct purpose and direction to his life. John alludes to this in choosing the greek word “kairos,” when Jesus explains it is not yet his “time.” This is not simply about marking the hours on a clock (or a sundial). Rather it carries an almost fateful nature to it, a matter of destiny. It is the sense that our time on earth is divinely ordained and you must “train yourself to recognize… [each] decisive point in your life, and to act accordingly.”[mfn]Vol. 3: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (455). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.[/mfn]
Both Hamilton and Jesus seemed to live with this courage that leads to awe-inspiring decisiveness. It is also worth noting that both Jesus and Hamilton came to an early death. Both of them seemed to share this ambition in life; to die for a greater purpose. But while history notes Jesus death as one with great purpose in and of itself, Hamilton’s death is remembered as a premature, and ill-timed fate. While Hamilton’s character lived with the desperate fear that his “kairos” would fail him; Jesus lived with the purposeful confidence that it would not.
Setting the Agenda
When Jesus does finally show up to the feast, he makes up for lost time, wowing the crowds with his teaching ability. As they wonder at his eloquence and breadth of knowledge, Jesus explains that all this charisma comes from his Father. Or as he explains, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.”
In asserting this, Jesus highlights a second, perhaps uncomfortable element of healthy ambition: submitting to God’s agenda. Many of us don’t like the idea of being “under authority” of another. We want our own independence and freedom to do as we please. We have an agenda to fulfill, and we are not throwing away our shot at success!
Many times, we try to balance this by seeking an agenda that is for us and God. Entrepreneurs start a business to donate a percentage to charity. Pastors start a church to bring people to Jesus. Revolutionaries start a nation to honor people’s innate freedom. As noble as any of these may be on their own right, they must still be tested by the question: how does my involvement match my Father’s agenda for me?
Our ambition can easily deceive us about what we need, what others need and especially what God desires. This confusion can taint efforts started with even our best itentions. It can contaminate even good ambitions, let alone ones we should leave behind. Jesus continually ordered his life according to God’s agenda. He lived with “a will to do the will of God.” As long as what he did fit that objective, Jesus knew his ambition would not mislead him.
Embracing Your Identity
What concerns many people about this approach is the fear of “losing yourself” in somene else, even if that someone is God. But submitting to God’s agenda for your life does not mean that you surrender or lose a sense of your true identity. Instead, it leads to a fuller discovery of it. Jesus had a well-developed personal identity that led to bold moves in achieving God’s agenda.
Take for example his actions at the end of this particular feast. On the great day of the feast, during a crucial moment, he offers himself as the solution to everyone’s spiritual longing: “Whoever believes in me as the scripture has said, ‘out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” John explains that this was the promise of the Holy Spirit, that is God’s very presence living in each of us.
If you were in the crowd that day you could argue that Jesus went over the top. You could say you don’t believe him, that he was delusional or demon-posessed. People said all these things about him. But you couldn’t deny his ambition to draw all people to himself. Hamilton would have been proud of this kind of tenacity!
But where does this boldness come from? “He who sent me is true,” Jesus explains. “I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.” A bit redundant perhaps, but the reason for his confidence is clear. This healthy sense of identity emerges from the assurance that comes in submitting to God’s authority. Jesus is one sent by God the Father, and his Father has revealed to him, his identity and purpose in the world. Because of this, Jesus is not bashful about his purpose of revealing himself to all men, for the purpose of salvation.
Not Throwing Away Your Shot
Ambition is not a dirty word. Excellence, accomlishment and greatness are not things to be avoided for the sake of the Kingdom. On the other hand, there are many tales of great achievement that come only by the means of unnecssary and tragic loss. Healthy ambition must be continually and thoughtfully evaluated to be sure it does not become diseased.
For some desires, the time for pursuing them is not yet. The right time will come; God is guarding our “kairos” to make sure we don’t miss out. As we learn to trust that more, we will be willing to submit to his agenda. We will let his objectives try and test our motives. We will surrender to his wisdom, and seek to do things for his glory. If we do this authentically, we won’t feel it as a loss of freedom, or a way to lose our given identity. Instead, we will discover we come more fully alive as we let go of matters we can’t really control anyway. We will feel more free to live as who we were created to be.
Just as it was with Jesus, timing, agenda and identity will go a long way to determine if the ambition we are embracing is healthy for us. Like Jesus and Hamilton, we will have to embrace sacrifice, sometimes in great measure, to serve the purpose of our lives. But the healthier our ambition becomes, the more this sacrifice will lead to true success, and the more our success will be enjoyed without unnecessary damage to our soul.
For Prayer & Reflection
- Think about a desire you are actively pursuing that is not progressing as you would like. Are you trusting God’s timing with it, or are you rushing the matter out of impatience? What could you do to better trust His timing?
- Are your current ambitions serving God’s agenda, or are you simply using his name to justify your self-centered desires? Is there something standing in the way of your ability to submit to God’s authority?
- Are you living out of your God-given identity, or are you hiding to accommodate others? Do you know what that identity is?