The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Ambition

posted in: Christian Life | 1

Ambition. What do we make of it? Is it good? Bad?

I’ve wrestled with this for years. At first, I wasn’t wrestling as much as suppressing, trying desperately to keep ambition locked in its cage.

My theology, you see, was narrow and rigid. I grew up in a Christian circle whose Bible began in Genesis 3, after the Fall. We skipped over the stuff about God creating man in his own image and blessing them. No, no. We were the totally-depraved-from-first-breath bunch (which is ironic because I was always told Reformed folks were evil, in need of Jesus equally as much as atheists).

When you’re hopelessly sinful and evil from birth, it does a number on your identity. God was angry, and worse yet, he was grumpy. So, I best not make a mistake, lest he smites me.

This type of theology hardly promotes anything redeeming. It breeds Christians who do the right things out of fear, hoping against hope that they won’t end up in hell.

The Bible begins in Genesis 1 for a reason. Before you’re a sinner, you’re a child of God. Before you can speak of separation from God, you must first speak of union with God.

I say this because ambition isn’t evil. And those who say different are probably allowing fear to speak more than God. There’s a type of evil that avoids all flavors of ambition: cynicism and apathy. People who avoid ambition are almost always cynical.

So, what is it then, Frank? You saying ambition good?

Well, no.

The opposite end of the spectrum is also toxic and unhealthy. When ambition flies the plane, when it calls the shots, you have pride and greed. Unhealthy ambition does anything to accomplish its goal: more.

More what? Power. Fame. Money.

It often leaves a trail of bodies in its path. America’s origins are, unfortunately, rooted in unhealthy ambition.

“So, Frank. How do I know if my ambition is ego-driven? I mean, I have this burning inside of me. I can’t get rid of it. I want to make the most of my life.”

Me too.

We all have this, I believe.

Now, when I say ambition, I don’t mean a desire for progress or expansion or success. I mean a desire to live for something bigger, to transcend the status quo, to use our God-given gifts, to join a larger redemptive plan, one that was in place long before we arrived.

This is healthy ambition.

It flows from a firm conviction that we are blessed by our Creator, weaved together in his image.

In his book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of Emotions, Neel Burton says it like this:

People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and strength to control the blind forces of ambition…to shape their ambition so that it matches their interests and ideals, and to harness it so that it fires them without also burning them or those around them.

You must recognize these “blind forces” if you want your ambition to be authentic.

I didn’t.

After coming to terms with my ambitions, I started to pursue them. But I had no framework for healthy ambition. I tossed the keys to my ambition and hopped in the backseat. It eventually wrecked my life. Comparison. Greed. Anxiety. I struggled with it all. The final blow was failure (the one thing unhealthy ambition absolutely will not tolerate).

In the weeks and months after, I asked myself some hard questions. I listened to God and engaged silence for the first time. If I’m honest, silence was both miserable and redemptive. It felt unproductive, but I felt connected. It was like death, but I felt very much alive.

I’m many moons away from figuring this out. But I have realized a few things about my ambition, specifically why it was unhealthy. I want to share a few of those thoughts with you.

Here are 7 qualities of unhealthy ambition.

1. You’re threatened by the success of others.

Unhealthy ambition says resources are limited and there can only be one king at the top of the mountain. If you see things in terms of mountains and ladders (upward mobility), you can be 99% sure your ambition is unhealthy.

We follow a Savior, remember, whose every move reflected downward mobility. He left heaven. He served the poor and marginalized.

When Jesus informs your ambition, you stop climbing and start serving. You stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about your neighbor.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. Your ambition is all about you.

In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul says this:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…

Note that Paul isn’t against ambition. He’s against ambition where number one is the primary focus.

After unhealthy ambition left my life a dumpster fire, I talked to several folks I considered ambitious. The ones who remain grounded, avoid burnout and increase in joy are the ones who channel their God-given gifts and goals to serve other people. They aren’t driven by success or acquiring the shiniest car.

They want to serve people, to do their little part, to make a very small dent in this big world.

3. You take on responsibilities and you don’t know why.

Busyness and burnout are badges of honor in America. Ask someone how they’re doing, you’re likely to hear “I’m busy.” Neither busyness nor burnout, however, are admirable. And they certainly don’t honor God.

4. You talk a lot about “making it…”

Rob Bell made this point on a recent podcast. It so described my ambition. If I could just make it, then I would be content.

Had you pressed me to clarify “it,” however, no response would I have had.

When your ambitions are tied up in something vague and unclear, you can believe it’s unhealthy.

5. You feel entitled.

If your ambitions are primarily attached to an outcome, they’re probably unhealthy. Your desire, your focus should be on the process. The day-to-day is the goal. The journey is the destination.

That sounds Buddhist, I know. But it’s true.

6. You can’t laugh at yourself (or at all).

Unhealthy ambition makes you the center of attention. You must get it done or it won’t get done. You must achieve, reach the top or your life is meaningless. This is no laughing matter. It’s exhausting work.

You can see why people with unhealthy ambition have no time for humor. They can’t enjoy themselves (too much to do, too little time to do it in). They can’t laugh at themselves and their failures (that would show weakness).

I have, unfortunately, met a lot of humor-less Christians. I was one for a long time. I’m still bad at this, but I’m learning to relax, to accept my limitations, to laugh more at my mistakes (as opposed to beat myself up). But mostly I’m learning to trust God.

It’s your turn. What does unhealthy ambition look like? Leave a comment below.

7. You don’t know how to be grateful.

Unhealthy ambition would have you believe everything good is “out there,” in the future. You can’t live in the present. You can’t appreciate what’s right in front of you. You can’t celebrate the blessings of life because they’re always right around the corner.

Gratitude is the antidote to toxic ambition. It’s one of the central marks of mature faith and a diminishing virtue in declining cultures. I won’t state the obvious here, but when was the last time you met a grateful person? It’s a unicorn occurrence in our America. This might explain much of the divisive, hateful rhetoric from our nation’s “leaders.”

We’ve become a culture hyper-focused on who has taken what from us, who owes us, and who’s got it coming. We’re hyper-focused on what we lack, in other words. Gratitude is barely virtuous.

How might the world be different if we thanked God for the blessings we have, focusing first (and primarily) on those things?

Grace and peace, friends.

Follow Frank Powell:

Frank is a contributing writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.

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  1. Kim Tsuchida

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you. Your article helped me reexamine my motives of wanting to pursue a promotion. Those are 7 great identifiers and they, help me exam whether they are healthy or not. Thank you.

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