What’s wrong with zeal and ambition?

Vocation. Career. Occupation. Work. These words are sometimes used as synonyms, but each has its own nuance. Loosely put, anybody can do work. Your occupation is what you’re being paid to do now, and a bit more stable than a “job.” Your career is more like an ongoing journey, though the path may have its twists and turns. And hopefully much of this is empowered by a deeper sense of calling or vocation. Thus, for example, some people work a job to pay the bills, but fulfill their sense of vocation in other ways, perhaps through volunteering; for others, there’s more overlap between career and vocation.

My father worked the same job his entire adult life. He didn’t particularly love his job; it was simply what he did to provide for his family, while Mom stayed home to take care of us kids. I had a few odd jobs out of high school and college, but once I finished my graduate education and became a professor, I also stayed put. I’ve been in the same place, in the same role, since 1986. But I have a sense of vocation that my father never had. My occupation is professor, it’s been a long career, and I stay because I feel called to do what I do. It’s a blessing I don’t take for granted.

Things have changed. People typically don’t stay with one employer anymore, but have a succession of jobs, and may even have to move from place to place. The old expectation that someone would stay with one employer and “climb the corporate ladder” seems almost archaic in a world of Internet commerce and remote work, a world in which corporations themselves are more fluid.

But that doesn’t mean that people no longer have ambition. The ladder may not be fixed in one location, but people still want to climb, to be more successful, to gain influence. Few people in the United States know who Horatio Alger is anymore, but we still love our rags-to-riches stories and the cultural myth of America being the place where anybody can achieve anything as long as they’re willing to put in the effort and persevere.

It’s not true, of course. But it makes a nice story to tell our kids, doesn’t it?

Americans, of course, didn’t invent ambition, we just gave it our own unique (and highly individualistic) spin. Is ambition a problem? Not necessarily. But it depends on the orientation of one’s heart, on the deepest passions that drive us, and how we relate to others in the process.

The apostle James seems to wrestle with how ambitious people were creating problems in the earliest days of the church:

But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be arrogant and lie about the truth. (James 3:14, NRSVUE)

As we’ve seen, part of the problem James seems to have been addressing is that people were looking to gain status and influence in the church by becoming teachers. Translated into contemporary terms and our world of social media, we might say that they wanted more likes and follows. But wanting influence and using influence well are not the same thing; wanting the status of a person “who has something to say” doesn’t guarantee that what’s said will be beneficial to the church. Wisdom, James insists, is not a matter of clever words but is grounded in a humble life (3:13).

“Bitter envy and selfish ambition” stand in stark contrast to wise humility. James has used the word “bitter” before to describe the opposite of “fresh” water from a spring (3:11); the state of one’s heart determines the words and behaviors that emanate from it. “Envy” is actually the word “zeal”; it takes on a positive or negative connotation depending on how that zeal is directed. Jesus’ zeal for his Father’s house (John 2:17)? That’s good. Our zeal for things we selfishly desire (e.g., 1 Cor 13:4)? Not so much. The word translated as “selfish ambition” has mercenary overtones, with the sense of doing something for one’s own gain, as in climbing the corporate ladder by stepping on and over others.

The phrase “do not be arrogant and lie about the truth” is a little obscure. I like the Common English Bible’s rendering here: “stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth.” Where false teaching and skewed ministries are concerned, misdirected zeal and ambition show in arrogant and empty boasting, and a lifestyle that contradicts the truth of the gospel.

. . .

These are tough words. And they’re not just about other people: the famously narcissistic pastor, the influential Christian leader who crashed and burned in a public scandal. It’s about us, our heart, our passion, our vocation. It’s about what we want most, and what we’ll do to get it. It’s about making sure that our zeal and ambition are pointed in the right direction for the right reasons.

It’s about wisdom, real wisdom, godly wisdom. Because as James will say next, if our zeal and ambition aren’t guided by such wisdom, the result will be chaos.