The disciples were jockeying for who would be greatest in the kingdom of God. Knowing their thoughts and their hearts, Jesus said, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant” – (Matt. 20:26). Jesus never once rebuked their ambition for greatness only their path, their motivation, and their role model for greatness and distinction.
What is ambition? It’s the instinctive desire to aspire to things, to make something happen, to have an impact, to count for something in life. Whether you realize it or not we are all ambitious creatures because we are all pursuing something that we love. Whether it’s the corner office, Mr. Right, well-behaved kids who are smart and athletic, admiration from peers, financial security – or just a long afternoon nap – we are ambitious – and it all matters to God. But what matters most to God is not only the object of your ambition but the reason behind your ambition. It’s why you want what you want.
But it is true: Whether it is to conquer a nation or control the remote – we are hard-wired to be ambitious. Dave Harvey wrote an excellent book called, “Rescuing Ambition.” He comically helps us to see ourselves as Jesus sees selfish ambition.
Ivan the Occasionally Great. Who is this? This is Ivan who has his moments. He’ll do good things for others – sometimes. But he can’t keep it up all the time. Greatness is hit and miss.
Ivan the Great-In-His-Own-Mind. This is Ivan who thinks great thoughts – about Ivan. He’s ready to offer his more-than-valuable opinion like candy from a parade boat.
Ivan the Potentially Great. This is the guy who could do something great if only he put his mind to it. But, because he fears man more than God – he never really attempts great things for God because he can’t stand the risk of failure.
Ivan the Formerly Great. Ivan has been there and done that. He remembers when things “were great” under his watch. But he has selective memory – he’s got amnesia of his own failures but can easily recall all the right things he’s done.
Ivan the Comparatively Great. This Ivan is always found in the upper class – not the top of the class, that would be too self-centered. Not perfect but better than the average joe. He’s competitive in all that he does. Tries to stay ahead of others. Is jealous that others get promoted over him. Loves to win, hates to lose. Prone to self-pity. Shifts the blame. Accusatory.
Ivan the Tomorrow-I’ll-Be-Great. This guy is up to something. He can just feel it. He just needs a little more time, a little more organization, a little more rest, a little more money. Ask him why he still hasn’t done what he said he would do . . .he’ll give you one excuse after another.
Ivan the If-Only Great. This guy just can’t catch a break. If only people understand. If only others would not hinder. If only others were more predictable and more helpful. If only others would notice his talents and what he has to offer. It feels good that God notices him but it would feel better if others did.
Ivan the I’ll Be Great If IT Kills Me. Doesn’t take no for an answer. Failure is not an option. If you’re in his way you’ll get ran over.
Apart from God, our quest for greatness is often a search for approval. I want to be applauded and esteemed. I live for praise. I attempt great things, even for God, because I crave being celebrated. But in Christ – my search for approval and greatness and distinction is over. In Christ – I am great, in Christ – I am distinct, in Christ – I am approved, not because of my ambition but because of His. All the time and energy that we waste trying to be liked or praised or to achieve something to validate our existence can now be redirected toward ambition for God’s glory. By grace, our hearts are redirected from How Great I Am to How Great Thou Art.