September 24, 2020

When Does Healthy Ambition Become an Idol?

Nathan W. Bingham & Stephen Nichols
When Does Healthy Ambition Become an Idol?

We ought to strive for excellence and apply ourselves to the responsibilities God has given us. But can this pursuit of excellence ever become sinful and unhealthy? Today, Stephen Nichols helps us to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy ambition.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: I'm here at the Ligonier campus with one of our Teaching Fellows, Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols, how can we know if our healthy ambition for whatever is in front of us has crossed that line and become an idol?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: That's a great question. First of all, we've got to look at ambition. It's had historically a pejorative understanding. It was always seen"the Latin word actually means somebody who sort of walks around, and it was senators who walked around to get votes for themselves. And that's not how it was supposed to work. You were supposed to recognize that a person had qualities and then elect them to the Senate. You weren't supposed to politick or campaign for yourself. That's the root of the word. It was actually Charles Haddon Spurgeon, is the first time in the English language to say, "There can be a healthy ambition and a godly ambition."

First, we've got to recognize that there can be such a thing as a godly ambition. When does it become ungodly? Well, this is difficult because we want to strive for excellence. If you're gifted as a musician, you want to apply yourself to that instrument. You might need to make sacrifices if you want to become excellent and stand out in your career. If you're gifted as an athlete, what do you have to do? It's two-a-day practices as a high school kid. You're applying yourself; you're working; you're cutting out things. You're sacrificing so that you can be excellent. I think those are good things.

On the surface, just to say, "Because you're striving for excellence, that's bad," that's probably wrong thinking. It's OK to strive for excellence and apply yourself. The issue is, Why are you doing it? Are you doing it for the glory of God or not? Isn't that really what it all boils down to? We're parents; we're husbands and wives. We want to be excellent husbands and wives. We want to be excellent parents. We want to be excellent kids who are God-honoring. We apply ourselves to that. We can do that for our own sake, our own vanity, our own self-esteem. We need to remember that we do this for the glory of God.

When is it healthy ambition? When it is fueled by dependence on God and aimed at the glory of God. When does it become unhealthy ambition? When it's not fueled by dependence on God, when we're like, "Hey, look how great I am and all my talents and skills." And when it's all about me and my accomplishments. And so, I think that's the good mark. And you know when you've crossed the line, and that's when it's become an unhealthy ambition.