Humility and Ambition

Humility is more than an opposite to pride . . . or an antidote to arrogance.  It is the glue of deep love; the scent of nobility in friendships; and a sweet fragrance in society.  Humility is powerful, even more so than pride.  Yet both pride and humility are shaped by ambition.

All of us have met ambitious people—those who became strong and controlling.  They use others, deceive others, and walk over others on their way to success.  Yet their success is, at best, fleeting.  Humility, on the other hand, has a vastly greater reach than the proud and ambitious climber can ever achieve.  How so?  By the impact the humble person has on others.

Always remember this: both the proud and the truly humble are ambitious—the presence of an ambition is not where the difference is found.  Instead, the key question of life is this: what is our greatest ambition and the aim of that ambition?  Is it selfish or selfless?  The ambition of the selfless soul touches eternity, but the selfish soul dies as a wisp of empty vanity that fades to nothing. 

Think about these things for a moment.  Moses was humble.  Paul was humble.  Yet both were more powerful than figures like Alexander the Great, or any of the Caesars of Rome.  Indeed, God, in Christ, offers us the epitome of humility.

A selfless ambition is to care for another’s success with an energy and devotion that surprises the recipient.  Selfless ambition wants others to smile . . . to find joy . . . to succeed and to celebrate life.  The selfless look for ways to feed the hungry, heal the sick, guard the widows.  The selfish man, by contrast, wants others to celebrate his own ambition . . . to cater . . . to worship.  The claim of Eden that “you can be like God” was a lie.  The “god” of selfishness is a black hole, like its first originator who travels the earth to devour others.  The true God seeks to build up others, and to draw others to discover that there is greater blessing in giving than in receiving.  The true God has a spreading goodness.

The proud soul can shape its world only as far as his powers can rule, but the soul who lives with a Godly humility has no boundaries.  No one is afraid to join the ambitions of a humble leader—“Come,” he says, “give all you have to the poor and then join me in caring for others!”  So, too, pride has no place in heaven, but the selfless person brings heaven to earth.  A selfish ambition ends with the final breath of life.  The selfless man or woman looks well beyond their final breath to be with the One whose breath is eternal life.

What differs, then, is the object of one’s ambition.  God is both ambitious and humble.  His ambition is to share his love with the world, and to do that he sent his beloved Son so that all who believe in him can participate in God’s eternal shared glory.  Jesus, as the God on two legs, humbled himself to take on humanity—not grasping after his divine prerogatives.  He humbled himself by taking on human sin for all who believe—by becoming sin.  This was the ultimate humility and he did it for us.  Even the Father was humble—by forsaking the Son for our sake—so that we can come into the union with Christ, and through him, into union with the Father. 

Ambition and humility are united in God.  Ambition without humility is death—the realm of Satan.  The greatest ambition of all is God’s resolve to share his heart with us, forever, and that only comes through the humility of crucifixion.  That is a true love and a worthy ambition to pursue!

 

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13 Comments

  1. Lisa Bailes

    Dr. Frost,

    Thank you for sharing these powerful – and poetic – thoughts. Humility is a tremendously challenging pursuit. You mention the idea of the Father’s humility. This is something I have never considered. Can you share Scripture that substantiates this concept?

    Also, I have recently begun reading Owen’s “Communion with the Triune God.” Your post reminded me of it when you pointed to the incredible gift of union (and communion) with our astonishing God.

    Thanks again for this challenge. You should post more often!

    Grace to you,
    Lisa Bailes

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks for the response, Lisa. Let me answer by suggesting that the definition of humility I see at work in Philippians 2 (which is where my reflection was stirred) doesn’t preclude our seeing God as humble, because it doesn’t reduce him in any way. But, that said, let me go, very briefly, into some of the “chewy” features behind such a thought.

    God’s relational being is such that the Father participates in the experience of the Son. That is, in the unity of the Godhead, when the Son is humbled by engaging death and experiencing his forsakenness, the Father encounters that experience in the divine interpenetration (perichoresis). The Father is also humble for conceiving such a plan (thus his glory in John 17:4). I.e. by allowing his son to receive the strokes meant for us there is only an apparent conundrum. While the Father’s righteous wrath is the source of those strokes, it is also the single Divine capacity that swallows death for all who believe. So salvation is birthed from God’s immanent dynamic of love into the economic ministries of the Godhead.

    This is something the Enemy never considered a possibility: that God would be willing, in love, to enter death where hatred rules. Yet death is only conquered when God, in Christ, confronts death and swallows it [per Isaiah 25 & Hebrews 2]. By first identifying humility as a selfless ambition (i.e. using “relational” terms) we avoid taking up the notion of God as a collective set of capacities & attributes (i.e. using “substance” concepts that Thomas Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle and blended into Western theologies). This relational definition, in turn, is not a reduction of God’s status, but a declaration of the dimensions of his limitless love. As such both the Father and the Son are humble (as is the Spirit who facilitates it), in the selfless ambition of love that allows us to participate in God’s eternal glory (per John 17).

    It’s a plan that invites worship!

  3. Ira Williams

    Great word on a widely misunderstood virtue! I’m glad you’ve reinforced the fact that humility does not necessarily require a cowering, downtrodden or even softspoken attitude. As your examples illustrate, quite often humility is accurately characterized as “quiet strength” or “servant leadership.”

    To be sure, ambition unfettered by humility is a dangerous thing. But I believe it to be our obligation to fully exploit our God-given talents to His glory. And if we are focusing our efforts on the sucess and well-being of others, then ambition and humility are in balance.

    As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about this topic. 😉 For more thoughts on humility, I would be honored to invite you to visit my site at http://www.speaksoftly.com.

    Thanks again Dr. Frost!

  4. R N Frost

    I appreciated your response, Ira: “thanks!” I wonder, though, if my initial entry might be even stronger in its emphasis on humility than you’ve captured here. That’s not, of course, a silly claim of “I’m more humble than thou!” It’s a point, instead, that the Bible shifts the focus away from human virtues (i.e. treating humility as something I “own” as a virtue). That, after all, is still a self-oriented quality, with any ambition to be humble remaining a self-concerned rather than an other-centered focus.

    The underlying principle is that God himself is ultimately other-centered within the triune communion of the godhead. God’s love, then, is the overflow of his other-centered care. My next entry will chase that thought a bit more by turning to Jeremiah 9:23-24. Let me credit you, beforehand, for stirring that decision: so, again, thanks!

  5. Leanne

    Something happens whenever I take my eyes off myself and meet the Divine Appointments God has scheduled for me from before my birth that is so “other” as to defy definition.

    There is a power, a surge, a resonance of my innermost being that is entirely directed outward. I am in “flow” and harmony, synergy, and the most sublime effortlessness are swirling all around me.

    For one fleeting moment, or a series of moments, I am so outwardly focused, so intent and invested in the outcome that can only be achieved in the minute by minute waiting upon the Lord by all parties involved. It’s a glorious play with the lines delivered from the Director seconds before they are to be spoken.

    It’s then that the power of Love as designed for each of us who possess the power of the Holy Spirit is displayed. Our giftings are apparent, yes, but only to the degree that what would seem impossible is actually easier than breathing.

    Only after the moment is over (will it ever last????) that I can then look back and see how perfectly made I was for this assignment. That is when I have to wrestle with my focus and realize that true humility isn’t a point of view or something that can be named as a character trait but rather as a happening, an occurring of the Father bestowed upon me like a gift.

    Trying to hold onto it or dissect what it was that I contributed to the success of the moment only serves to elevate my own power and diminish the workings of the Lord.

    Humility truly is as you say, a “shift away from human virtues………..with any ambition to be humble remaining a self-concerned rather than an other-centered focus.”

    Never having had a definition as the one you present to explain this phenomenon (when we humans are blessed enough to experience it) I find that I am now looking at things in an entirely different light. I no longer need to worry about attaining humility or any other virtue. I just need to keep the proper focus.

    I appreciate you sharing this.

    Thank you.

  6. R N Frost

    Yes, Leanne, you’ve captured the point! It’s the experience of getting “lost” in another, isn’t it? Others have helped me think about this imagery, as those giving commentary on what they’ve found in the Scriptures. Martin Luther, for one, spoke of sin as our being “curved in” on ourselves (the problem) . . . with salvation reversing that as the Spirit, pouring Christ’s love into our hearts, draws us away from our self focus (the solution).

    Also, C S Lewis makes much the same point in his book, SURPRISED BY JOY (the account of his conversion to faith in Christ). If you haven’t read it: He was thrilled by moments of joy and wanted, somehow, to own joy. So he made it his ambition to “capture” the experience of joy whenever it came. Yet he discovered that joy evaporates the moment that experience was made to be the focus. Finally he realized that joy was not a “something” but a response to “someone” . . . and from that point on he was on his way to embracing Christ as the source of joy. A beautiful story.

  7. Leanne

    Maybe a bit of a tangent but if you are so inclined I’d like to get your take on something you mentioned in your original post.

    When you stated, ” the key question of life is this: what is our greatest ambition and the aim of that ambition? Is it selfish or selfless?

    The ambition of the selfless soul touches eternity, but the selfish soul dies as a wisp of empty vanity that fades to nothing.” it brought up something I have been pondering for the last few years.

    When I have an experience of God as I described above, I find myself craving more. More opportunities, more appointments, more of Him but NOT because of any humility or selflessness on my part. No. It is selfishness pure and simple. While I am awed that God would deign to use me at all, I am also aware that my motives aren’t necessarily pure.

    I GET something out of it, Ron and it’s like a bit of an addiction. Maybe my experience is like the one you described C.S. Lewis of having in his quest to hold on to joy but can you deny that the motive still isn’t self seeking?

    If I had my choice I’d be “lost” until Jesus called me home. Instead, I wrestle with myself and my impatience at waiting upon His timing, His appointments, His will.

    I would save the world for my Lord, Ron, if only I could because I am desperate that everyone should know the grace of God AND because I can’t get enough of His grace when it flows through me.

    Knowing the motive of my heart, however pure it may be, I still cannot deny that I find myself with an INCREDIBLE ambition, one I am impatient to attain and one that most definitely serves ME as much as if not more than those I seek to serve.

  8. R N Frost

    Leanne, you’ve touched the seeming paradox of a selfless relationship, haven’t you? That is, we find joy in the other and the experience of that joy is pleasing beyond words; but the joy is not what we seek as its own end in the relationship.

    Jesus, for instance, went to the cross for the joy set before him. So he certainly had his own joy in view as a dimension of his mission, but the mission was really all about our gaining union with him. As Lewis discerned so well, the joy is IN the other. And the moment I covet the joy as an end in itself, the other person in the relationship becomes a resource or object. So it’s the utilitarian bit of selfishness that spoils the whole thing. Love never treats others as objects, but treasures them.

    The Psalms do more to capture this sort of question than almost any other literature, biblical or extra biblical. E.g. the final stanza of Psalm 139 which gives God the role of searching our hearts. And Psalm 51 expressing David’s confession and remorse after he had given his passions an ultimacy they were never meant to bear, and turned others into objects of his own use and pleasure. His only recourse was to ask God to create a clean heart within him.

    I may not have captured all you’ve raised in your comment, but I do appreciate the opportunity you’ve offered here to affirm a proper reciprocity and self-awareness in selfless relationships. We love as we’ve been loved, so our joy in being loved offers insights in how to love others in light of that experience.

  9. Ifeanyi C.

    Thank you so much for this topic on humily
    I have a question: HOw can one be free or a least not be hurt by thoses who takes advantage of humily to oppress the humble or use them for their selfish ambition expecially in a working enviroment. Thanks Ifeanyi

  10. R N Frost

    I would love to have any other readers give a response to your question, lfeanyi. The challenge you raise is certainly found in every setting! It accounts for what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: the meek will ultimately be raised up, though not necessarily in this life. Yet the ambition of humility is “other centered” and begins with praying for those who use us, and caring for those who abuse us. The adventure of faith is to watch God overcome evil with good.

  11. Leanne

    I’m glad you invited outside responses, Ron, because I read this and wanted to address it. First, though, I need to ask a clarifying question of lfeanyi: In the situation you describe, is it a fellow brother or sister-in Christ who is using humility as the covering that excuses the behavior you mention or is this an unbeliever? That will make all the difference in how I respond.

  12. Lee

    Ifeanyl,

    Firstly we must put that person in Gods hands.
    Secondly we all commit sins. Mine will be different, but we all sin.
    Thirdly we crucified him and he bore the pain because He loves us. We must, simple put, hate the sin and love the sinner.
    Fourthly, we are always free and safe when we keep him in the fore which the difficult for me to remember at times. First it is oh poor me. Then I put my focus where it should be. Of our own we can do nothing

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