Christians aren’t, on the whole, big on ambition. There’s something about self-advancement and the pursuit of greatness that sits uneasily with us. Ambition hardly feels in keeping with imitating the humility of Christ or following his instructions to deny ourselves and take up our cross (Matthew 16:24).
So it came as a surprise recently when I noticed that Jesus is not against personal advancement after all. It’s just that his conception of advancement is radically different to ours.
In Matthew chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In response Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples for pursuing greatness. Nor does he tell them that an ambition for greatness is inappropriate. He does something far more unsettling. He commends the pursuit of greatness, but then presents them with a revolutionary view of what true greatness looks like.
There are at least three surprises in Jesus’ response. The first comes in Matthew 18:3 where Jesus warns the disciples (and us) that unless they change and become like little children, they will not even enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Never you mind greatness in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus seems to be saying, the attitude you are currently taking raises questions about you even getting in at all!
Jesus follows this implied rebuke with a second surprise. Instead of forbidding the desire for greatness, Jesus redirects it. Whoever takes the lowly position of this little child, Jesus tells them, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:4, emphasis added). There it is. Jesus wants us to be the greatest. He is supportive of our ambition for greatness. But he also redefines the very nature of that ambition.
Come at this another way. JKA Smith in his book On The Road With Augustine comments that the opposite of ambition is not humility but sloth and complacency. To have no ambition means never launching out in endeavours for God. Without ambition we will lack the bravery that determines to change. Without ambition we will not even try to grow – there will never be a determination to become someone we’re currently not. There is nothing worthy about tolerating our own sinfulness under a cloak of something that pretends to be humble discipleship. Wanting to become more like Christ is an ambition well worth having.
Only here we are back at the paradox again. For what if becoming more like Jesus takes me in a competitive direction? What if, for example, I start feeling rather pleased with myself for being more like Jesus than others? Well in that case I have already crashed and burned. For that kind of ambition, and that kind of greatness, is the very antithesis of all that Jesus intends.
I promised three surprises from Matthew 18. The third comes in verse 5 where we discover that the route to receiving Christ is bound up with the reception of little children. Whoever welcomes a child in my name, Jesus tells the disciples, welcomes me (Matthew 18:5). If I receive Christ, welcome him into my life and heart, and have him redirect my ambitions, then what is the one great ambition he would set before me? Simply this: to welcome the little child. We are never more receptive of Christ than when we are receiving the (strategically) ‘unimportant’.
Engaging with children isn’t, of course, usually seen as a route to greatness. Important people may seem to have the potential to help us get ahead, but surely not children. Yet, according to Jesus they do precisely that! They do help us get ahead. For in the upside-down character of Jesus’ kingdom, the way up is the way down. Greatness is found both in becoming like a little child, and in the reception of little children. Progress in Jesus’ eyes – which is, of course, the only true progress – is found in humility and compassion to the needy, and seeing worth in those that the world doesn’t value.
So, be ambitious. Be ambitious for change; ambitious for growth in the likeness of Christ. Yet measure your progress not through comparison with others, but against the measure of Jesus himself. For when we make Jesus our yardstick, when the humility that left the glory of eternity for the agonies of a cross is the measure of our progress, we are, at one and the same time, undone and remade. For when we gaze at Christ humbled on a cross, we soon see that our own humility has barely begun. And yet, when we gaze at this same Jesus, humbled on a cross, we remember that we have a saviour ready to receive us just the same.
Ambition is to be pursued. There is nothing ungodly about ambition provided the goal is good. We don’t need to fear ambition. If we should fear anything, it’s the laziness and complacency that tolerates sin and fails to pursue the greatness defined by Jesus in Matthew 18. Those who pursue that kind of humility and that kind of Christlikeness will be great in the kingdom of heaven.