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Ambition, Fame and Our Obsession With Success

If your life is motivated by your ambition to leave a legacy, what you’ll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. (Rich Mullins)

For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by ambitious people, but never as much as since I’ve been in full-time ministry.

It seems everybody wants to do, have and be more … regardless of how much they’ve already done. Start their own ministry or plant a church. Write a book. Get another degree. Develop a successful blog. Increase their Twitter or social media followers. Have another kid.

Yes, even that.

And I’ve wrestled with my own drive and desire to do something worthwhile in this world. I’ve questioned my motives and character along the way.

What strikes me is how easy it is for those of us who are Christians or ministers to overlook some of the messages and warnings of Jesus as if they didn’t apply to us in this day and age.

So here’s what I’ve been reminded of from the Scriptures as I see the relentless quest for more recognition and influence all around:

  1. We ministers too easily forget that it’s not our place to pursue fame or glory. 

Two of Jesus’ disciples (James and John) wanted to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands in heaven. But He reminded them that the places of honor are not for us to decide; that is for God to grant.

“The [seats of glory] belong to those for whom they have been prepared by My Father.” (Matthew 20:23)

And we might be surprised by who occupies those seats when we pass into the next life. There will be far more poor and “nameless” people there who have consistently taken the seat of lowest honor in this world (Luke 14:7-11).

There is nothing wrong with the desire to be known, respected and loved. It’s human and built into our relational nature by God Himself. But I have a problem with the notion that it’s our place to pursue fame or recognition. I think we are called to be faithful to do what we’re doing, and to leave the results to Him.

That’s challenging in these days where people see opportunities everywhere to market themselves and make themselves “known,” whether through social media, blogs, YouTube videos and so on.

There’s no problem with sharing our writing or ideas with others or taking pleasure that others are benefiting from our work or ministry. But if our motives and heart are to gain glory or “greatness,” that’s dangerous territory. Jesus repeatedly rebukes those who ask for glory, or desire greatness (Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-26).

  1. We ministers too easily forget that recognition comes at a price.

Influence and power are things to steward with a respectful “fear and trembling.”

“Do you know what you are asking for? Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Mark 10:38)

To those who asked for places of greater honor, Jesus reminded them that it’s not something to be taken lightly. And I wonder if we truly grasp the responsibility and sobriety that comes with greater platform and influence.

Do we know what we are asking for if we ask for recognition or success? Because according to Jesus, it involves suffering and sacrifice.

And sometimes publicity can result in people’s worst nightmares. Don’t we see this to be true even outside the ministry world? How many celebrities in the spotlight become self-obsessed, behave with a sense of entitlement, and treat others with condescension? How many suffer from loneliness and depression or have nervous breakdowns, never able to attain a sense of “normalcy”? How many marriages are broken and friendships lost at the cost of fame?

But seriously: Does anybody really, truly stop to consider the question: “Am I ready for a greater platform?”

“How will it impact me and change me as a person and is that person somebody I can live with? How will my family be impacted by this?” Who asks these questions? I think more pastors and leaders need to!

So many people desire to be recognized and influential in this day and age but perhaps don’t grasp how devastating fame can be. I believe God created very few people in this world who are called to larger platforms.

There are far more people who desire great recognition and influence than those who are truly called by God to it.

And those who are called are leaders with the humility and sobriety to steward their power for the sake of others. In this day and age where injustice abounds, we as followers of Christ are not called to fill ourselves up but to empty ourselves as Christ did (Philippians 2:6-8), so others might be served and lifted up.

  1. The bigger the platform, the more we become misled by the addiction of “numbers” over genuine and mutual relationships.

Too often in ministry, we become captivated by the “big show” and the masses, whether in terms of church size, blog visitors or other measurements that feed our egos and our hunger for a “greater” influence. To this comes yet another reminder from Jesus:

“If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?” (Matthew 18:12)

I wonder how often we choose the exhilarating “high” of the “ninety-nine,” rather than seeking out the “one” who is neglected on the margins.

I’ll never forget one painful experience growing up. I had an appointment to meet with a leader whom I admired, and I looked forward to what I’d learn. I had a list of questions prepared of things I was struggling with. I sat at the restaurant where we were supposed to meet and 30 minutes passed by. Then an hour. Shortly after, I left and found a message on my answering machine (yes, those were ancient days): “Adrian, I just found out about a meeting of some ministry leaders in town. We’re discussing some big things. I’m sorry I can’t make our meeting.”

In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder: Does this leader care more about the big meetings than he does about me?

And in that moment, I gained some resolve. I would make every effort not to leave the “one person” for the “big meeting” when confronted with that dilemma in the future.

Sometimes when I talk to people in ministry settings, I see their eyes wandering, gauging who else is in the room and what other opportunities they might be missing. But I want to be fully present with a person, knowing that the most important ministry often happens in those quiet, intimate places away from the big announcements, loud music and masses where we assume all the “action” is.

And more than that, it is in those smaller settings of honest exchange and dialogue that we get the “mutuality” that is missing from “big speaker” venues where everyone just listens to us. We learn to listen ourselves, grow and be transformed by others.

I know many of us know this in our heads, but what about in practice?

When we’re talking or meeting with people, are we always the ones imparting wisdom? Do we have mentors in our lives, or are we always the ones mentoring others? Do we really believe we need leadership and grace just as much as those we’re leading?

When I became a senior in college and was doubting the impact of anything I had done on campus, a wise friend reminded me: “Adrian, if God used your four years of college to change just one person ‒ and that person is you ‒ don’t forget that is a great work of God.”

I will never forget those words. How easy is it for us to become intoxicated by measurements of the influence we desire! But God doesn’t just use us for His work … His ongoing work is us.

  1. Ambition in itself is not bad, but stewarding it well requires more from us than we are told in today’s culture.

No bones about it … I am an ambitious person. I’m not ashamed of that. I want to make the most of my education, skills and opportunities that I’ve been granted. I want to do something good in this world just as countless people have invested and poured their wisdom and time into helping me to grow.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to make a difference and “mark” on the world ‒ which some might call our “legacy.”

But with ambition must come great integrity and humility to check our motives at the door constantly, and to sacrifice and serve even when the culture around us is telling us “we’ve earned it,” “we deserve it” and “we are different.”

No … no matter how big our church or ministry is, no matter how much we are respected, we are never “above” God’s words that remind us that “the first shall be last” and that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” If anybody was deserving, it was Jesus, but He chose humility, sacrifice and death for those He loved.

I want to that to be my model ‒ to be faithful to a life of sacrificial love and service regardless of the “results.” That’s not for me or any other minister to determine or decide.

That’s what I’d want my legacy to be ‒ not a personal and “striving” ambition but an ambition to follow God to wherever He calls, whether to a public arena or a place of shadows where nobody will notice.

May our ambition not be to serve ourselves but to give our lives in service to others. May our legacy be measured not as much in what we have accomplished as in how much we have loved. That’s my prayer.

What are your observations about our culture and how it can come into tension with certain values and principles? What experiences have you wrestled with ‒ in yourself and what you have seen in others? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Adrian Pei
Adrian Peihttp://www.adrianpei.com/category/blog/
Adrian's passion is to make leadership connections about topics that matter. His current job is to oversee leadership training and content development for an Asian American ministry organization. Adrian consults, writes, speaks, and designs content. He loves innovating, collaborating, and seeing a project through from start to finish. Adrian graduated with degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Seminary and lives with his family in sunny southern California.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed this article! It’s true that we don’t stop to consider the cost of having a big ministry. Sometimes we think it’s in the “big ministry” that we’ll produce more fruit. But I remember the time I was enjoying a mentor type relationship and God spoke to my heart, “what if I wanted you to see this relationship all the way through to me?” And I thought in that moment, “Yes, if this is what was important to your heart then that is what I’ll do.” Being led by the Spirit throughout your life doesn’t always look linear and start with a neat point A and end with a neat point B. Whoever He brings along and however He leads you to administer the Life of Jesus is truly what matters. Even if it seems unsuccessful or unfruitful to others. It’s often in the little things (or small in men’s eyes) that He works in and through us. He does get all the glory. Unrepentant selfish ambition leads to loss. So thankful for the Holy Spirit who counsels and convicts us in the motives of our heart.

  2. We all struggle with this and need to think about it more. I think we have to become convinced that any expansion of our personal ministry onto a larger platform is truly motivated by a desire for His renown and advancing His mission and not ours. One model for this is Oswald Chambers. His stuff is profound and has deeply impacted generations of believers, but he never wrote “My Utmost of His Highest” –his wife took shorthand notes and published after he died. If your wife takes notes on your Bible teachings that is saying something. On the other hand, if something will truly bless others, then holding back to be humble might not be the best thing. In that case the most humble thing might be to write and leave the results with God.

  3. What a great article !! Very deep and real fact seen in our lives . I have been touched personally by these lines which have all resounded like tunders into the ears of my heart ;
    1)” I’VE QUESTIONED MY MOTIVES AND CHARACTER ALONG THE WAY ”
    2) ” THE PLACE OF HONOR IS GRANTED BY GOD HIMSELF NOT BY SELF ”
    3) ” THERE IS A PRICE O BE PAID ”

    I bless GOD for this article and I don’t know what to write but what I have enlightened, can show that it’s a challenge and just pray that our hearts desires will stay and remain in alignment with the perception that glory belongs to HIM alone .

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