In 336 BC a young man of twenty ascended to the throne of Macedonia. His name was Alexander III. You may think that a kingdom should be enough to satisfy the ambition of any twenty-year-old, but Alexander’s thirst for glory was not quenched. He set out to conquer the world, and after several years of military campaigns, he did! With his empire stretching from the Balkans to the Nile to the Himalayas, he chose the appellation of “III” (something that immediately linked his glory to his forbears) and named himself “the Great.”
Calling himself “the Great” may have been pretentious, but Alexander had some serious game to back it up. The historian Plutarch tells the fascinating story of another young man named Julius Caesar. After reading about Alexander’s exploits, Caesar grew quiet and suddenly burst into tears. When his friends asked why, the young Caesar said, “Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable” (Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans).
For some, life’s deepest ache springs from unslaked ambition.
This instinct for glory is God-given and resides within each of us. But not all ambition is good. Scripture speaks of a form of ambition that spoils its goodness by removing God as the goal. The Bible calls it “selfish ambition,” and it makes a debut all the way back “in the beginning.”
The Garden Glory
The living God launches human history in the role of Creator. He methodically executes his will in a six-day artistic adventure culminating in the formation of man and woman. For these first people, made in God’s image, life is simple and good. God is their Father, and Eden is their home. Adam’s mandate is clear: Be fruitful and multiply, and rule, subdue, exercise dominion over creation (Genesis 1:28). The world’s first job description is a hefty one.
Adam was called to a glorious ambition—to spend his time and talents for God’s glory.
But that abruptly changes. Preening in paradise is the Serpent, the earthly form of a fallen one, Satan. He was the original glory thief, and his crime downsized him from angel to devil. Now he’s skulking in Eden with one goal: to steal glory belonging to God.
So Satan starts asking questions, making claims. He begins to distort truth about God, to subtly erode confidence in him and to replace it with ravenous, self-seeking desire—to turn Adam and Eve’s attention from the many good things God has given to the few things God prohibited. “Why can’t you eat from the tree?” he asks. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).
Notice how Satan baits the hook of distortion and seduction with the tasty morsel of forbidden glory: “You will be like God.” Or in the simple logic of serpent-speak, “Guys, why work God’s farm when you can have your own spread? He’s withholding your rightful gain, take things into your own hands. Eat the fruit!”
Eve bit hard, then handed it to her hungry husband. The world would never be the same.
At that moment the glorious ambition to use God’s gifts for God’s glory shriveled beyond recognition. Replacing it was self-confined glory. Adam and Eve were now on a quest for glory apart from God, driven by a hunger for self-exaltation. Detached from God, their love dwindled and their souls shrank. Their world became no bigger than themselves.
Ambition Turned Inward
That’s what the Bible calls sin—the universal human drive to rebel against God’s moral law and live independently of him. Sin happens when we outwardly transgress the law, but it also happens when we disobey in our hearts, even if we obey with our actions. Sin blinds us, and it drives us. Left unchecked, sin will destroy us, and we’ll be judged eternally for it.
Sin does the same thing to us that it did to Adam and Eve. It distorts the truth of God and undermines our essential dependence on him. It seduces us to crave things that deface God’s holiness and assault his glory. Ultimately, sin moves the self to the center of our desires and dreams. Rather than promoting God’s order and glory, we become relentless self-promoters. Rather than expanding, the boundaries of our universe come crashing in until they are no broader than our limited, finite imaginations. As someone once said, “We grow small trying to be great.”
Can you relate to that? How broad are your ambitions for your soul, your family, or your work? Are they limited by the tiny measuring cup of your own glory? Do you encourage excellence in your children while secretly hoping to reap the benefits of recognition as capable parents? Do you challenge others to boldness even as you give studied attention to signs of their approval? Does your vision for work extend only as far as your retirement package?
God calls you to something much bigger. He’s urging you to lay aside the you-shaped dreams and pick up the cross-shaped flag of an unshakeable eternal kingdom, to which in comparison, the empire of Alexander the Great looks like a toddler’s sandbox.
Tenacious Tuesday Question
Take some time to think carefully about the last three big decisions you made. Was the driving factor behind it a desire to see your kingdom expand, or God’s?
Lord God, would you reveal the narrow, self-centered ambitions of my heart? See if there is any offensive way in me, and teach to pray with all my heart, “Your kingdom come.”
Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski