In a crowd my mother had a way of getting her message to me without embarrassing me. First, it was the look. Mothers, in my opinion, have mastered this method. For my Mom it was a raised eyebrow and a slight frown line on her forehead. Then it was the secret code – a word, a sentence, or a series of letters that made no sense to anyone else except to me. For example, when I had just been braggadocios, suddenly there was the look coupled with mouthed letters “SPS.” They were code letters meaning “self-pride stinketh.” The mention of those code-letters informed me that I had crossed the line of admirable humility and had entered the realm of arrogant haughtiness. The best response in such situations was to shut my mouth.
We live in a culture where it appears humans admire a haughty spirit. Possibly there is a cultural ignorance of the scriptural warning, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). If the passage had ever come within their hearing in the distant past, it had not lodged there for any length of time. When boasters unleash their arrogance, culture seems to admire their moxie and converts a negative character trait of an inflated ego into a strength. The same mother with the wicked look and the coded messages also reminded me that people of skill, strength, and intellect do not have to declare it – just demonstrate it.
Ambition too often breeds arrogant haughtiness. We are so focused on our aspirations that we become self-focused. With such self-absorption we can think of, and speak of, no one other than ourselves. Henri Nouwen, a teacher of psychology and religion at the prestigious universities of Yale and Harvard once wrote in his journal, “I want to cry out loudly to my colleagues and students: ‘Do not serve Harvard, but God and his beloved, Jesus Christ, and speak words of hope to those who suffer from loneliness, depression, and spiritual poverty. But I myself have come to the painful discovery that when I am chained by ambition it is hard for me to see those who are chained by poverty.’” Shortly thereafter, he resigned from Harvard and went to Toronto to care for mentally challenged persons. Later at a speech at Harvard he spoke of working with a severely handicapped young man. He said in doing so he had gained “a whole new understanding of God’s love.” He did not allow ambition and prestige to chain him. In doing so he was released to make new discoveries that God had for him.
Did the intellectuals of his day conclude that Nouwen was wasting his life? Did they see him as a man who had lost his ambition? Did they understand that people should not live for the accolades of people? Better to have the approval of God than the applause of humanity. Does God smile when we set aside our vain ambitions, embrace His character, and enter into His purposes for our lives?
The book of Acts answers these questions as we see Philip – a man not “chained by ambition.” He was a man who was chosen as a leader in the early church (Acts 6:5). He was a successful preacher (8:4-8, 12). Then God instructed him to set aside his activities and travel into the wilderness (8:26-39) to share the Gospel to one man – the treasurer of Ethiopia. He declared the message, saw the man believe, baptized him, and never saw him again. Philip accomplished what God had purposed for his life. His ambition had not anchored him in the harbor of inflated pride. He allowed God’s plan and purpose to be his guide for life.
One person observed, “God’s call on us may not meet our expectations. Whether prestigious or obscure, publicly successful or personally humbling, our ministry is the right one if God has called us to it. We are His to direct. Faithfulness is what matters most” (Daily Devotional Bible). As Philip walked from the revival in Samaria toward the wilderness, he was not being demoted. He was being promoted to another place, for another purpose, and to influence another person’s life under God’s sovereign control.
How many people, as Henry David Thoreau puts it, “Lead lives of quiet desperation?” Perhaps that desperation arises from their ambition, ignited by pride, which keeps them from fulfilling God’s will for them. Perhaps ambition has robbed them of the contentment that comes from yielded obedience to God’s direction. Wisdom demands that we lay aside our small ambitions for that which takes on divine dimensions. Such an action brings satisfaction in us and glory to God.
“For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” Psalm 138:6