Should you then seek great things for yourself?  

Seek them not’.  Jeremiah 45: 5



By this time next week, the Rugby World Cup will have started in New Zealand, and the adequacy of the physical and psychological preparation of the players will be tested in some mighty clashes.  Some time ago I read how an American footballer prepared for an upcoming match against the Dallas Cowboys, ‘The morning will all be practice at the stadium.  Then I’ll go to my den, and load up game DVD’s and I’ll study the Cowboys until I know them better than their wives do!  I’ll keep watching the matches straight through until midnight every night.  Ten hours a day.  All week.  Nothing else.  I want to beat those men.  I want to hit them so hard if they come into my zone that when they’re lying on the ground, they’ll look up to the sky with glassy eyes and pray that there won’t have to be another play in the game.  I want to dominate their spirits’.  That’s ambition speaking!



The present world athletics championships in South Korea, and the spectacle of the forthcoming Olympic Games, with its motto, ‘Faster, higher, stronger’ have highlighted the rigid discipline which athletes are prepared to undergo in the pursuit of excellence.  Rising early each morning, punching in two hours of swimming or running before breakfast is just part of a stern routine that lasts day after day, week after week, year after year, building up to the great event itself.  An American swimmer who won a handful of gold medals in his time, gave up a few years ago saying, ‘I’ve been all round the world, and I’ve seen nothing but swimming pools’.  In modern sport, such single-mined devotion is the essential condition for success.  Wasn’t it Bill Shankly, the former manager of Liverpool who allegedly said that football wasn’t a matter of life and death, it was more important than that!



The same drive is necessary for success in business.  Lord Sugar in The Apprentice tolerates no slackness.  Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate once said, ‘Aim high.  I would not give a fig for the young man who does not already see himself the partner or the head of an important firm.  Do not rest content for a moment in your thoughts as head clerk, or foreman, or general manager in any concern, no matter how extensive.  Say to yourself, “My place is at the top!”



Against all that worldly wisdom, set the advice of the Bible, and in particular this advice from Jeremiah the prophet to his friend Baruch, Should you then seek great things for yourself?  Seek them not.  The sentiment would have come as a shock to Baruch!  He came from a home where his parents had great expectations.  The name they gave him, Baruch, means blessed, and no doubt, like many doting parents they thought the sun rose and set on their little lad.  His grandfather, Maaseaih, had served as Governor of Jerusalem under King Josiah.



In the city, Baruch was regarded as influential.  Indeed, some saw Jeremiah as an unwitting tool in the hands of the subtle Baruch.  Thus positioned, in the confidence of the royal family, and with influence in the city, Baruch must have entertained high ambitions.  It was quite a rude awakening to discover that his friendship with the prophet Jeremiah was bringing him into head-on conflict with the ruthless King Jehoiakim.  No great things for you, Baruch, my friend.’ Jeremiah was careful to warn him what lay ahead for the both of them; how the authorities would try to arrest them (36: 26); how in speaking the word of God, they would be accused of lying (43: 2); and how they would face captivity and death (43: 6).



Now Jeremiah’s advice might be construed in a very narrow fashion, simply telling Baruch that in this historical context it would be wrong to place all his hopes on the stability of the monarchy, for it was doomed to defeat.  I think, however, it carries a broader and abiding spiritual warning against overweening ambition.  Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.’



But something also lay ahead for Baruch that no one could have predicted.  He was the one who gathered together for posterity the writings and messages of his friend Jeremiah.  For that ministry later generations have indeed called him Blessed.  Fame came for him, as it so often does, as a mere by-product, the result of an unselfish act in support of a great ideal.



Ambition needs a better press



To call someone ambitious carries with it a note of criticism, and for that we probably have to blame William Shakespeare.  Almost every reference to ambition in his plays suggests that ambition is dangerous and unworthy.  Over the dead body of Caesar, Brutus remarks, ‘As he was ambitious, I slew him’.  Elsewhere he talked about ‘vaulting ambition’, lamented the wars that made ambition virtue, and encouraged men to ‘fling away ambition’.  Mind you, he was ambitious himself.  Peter Ackroyd, in a biography of Shakespeare, observed that there is no record of Shakespeare ever having praised another writer.



Christian preachers sometimes give the same impression.  The passage we read in Mark’s gospel appears to condemn ambition.  But if you read it carefully you will see that part of the reason that the colleagues of James and John were incensed at the brothers coveting the top positions was that the other disciples wanted those positions for themselves!  And Jesus did not dash their ambition.  He simply reminded them that every ambition has a price, asking them, Are you able to drink the cup of suffering I have to drink?’



Ungoverned ambition, of course, has been the source of boundless mischief.  Much of human history is stained with the sordid stories of men striving for power and sweeping aside all considerations of morality in their rage for greatness and control.  But if that impulse is often misdirected, it is still an intrinsic part of our nature.  The great scholar, Bishop Westcott, said, ‘If by ambition angels fell, by ambition men have risen’.  Was it wrong for a dying mother to say to her son, ‘Be somebody’?  Was it wrong for the young John Milton to confess that he longed to write something that the world would not willingly let die?  Was it wrong for the young Charles Gounod to write to his mother declaring that he wanted to be a musician, and when she rebuked him by saying that a musician amounts to nothing in the world, to reply, ‘Is it nothing to be Mozart or Rossini?’  Were they wrong?



A proper view of our own worth underlines the appropriateness of such ambition.  We have been made in the image of God, just a little lower than the angels, and we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  There are talents and potentialities in our lives that ought to be developed, and exploited, if we are to fulfil ourselves as God’s creatures.  The film My Fair Lady is based on Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.  A professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins is teaching the Cockney girl, Eliza, how to ‘speak proper’.  After much exasperation, he bursts out, ‘You are English.  Your language is the language of Milton and Shakespeare, and you are standing there cooing like a bilious pigeon’.  Within each one of us there are great potentialities.  The counsel Dr. Jowett of Balliol in Oxford gave to a young man is worth recalling, ‘Don’t expect too much, and don’t attempt too little’.



Ambition needs a better purpose



Baruch was feeling low when he realised that his fondest dreams were impossible of fulfilment.  He was at odds with the king; the nation was on the brink of dissolution; his hopes were irretrievably dashed.  In that situation God had two things to teach Baruch.  First, Baruch’s heartache was as nothing compared to the spiritual agony in the heart of God.  There is no sorrow like unto His sorrow.  Verse 4, ‘I will overthrow what I have built, and uproot what I have planted.  How it must have grieved God to see the downfall of the nation he had cared for so laboriously over the years.



Second, Baruch had to learn to thrust self into the background.  In verse 3 in the Hebrew text the personal pronoun occurs 5 times, but even the NIV conveys the self-centredness of it, ‘You said, Woe to me!  The Lord has added sorrow to my pain.  I am worn out with groaning and find no rest’.  It is the same obsession with self that the Pharisee expressed in his Temple prayer, in one of Jesus’ parables, ‘I thank you that I am not as other men are.  I fast twice in the week.  I give tithes of all that I possess...’. Baruch is wallowing in self-pity, hugging his sorrow to himself.  Ambition needs to be purged of selfishness.  Do you seek great things for yourself?  Seek them not.’  It is quite another thing, however, to seek them for others and for God.



The apostle Paul was an ambitious man, but note the focus of his ambition.  There is a rare Greek verb (Philotimeomai) which he used to show the ambitions which governed him.  We make it our goal to please him’. (2 Corinthians 5: 9).  The cheers of the crowd, or the smiles of the powerful meant nothing if he did not have the approval of the Man of Nazareth.  The late Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, in a little book entitled To be a pilgrim wrote, ‘Only one thing matters, and that is what God thinks of me.  To be high in his regard is the biggest ambition any person can have’.



Paul revealed another of his governing ambitions when writing to the Romans, It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known’. (15: 20).  When David Livingstone was interviewed by the London Missionary Society and was asked where he would like to go, he replied, ‘Anywhere, so long as it is forward’.  In the middle of the American Civil War, the famous Confederate General known as Stonewall Jackson, prayed this prayer, ‘0 God, settle this cruel warfare, and send us back to our homes to our God-given purpose of winning men to Jesus Christ’.



Paul expressed another of his controlling ambitions to the Thessalonians, Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life’. (1 Thessalonians 4: 11).  Excitement was at fever pitch in that city, for the Christians there had downed tools and were standing around waiting for the return of Jesus Christ.  Paul attempted to defuse the situation.  Live quietly.  Let him find you doing your duty when he comes. Covet the quiet beauty of an ordered life.  The Scottish church leader, Principal Robert Rainy of New College, Edinburgh, who declared a teenage ambition to be ‘eminently spiritual’, wrote this, ‘Today I must lecture.  Tomorrow I must attend a committee meeting.  On Sunday I must preach.  Some day I must die.  Well then, let us do as well as we can each thing as it comes to us’.



Paul’s writings abound with references to running and boxing and even chariot racing.  He noticed how diligently athletes strived to win the prize, in their case a crown of laurel leaves, which quickly withered. Paul, on the other hand, was striving to win an unfading crown of righteousness.



Before every baseball match the individual members of a team were required to enter a room alone, and stand before a wall on which was written the slogan, ‘For Chicago, I will’ and then pass on to the pitch to join other members of the team.  Can we examine our plans and our ambitions, and say, ‘For Christ, I will’?



Should you then seek great things for yourself?  Seek them not.  No, seek them for God!