Rescuing Ambition for Ministry

Do you desire to be involved in ministry? Does your passion burn for serving God? I am writing primarily to those who long for vocational ministry, but the principles apply to anyone seeking to serve God in any way.

Paul’s first epistle to Timothy gives sobering instructions concerning the proper way for a man who possesses ambition for ministry to find his desire fulfilled. In 1 Timothy 3:1 he states that if a man is “reaching for” oversight (Gk. episkopos), that is, the responsibility of leadership in the local church, then he is desiring a good thing. But what of this desire, this ambition to lead?

Ambition can be constructive or destructive, driven by pride or driven by a passion for the glory of God. In his new book, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), Pastor Dave Harvey seeks to show that ambition is not evil in itself, but has to be redeemed, or rescued by Christ. He believes ambitions for greatness are natural because we were made to experience glory—just not our own. Comparing our inner ambition for glory to storm chasers, he says,

Maybe you don’t chase tornadoes, but we’re all born glory chasers. Glory moments stir us…We experience something totally vicarious, some strange exercise in identification. And make no mistake, it goes deep. It calls to something we value. To do something that matters. To seek something greater than our own puny existence (p. 21-22).

The temptation for those who desire ministry is to let their natural ambition for glory become selfish, turned inward. What should be fuel for the glory of God becomes selfish ambition for our own glory. Ministry becomes a means for getting praise, flattery, gifts, and ultimately worship. The root cause of this is sin.

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 self to the center of our desires and dreams. Rather than promoting God’s order and glory, we become relentless self-promoters. It’s a condition that shrinks the soul (p. 37).

Sometimes those who desire ministry see those already in ministry, and the respect and influence that typically accompanies faithful execution of the task, and assume that the way to obtain influence and respect is to seek influence and respect. These mistaken observers, however, miss two points. First, the way to glory is not to seek glory. The way to glory is to seek humiliation and servanthood. “Humility comes before honor,” says Proverbs 15:33. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” says James 4:10. Many aspiring leaders misunderstand the path to leadership. Second, those faithful leaders that have obtained influence and respect did not do so by seeking it. They, too, pursued a path of service and humility that led to influence and respect.

Selfish ambition, on the other hand, is self-glorifying, and any time glory is drawn from anything other then God, it has the opposite effect of worship—it shrinks the soul. Harvey quotes Jonathan Edwards:

The ruin that the Fall brought upon the soul of man consists very much in losing the nobler and more benevolent principles of his nature, and failing wholly under the power and government of self-love. Before, and as God created him, he was exalted and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish. Immediately after the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness (Charity and Its Fruits, 226-7).

Ambition and humility are not mutually exclusive. A minister with a proper humility will also be possessed of a holy ambition. G.K. Chesterton distinguished between a proper humility, which he called “the old humility,” and a “new” false humility that dampened ambition. He appealed to a return to the old humility.

The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

Humility, then, should harness, not hinder ambition. Harvey expounds on rescued, or redeemed, ambition.

Formerly our aspirations were the soul-shrinking agents of self-exaltation. But because of Jesus, everything has changed. Having God’s approval changes why we obey, aspire, and apply. Now aspiration fuels delight. We can pursue great things for God, and it will enhance our joy in God. We no longer live ambitious for approval, but we act ambitious because we have approval. Here’s the difference: One disillusions us, the other inspires us. One is temporary, the other permanent. One drives us, the other delights us. (p. 59)

So what should a person who desires ministry do with his ambition? He should certainly not squash it, castrate it or kill it. Rather, he should redirect that ambition to bring about the greatest glory to God possible, recognizing that this happens through humble, selfless service that strives for the ideal of William Carey’s famous maxim: “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.”

O For a Return to a Love of Sound Doctrine

I love theology, because I love the study of God as revealed in his Word and world. Yet, I also realize that life is not about theology and we don’t worship theology. Theology is a discipline, that when kept in its proper place, and based on the right foundation, allows us to worship God in a more knowledgeable and enlivening manner. Theology is the dish upon which the glory of God is served.

So, while I understand that theology is not life, I do believe that every Christian ought to be actively studying theology for the purpose of knowing God better. As a theology professor, it is somewhat disheartening to hear the average Christian express disinterest, boredom, or indifference when it comes to the soul-enriching glorious truths of sound doctrine.

Although I don’t desire for a return to the tumultuous centuries of the early church when the doctrine of the Trinity was being hammered out amidst profound confusion, I would love to see some of the same universal interest among Christians regarding important theological matters, such as this description by a bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century:

If in this city you ask someone for change, he will discuss with you whether God the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘God the Father is greater, God the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before God the Son was created.’ (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 99).

Obviously, confusion reigned at this time, but at least Christians were thinking and talking about important truths. How often in our diversion-saturated culture do we think and talk about everything but the most important matters?

This convicts me because I have found it easy to talk about theology in seminary, but not so easily outside. I find it easier to talk about the weather, politics, or sports than to initiate a conversation with a fellow believer about something eternal. Yet, when conversations do turn theological, I find my soul nourished by the interchange. So, let’s talk more theology and see if the glory of God is not served more often to hungry souls, including our own.

Cain’s Lost Opportunity

While I have read the account of Cain and Abel dozens of time over the years, I was recently struck by one particular truth in a new and fresh way (isn’t God’s Word wonderful that way!).  In Gen 4:5, God expresses His displeasure over Cain’s sacrifice (more likely over the condition of Cain’s heart than over the sacrifice itself), to which Cain responds with an attitude of anger and despondency.  In one of the earliest and most remarkable expressions of God’s grace in all of Scripture, the Lord warns Cain of the dire consequences of continuing on the path he is on and encourages him that it is not too late, with God’s help, to change course and please God.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. (Gen 4:7 ESV)

Amazingly, this opportunity of turning is offered before Cain’s fateful decision to murder his brother.  Sin, like a wild animal, was crouching at Cain’s door desiring to overtake and devour him.  Yet, Cain could still master it if he would repent and turn to God.

How similar is the situation we often find ourselves in today!  Listen to the words of the Apostle Peter:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith … (1 Pet 5:8-9a ESV)

Satan, like a wild animal, is a fierce adversary.  When he is aided by the pervasive power of unchecked sin, those who fail to heed Peter’s gracious admonition are, like Cain, easy prey.  Cain failed to resist because he failed to repent and, in faith, avail himself of God’s power.

Perhaps you find yourself at an impasse in which Satan and sin are crouching at your door, seeking to devour you.  Every child of God is engaged in a fierce battle, one that must be fought through actively exercising faith in God and in His promises.  We must take heed to the Lord’s gracious admonition so that, unlike Cain, we may please Him.

 

Review of Peter Enn’s book, Inspiration and Incarnation

I’ve just read the first chapter in Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation. Rather than read the entire book and then produce a formal book review, I’ve decided on a slightly different approach. I’m going to write my review as I’m reading the book.

Certainly, this approach may have some inherent dangers: I may make a big deal out of something that gets clarified later, or I may pass over something that becomes significant later. But it has the pedagogical benefit of displaying in a hands-on way how a book gets read.

My reviews will follow a simple outline. The “Summary” section will try to encapsulate the author’s main idea in a brief paragraph or couple of paragraphs. The “Responses” section will offer some reaction to what the author has written so far.

 

Chapter 1 of Inspiration and Incarnation, “Getting our Bearings”

Summary:

In this first chapter, Peter Enns presents his foundational concept  concerning inspiration, a concept he calls “incarnational analogy.” Drawing on the concept of Christ’s humanness and divinity, he argues by analogy that the Scriptures ought to be considered in full light of their humanness as well as their divinity. This adjustment in perspective, he argues, will inform our perspective when we encounter problems in the Old Testament.

Enns aims to examine three “problem” issues related to the Old Testament: 1. The Old Testament and other literature from the ancient world (the question of the Bible’s uniqueness) 2. Theological diversity in the Old Testament (the question of the Bible’s integrity) 3. The way in which the Old Testament authors handle the Old Testament (the questions of the Old Testament’s interpretation)

A point of clarity seems appropriate. Taking this chapter as a whole, Enns is suggesting a reorientation of the evangelical approach to inspiration, not its abandonment. The last few sentences of the chapter make this point in a helpful way. Speaking of the Bible’s humanness he notes, “when God speaks, he speaks in ways we would understand. With this in mind, we can now look at some of the evidence that has been part of the scholarly conversation for several generations, not to determine whether the Bible is God’s word, but to see more clearly how it is God’s word.” (Enns, 21, emphasis original)

 

Responses:

For quite some time, I’ve been noting the similarities of the Old Testament to ANE literature: the similarities of Deuteronomy, for instance, to various treaty forms of the second millennia BCE. I have found  this comparison helpful for the insight it provides.

The big question I’m wrestling with is how this “incarnational analogy” will guide one’s approach to Bible difficulties. I readily admit that my approach to difficulties such as the David’s treatment of the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21 is more theological than anything. Would a greater appreciation of the Old Testament’s humanness inform my approach to this problem passage?

I hope to answer these questions and more as Enns fleshes out his argument first in relation to the Bible and ancient literature.

 

When Up Is Down

As part of my devotions, I recently began reading and reflecting upon select writings from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, and was struck by the following from the introductory prayer:

Lord, High and Holy, Meek and Lowly, …

Let me learn by paradox

that the way down is the way up,

that to be low is to be high,

that the broken heart is the healed heart,

that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,

that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,

that to have nothing is to possess all,

that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,

that to give is to receive,

that the valley is the place of vision.

In this context, I am reminded of how much the Christian life is not only at odds with current mainstream thinking, but it is, on the surface, seemingly illogical. As declared in the Scriptures: to save one’s life, one must lose it (Luke 17:33); to be wise, one must become a fool (I Cor 3:18); to be exalted, one must become humble (Matt 23:12); to be first, one must be last (Matt 20:16); to reign, one must serve (Matt 25:21); and, to get, one must give (Prov 11:24; Luke 6:38).  How glorious it is when the Spirit of the Lord enlightens our hearts and minds to understand and embrace these wonderful truths.  If at times it seems as if you’re swimming upstream against the current, perhaps you’re right where the Lord wants you to be.

 

“All things work together for good, you know.”

That scriptural sentiment has been tossed around so flippantly that for some it has become cliché. Too often a well-meaning person has mindlessly uttered these words by the sickbed of a friend, or the casket of a friend’s loved one. Others, seeking comfort and hope in a season of suffering, have quoted these words almost as an accusation to God. “If all things work together for ‘good’, why won’t you grant the good I’m asking you for right now?”

There is a problem with the way the scripture is understood both by would-be comforters and by comfort-seekers.  “Good” for many is synonymous with comfort, ease and the absence of struggle. But the “good” in Romans 8:28 is clearly defined in the words that follow. Let’s review the text:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

You see, the “good” (v. 28a) is further defined as consistent with the “purpose” of God (v. 28b). This purpose is clearly identified in v. 29: God is working to make each of His children to become like His one beloved Son, Jesus. We are being “conformed to His image.” This work of conforming is the good God is up to – and one day it will be complete (“. . .when he appears we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2).

So is God working all things together for good? Count on it! When he grants the requests I make in prayer, He does so to make me more like Jesus. When he denies the requests I pray, He does so to make me more like Jesus. When he allows sunshine or rain or blessing or pain into my life, He is using it all to make me more like Jesus.

As I become more and more like Jesus, then God is pleased because He receives greater glory and praise. All things really are working together for good – the greatest good – the good of Jesus being seen, known, and loved in the world.

The Influence of Christian Views in Writing History

What difference does being a Christian historian make? George Marsden suggests three things that Christian perspectives do not mean. First, Christian perspectives on academic topics will not change everything, but it will change some things. Important areas of thought regarding human nature, anthropology, justice, etc. greatly influence the way history is perceived. Second, for Christianity to make a difference, it does not mean that the perspective must be uniquely Christian. Distinctly Christian scholarship means that our scholarship is grounded in distinctly Christian principles, not that it is wholly unlike other perspectives or scholarship. Third, there are no set formulae for the Christian perspective. There are many types of questions that a Christian might ask if they consciously seek to relate faith and learning.

So, how does being a Christian shape the way we do history? Marsden suggests three things that are unique about a Christian writing history. First, our Christian commitments shape our selection of topic. What is worth studying? Our priorities and values shape these choices, so a Christian may choose a field of inquiry that is considered politically incorrect to scholars committed to cultural relativism or scientific naturalism. Second, our Christian perspectives will influence the questions we ask about the subject. Christian scholars are likely to be interested in a different set of issues than are other scholars and to see different things. Third, our Christian commitments inevitably influence which current theories we are likely to accept. For example, Christians who accept the authority of ancient texts are unlikely to accept radical postmodern deconstruction of the authority of all texts, or accept the idea that humans are, in effect, the only creators of reality.

For example, Christians approach the study of man as a created being made in the image of God, marred by the fall, capable of being redeemed by Christ, and destined for an eternity beyond this lifetime. This metanarrative explains much about psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. In contrast, secular scholars view man as the “Transcendental Self” that is devoid of a creator, and therefore any transcendent authority. Human capacities are immensely inflated and man’s goodness is assumed, along with the inevitable progress of mankind. The secularist’s metanarrative also provides a number of answers (however flawed) to problems of human nature, psychology, anthropology and sociology. Applied to history, Christian and secular historians end up telling a very different story of the past.

The insights that a Christian view of history brings should not, however, result in pride. Being a Christian historian does not in any way mean that one is a better historian than a non-Christian historian. It simply means that a better way of viewing history is available to the historian who is willing to submit his perspective to the Scriptures, do the hard work of history and remain humble in the doing. Marsden sums it up well when he says,

Ultimately people are convinced not simply by arguments, although sound scholarship is essential. They are convinced also by the character of the people who present arguments…So Christian scholars should, without compromising their scholarship, present themselves as models of genuine servanthood within adverse academic communities.

This essay is adapted from George Marsden, “What Difference Might Christian Perspectives Make?” in History and the Christian Historian (ed. Ronald Wells; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

 

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