Theme: Forsaking Ambition
In this week’s lessons, we learn of our need to love God for who he is and to trust him completely.
Scripture: Psalm 131:1-3
To summarize this week’s study so far, we note that Psalm 131 is David’s personal testimony, including his rejection of pride and arrogance, which we have already discussed, and also ambition, which we discuss in today’s study.
3. Ambition: “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” Ambition is the third of the three terrible vices David claims to have overcome. But we have to be careful here. For it is not that David did not want to achieve anything at all or that we, following his good example, should be passive, doing nothing. What David is rejecting is an ambition that would go beyond what God has for him, or beyond what God has for him now. An example is the way he allowed God to give him the kingdom of Israel in God’s own time and way, even though the crown had been promised to him many years before. David was content to be pursued by Saul, the previous king, for ten years, and then to rule over the small principality of Hebron for seven years more, before eventually becoming ruler of the united kingdom.
In last week’s study, I disagreed with Eugene Peterson’s treatment of Psalm 130, arguing that it is not so much about suffering and hope as about sin and salvation. But in this study, I want to acknowledge that what Peterson says about ambition, particularly about it being the distinct stumbling block to Christian maturity and growth thrown up by our materialistic Western culture is exactly on target. He calls ambition “aspiration gone crazy.”1 And what he means by that is not that trying to be the best you can be or working to achieve the most you can achieve for God and his glory is wrong. It is not wrong; it is right. But what is wrong is the ambition to get everything we can get for ourselves and at whatever cost for our own glory, which is what our civilization fervently teaches we should do.
Here is the way he puts it:
It is…difficult to recognize unruly ambition as a sin because it has a kind of superficial relationship to the virtue of aspiration—an impatience with mediocrity, and a dissatisfaction with all things created until we are at home with the Creator, the hopeful striving for the best God has for us—the kind of thing Paul expressed: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). But if we take the energies that make for aspiration and remove God from the picture, replacing him with our own crudely sketched self-portrait, we end up with arrogance. Robert Browning’s fine line on aspiration, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” has been distorted to “Reach for the skies and grab everything that isn’t nailed down.” Ambition is aspiration gone crazy. Aspiration is the channeled, creative energy that moves us to grow in Christ, shaping goals in the Spirit. Ambition takes these same energies for growth and development and uses them to make something tawdry and cheap, sweatily knocking together a Babel when we could be vacationing in Eden.2
If we are to be true Christians in this area, we must learn to stand against the distorted values of our culture, knowing that character is more important than career, godliness more important than success, and helping others more important than amassing great wealth.
But there is something else that is important here, too. For what David seems to be concerned about in this verse is not so much the accomplishment of great deeds, the kind of achievements that usually bring one worldly fame, but rather peering into the hidden purposes of God, which is what the words “great matters” and “things too wonderful for me” usually refer to in the Bible. He is saying that he had learned that he did not have to understand everything God was doing in his life or know when he would do it. All he really had to do was trust God.
It is the same for us. We do not have to understand all God is doing in our lives, but we do need to trust him completely. A verse we should know is Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” It means that although we need to learn what God has revealed in the Bible for our instruction, and obey it, beyond that what we need is to trust God completely for the wise ordering of our lives.
Anselm, the English monk who lived in the eleventh century, prayed along these lines. He wrote, “I do not seek, O Lord, to penetrate thy depths. I by no means think my intellect equal to them: but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe, that I may understand.3 Those words, “I believe that I may understand” (fides quarens intellectum), were the passion of Anselm’s life. They are the opposite of “aspiration gone crazy.” They are the expression of a Christian in his right mind.
1Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), pp. 146, 148.
2Ibid., pp. 148, 149.
3The quotation is in Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 36, Psalms 120-150, p. 140; and Herbert Lockyer, Sr., Psalms: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993). p. 677.
What is the third vice David has overcome? Give an example of this. How is the sin of ambition particularly relative to our culture?
What does David mean when he refers to “great matters” and “things too wonderful for me”?
How can we counter the values of our culture?
Reflection: Are your motives based on glorifying God or on bringing glory to yourself?
Prayer: Ask God to enable you to bring your ambitions in line with what he wants for you.
Key Point: We do not have to understand all God is doing in our lives, but we do need to trust him completely.
For Further Study: To learn more about contentment, download and listen for free to Jason Helopoulos’ message, “The Christian’s Contentment in a Challenging World.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)