The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath. (Proverbs 11:23)
From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence. (Proverbs 13:2)
Desire is sometimes presented in spiritual writings as a root cause of humanity’s problems. Certainly, in Buddhism, desire is the cause of suffering, and in fact in some forms of Buddhism, desire is what brought the world that we know into existence. Christian Scriptures on the other hand present a far more nuanced view of desire. There is evil desire and the desire for evil, but there is also good desire as well as the desire for the good. Desire can motivate us to seek God, to seek that Beauty, Truth and Goodness which is beyond the limits of the self. Desire, on the other hand, can be nothing more than sinful passion – a selfishness moving one away from God or even against one’s fellow human beings. Thus desire can lead to love for God and for the good of others, or it can bring us to total self love with a disregard for all others.
If desire becomes strong enough it can motivate us to forgo immediate gratification and instead strive for long term goals. That we sometimes term ambition and at least at one time was connected to being willing to work hard to achieve a goal.
Ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. (online Dictionary)
Today, however, ambition is often viewed more negatively and nefariously as self-serving:
Ambition: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
We are warned in the New Testament about such ambition:
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:16)
Perhaps because of the negative connotation of ambition, I was really struck by the Revised English Bible’s (REB) translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:
Let it be your ambition to live quietly and attend to your own business; and to work with your hands, as we told you, so that you may command the respect of those outside your own number, and at the same time never be in want.
By contrast the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates the text this way: “aspire to live quietly…”
I can desire or aspire to live quietly and attend to my own business. It is easy for me personally as a person who is both an introvert and shy. But to make it my ambition? This is a challenge for me and maybe for all of us. We might hope that somehow things will fall into place and be peaceful, but St. Paul says we are to make it our ambition to live quietly. There is a seeming contradiction in terms, which is what makes the text stand out so in my mind. We are to strive to live quietly and peacefully. My ambition should be to live quietly! The jarring nature of the phrase is exactly because for us ambition is viewed mostly as a self-serving pursuit of self-glorification. It is the difference, as I heard someone say, between the explorers who were seeking knowledge about the world as versus the adventurers who are seeking fame and glory for their own name.
But ambition itself is not the sin or the problem. The issue is what are we ambitious to do?
Our ambition as Christians is to live the values of the peaceable Kingdom. Our ambition is to be peaceful, meek, patient, poor, humble, gentle, always putting the good of the other ahead of our own wants.
Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)