What we want are extraordinary fixes to ordinary problems. In this desire we miss the reality that there’s always something else to fix, there’s always something else to do, and there’s always something we’ll miss. Looking for extraordinary means is a roadmap to variously intense levels of personal frustration.
I’m suspicious that one reason older generations of Christians tended to be skeptical toward ambition—even calling it a sin on occasion—is that they were able to see something more clearly than we moderns can. Life in the 21st century West is by definition fast, mobile, and wandering. If you want to do something else, you can. If you want to be something else, you can. For most people alive right now there’s never been another reality except this one. Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous illustration, we don’t really see this, we simply live within it.
Older saints, on the other hand, were more likely to see freedom and upward mobility as a singular thing, something that stood out when someone you knew claimed it surrounded by family and friends and community that were more or less resigned to their lot in life. For moderns ambition is ambient, but for them it was a condition with a definable list of attributes and consequences.
My point is this: When you’re removed from something in this way, removed enough to recognize it as something other and not just swim in it, you probably have a better angle of vision on it than others. And I think one thing that these older Christians saw within ambition was a rule of diminishing return with spiritual side effects. It’s what I’m learning right now in my own life and thinking:
There’s always something else.
The problem with most species of ambition is not that they seek good change or more success or greater mastery. The problem is that most species of ambition are self-referential. Ambitious people don’t generally say they want to make a million dollars or start 3 companies or earn 2 doctorates. They don’t put numbers to their ambition. They simply say, “I’m ambitious,” by which they mean, “I’m always moving.” The constancy and restlessness shift from the means to the end. Spiritually speaking, continual dissatisfaction—a resilient inability to say, “Ok, I’m good now”—has almost always been flagged as dangerous.
But it’s not just material ambition. What about spiritual ambition? Recently in my reading I came across this sentence from a theologian and it stopped me in my tracks: “There are no extraordinary means of grace in the Christian life.” I lingered over that line for a while as it delivered a broadside to most of my Christian walk. How many years have I spent as a believer earnestly, diligently, even tirelessly, seeking an extraordinary means by which I would finally feel the intimacy with Christ I desire and the temptations that beset me just fall off like sawdust? The matter-of-factness of that sentence pummeled me. That one book, that one sermon, that one conference or that one conversation I’m looking for to put all the jagged parts of my spiritual life into an incandescent whole…it does not exist. There’s always something else to do, but there are no extraordinary means of grace.