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Monday, June 12, 2017

Ambition and Contentment

A short while back Marshal Art and I had couple of brief (and friendly) disagreements on the topic of healthcare and on the topic of greed. I'm leaving the healthcare thing alone. It was never my intention to solve the healthcare crisis with Jesus. My point was that the problem is much bigger than an insurance plan can fix. But I did spend more time mulling over the greed question.

Marshal (if I can be so familiar) held that ambition -- "the mere desire to earn as much as one can in order to live a life with the least possibility of financial distress" -- was not greed and certainly a moral perspective. I'm having trouble with that. Not, surely, from a worldly view, but looking through biblical-tinted glasses. (Please note: I said I'm having trouble with that, not "He's wrong and everyone should knuckle under and agree with me." I'm not actually taking a position. I'm more or less asking the question.)

I know Paul wrote of having an abundance (Phil 4:12). Therefore, having much is not, in itself, a sin. And I know he said, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." (Phil 4:11) It was, in fact, about this that he wrote the famous, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." (Phil 4:13) Contentment with much or little was the "all things" Christ strengthened him to do. It would seem, then, that contentment is a virtue. But, aren't contentment and ambition in opposition?

First, clearly, the answer has to be "No." I can be ambitious to further the kingdom without being discontented with what God has given me. I can have a drive for missions or for a particular charitable aim or a specific ministry or the like and it wouldn't contradict contentment. So what's the difference here? The primary difference is who the ambition is for. That is, ambition and contentment could be opposed, but they don't necessarily have to be.

So, what about the "American Dream". We live in the most affluent nation in the world. We live for comfort. It is not a distant wish; it is, to varying degrees, attainable and, therefore, quite expected. On the other hand, "It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 19:23) The Bible equates greed with idolatry (Col 3:5). So, is that the problem? Is it greed when we worship "stuff" over God? Maybe. But ...

I'm having a hard time putting these things together. It wouldn't seem necessarily greedy, but, rather, prudent to seek to be free of potential financial distress if you can. I mean, that's just good stewardship, isn't it? And then I read things like, "The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Gal 6:8) and "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Gal 6:14) So how do I put the drive to satisfy my physical desires for comfort and financial security next to passages like these? How do I correlate that kind of ambition with the warnings against sowing to the flesh and the claim that the cross has crucified the world to me and me to the world?

I'm not settled on this. I am not personally particularly ambitious. I'm not trying to "get ahead", to "keep up with the Joneses". I don't dream of winning the lottery. (Well, I think it would be cool if I won but never bought a ticket, just to say, "See? Look what God can do." But ...) On the other hand, I have no wish for my family to have misery. I want to be ready and able to support my wife and help my kids as well as other family, like brothers and sisters in Christ. You know, like Paul wrote to say that thieves should stop stealing, but "let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." (Eph 4:28) That kind of ambition isn't a problem. I'm trying to watch my motivation. Not as much what do I do, but why. If it's for me, I question myself, but not as much if it's for others. Much less if it's for God. But I'm not clear on the correlation of "the mere desire to earn as much as one can in order to live a life with the least possibility of financial distress" and "crucified to the world" with "content in everything". I'm not clear on that yet.


Craig said...

Does context make any difference? In other words is is problematic for a Haitian or Guatemalan to work hard to increase his income/wealth by 100% or more? I've heard some pretty compelling arguments that building wealth in the third world is a good and noble goal.

I'm kind of in between on this because I know some pretty wealthy Christians who do lots of good things, yet still live comfortably. Like so much it seems to have a lot to do with attitude and with ones Christian walk, more than with income or wealth.

Stan said...

I wonder why it is a "good and noble goal" in the third world to build wealth? Is it the same as in our society? In that case, it's mostly greed.

I'm in between as well. However, having a lot and living comfortably does not necessarily entail either ambition or greed. I know, for instance, of a guy who started a company that became massive. He made a lot of money. He "tithed in reverse", keeping 10% and giving 90% to Christian organizations and such. He lived quite comfortably on the 10%. It doesn't look like ambition or greed. I've also seen how some believers who are liberal in their giving are blessed by God with more getting. That is, demonstrating that they are content with what they have and intent on sharing, God provides them with more to share.

Like you say, I think attitude and motivation are the questions, not income or wealth. But, then, "ambition and contentment" are the motivations I'm wondering about.

Craig said...

I tend to agree. I know a guy who ended up selling his company for more than he knew what to did with, and decided to fund orphanages.

As far as the third world piece, I'd suggest that the best thing that can be done to improve individuals is to equip them to be able to build wealth and provide for themselves as well as possibly others. My point was that for a Haitian earning $2/day increasing his income by 100-200% is only lessening poverty, whereas if I did the same it might be different.

I also think that it's possible that God blesses people with financial resources for His own purposes.

I'm pretty sure that there isn't an imperative that demands "simple" living.