'... where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. James 3:16 (NIV)
Ambition is both widely cultivated, not least in medicine, and widely condemned. Warnings about of its dire consequences. Shakespeare's Macbeth is the classical example, with his 'vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on the other'. And we know what a stocky end he came to. The Talmud says, 'Ambition destroys its possessor'. A modern poet has written, rather bleakly:
Ambition has but one reward for all:
A little power, a little transient fame,
A grave to rest in, and a fading name!
William Winter, 1836-1917
This is all sadly true of one kind of ambition, the sort that aims at self-aggrandisement or is motivated by greed or love of power.
It is interesting that James in his letter talks about 'selfish ambition'. The adjective is important, for the word 'ambition' is neutral. It can mean simply a goal or aim, something aspired to. In medicine we can -- indeed, should -- aim at excellence, for medicine is a trust which rightly requires the best. This may well bring success, fame, fortune. But it can be -- indeed, for the Christian should be -- combined with humility and the desire to bring honour to the Christ whose name we bear. It is then a fine ambition.
But we need to keep on our guard and not fall for the twisted thinking (a favourite ploy of the father of lies) which persuades us that our selfish ambition is aimed at the glory of God. This is tricky and needs watching.
At the other end of the scale from selfish ambition is the great ambition, the striving for a goal which was dear to Paul's heart: 'one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus' (Phil 3:13-14).
From prayer that asks that i may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
Further reading: Phil 3:8-16.