Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review: Rescuing Ambition

I am a man who lives in deep inner-conflict. On the one hand I struggle with a horrible sin. Mike Bullmore described it vividly at the Toronto Pastor's Conference last month: "If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, the chief temptation of man is to glorify himself". It is sad, but true. I love applause and this is deeply sinful. It is a sin I battle every day, and by God's grace, it is a sin that I battle and progress out of every day. But it is also a sin that still needs more slaying. On the other hand, though, I have ambitions that I don't believe are all sinful. In fact, part of the effect of me becoming a Christian in 1996 was the birth of ambition in my life. Prior to becoming a Christian, I was a floater, whose highest goals were to get home from work in time to watch yet another re-run of the Dukes of Hazard. I was goin' nowhere fast. With my new birth also came the birth of a great work ethic, a work ethic that was focused on God-glorifying work. This is a work ethic that has only grown over the past decade and a half.

So I've been left with a problem as the lines between these two conflicting desires have been fuzzy in my mind. Certainly it is possible (even common) for ambitions for God to turn into personal idols. How sick is that: something that began with the pure motive of seeing God glorified ended up simply serving my own God-debunking agenda. But certainly all ambition is not all bad. Over the past five years or so, since I've identified these sins more concretely, the line between glory seeking and ambition for God's glory have been blurry. That is, until I read 'Rescuing Ambition' by Dave Harvey. In this very helpful book Harvey asks the essential question: "is it possible to be both ambitious and humble?", to which he answers a resounding 'yes'. The book is his attempt to bring some clarity to this issue, to assist the reader to battle the sin of pride, while stoking the fires of ambition to the glory of God. Harvey explains: "the good news of the gospel is that we aren't trapped by the tragedy of misplaced glory. While our ambitious impulses led us to vain pursuits, the Lord of glory has come to rescue our ambitions" (32).

The greatest strength of the book is that it always brings the reader back to the gospel. It is not as though the gospel is a springboard for an otherwise unrelated topic. The gospel is replete throughout the book. For example, Harvey leads the reader to revel in the finished work of Christ for them. In the face of great sin, a Christian can come boldly to the throne of grace. Harvey continues: "Sin is real, and we can sin away a lot of good stuff. Sin robs our joy in God. It's a delight-smasher. But sin never alters or reverses what Christ did upon the cross. It never causes God to withdraw his name or his acceptance from us" (57). In fact, the first three chapters of the book are called:: "Ambiton Conceived: we are wired for glory; Ambition Corrupted: Growing smaller in our attempt to be great; Ambition Converted: Where to go when your best aint' good enough". As the book continues Harvey explores heart-issues of the focus of ambition: God's glory or our glory? He shows the radically distinctive, radically counter-cultural path of distinctively Christian ambition as the low road of humility (cf. Jesus in Philippians 2). He deals with issues of patience and contentment when great ambitions are put on hold by God, and with failure and the search for answers amid the brokenness. He focuses our attention on the church as the ultimate place that deserves our ambitions, and he challenges the reader to ambitious risk in the quest to produce reward. Finally, he ends with a very personal chapter on paying ambition forward; of pouring ourselves into the next generation and even beginning a ministry with a view to finding our replacement decades down the road.

Another strength of the book is it's clarifying teaching on humility. For example: "Ambition must also be rescued from a wrong understanding of humility. . .When we become too humble to act, we've ceased being biblically humble. True humility doesn't kill our dreams; it provides a guardrail for them, ensuring that they remain on God's road and move in the direction of his glory" (14).

I know this is the point in a short review like this one, that I'm supposed to tell you the few flaws the otherwise good book has. I'm supposed to heroically point out the few wooden nickels you should watch out for, or the few ways the book could have been that much better. But I'm left grasping at straws in this category. I am deeply thankful for this book. I was so helped by it, and I was so drawn to Dave Harvey, that I put his book on marriage at the top of my 'to read' pile, simply because I want to learn more from him (It's called: When Sinners Say I do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage). So go ahead an buy a copy for yourself and then buy one for a friend. Study it together and sharpen each other as you read it!

Canadians can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

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