Is there anything wrong with ambition and taking pride in your achievements?
Brian Rosner writes for The Melbourne Anglican
My son’s primary school has a tradition of playing a song of the week to give the preteens something to hum and ponder. One that caught my eye recently and got stuck in my own head was The Script’s “Hall of Fame” (2012). It strikes all the right notes for a catchy tune as well as delivering an upbeat message of aspiration and ambition. Here’s a sample:
“Yeah, You could be the greatest
You can be the best
You can be the King Kong banging on your chest
You could beat the world
You could beat the war
You could talk to God, go banging on his door
You can throw your hands up
You can beat the clock
You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself
Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name”
Inspiring lyrics, no doubt. But what interests me is the way in which the call to shine and excel is framed. The goal is not just to do your best, but to outclass your peers, to stand out from the crowd, or in the words of the song, to “beat the world.” Two lines in particular piqued my interest: the notion of “banging on God’s door’; and the hope that “the world’s gonna know your name.” As it turns out, both ideas have a long prehistory, being used in the Bible as descriptions of hubris and prideful ambition.
My purpose in this article is not to criticise the message of an uplifting song but rather to think about the inherent danger in all human ambition and the profound solution to the sin of pride that Christian faith offers. Intriguingly, two texts from the Bible deal with making a name for yourself and thinking the sky is the limit.
Consider first the famous story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Here human beings set out on an ambitious plan that leads to the judgment of God: “They said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves’” (Gen. 11:4).
The builders were hoping to become famous for their achievement. Ironically, they did make a name for themselves, but it was not one of which they would have been proud. Instead of gaining notoriety, as a more literal translation of the Hebrew of verse 9 indicates, God said of their city and tower that “its name was [to be] called Babel” (ESV); in Hebrew “Babel” sounds like the word for “confused.” He might as well have called it, “the Tower of Babble.” The “name” they made for themselves (v. 4) was one of derision.
Genesis 11 is not the first time in Genesis that sin had been associated with making a name for yourself. The first city in Genesis was also a place where someone hoped to immortalise a name: when Cain built a city in Genesis 4:17, “he named it after his son Enoch.” Likewise, in Genesis 6:1-4 the “sons of God” also seek to make a name for themselves by marrying “the daughters of humans.” Verse 4 describes the sons of God in question as “heroes of old, men of renown,” or literally, “men of name.” To use our idiom, the sons of God were intent on “big naming” themselves.
God sees the aspiration of the builders of the Tower of “Babble” in Genesis 11 to make a name for themselves, like Cain in Genesis 4 and the sons of God in Genesis 6, as an act of rebellion. In the context of the Book of Genesis, to make a name for someone is God’s sole prerogative. Gordon Wenham explains:
“God promised to make Abram’s name great (12:2) and also David’s (2 Sam 7:9, fulfilled in 2 Sam 8:13). But elsewhere in Scripture it is God alone who makes a name for himself (e.g., Isa 63:12, 14; Jer 32:20; Neh 9:10). [With the Tower of Babel] Mankind is attempting to usurp divine prerogatives.”
We may add from the New Testament that Paul believed that Jesus Christ’s humiliation in death on a cross led to him being given “the name above every name” by God (Phil. 2:6-11).
The tower builders’ aim was not merely to excel or to make some outstanding contribution to society, something that Scripture does not condemn. Their motives were more malign. They sought fame and independence from God. In modern terms we might describe them as egotistical and narcissistic. The Bible equates such motivations with pride. And as the Tower of Babel demonstrates, “pride goes before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
However, the Tower of Babel was built with a second express purpose, that of “reaching to the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). It might be possible to regard building a tower as high as the sky simply an exercise in human ambition. However, Genesis views it as a sacrilege. As Gordon Wenham notes, “the sky is also heaven, the home of God, and this ancient skyscraper may be another human effort to become like God.”
God’s response to the building project in Genesis 11:5-7 is in fact, dripping with irony. If the tower was meant to reach to heaven, God has to “come down” from heaven even to see it! As Isaiah 40:22 says, the Lord “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.” Apparently God regards even our most outrageous ambitions are puny and insignificant. As Marilynne Robinson observes: “However triumphant our achievements may seem to us, to an all-competent observer we might appear entangled in a small dense web of our own weaving.”
As it turns out the Hebrew root of the word for “pride” itself means “lofty” or “high.” And in the Old Testament pride with its associated words also carry this sense of vaunting oneself above others and are translated “loftiness,” “height,” “majesty,” “exaltation,” and so on. In Isaiah 2 the proud are compared to tall trees and tall ships. Similarly, in the New Testament pride is to have an exaggerated self-conception, to be puffed up, as in for example, 1 Corinthians 8:2: “knowledge inflates with pride” (HCSB).
The English language has the same understanding of pride reflected in idioms such as “looking down your nose at someone,” and with terms like “arrogance,” “haughtiness” and “big noting yourself.” Pride is thus a sin of comparison whereby a person sees themselves as superior to others. The proud want to be “looked up to” and inevitably look down on others.
It is thus no coincidence that God’s resolve to punish the proud in the Old Testament is often expressed in terms of bringing them low. The judgment of Isaiah 26:5 is an echo of the demise of the Tower of Babel: “God humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust” (cf. Prov. 15:25; 29:23).
Pride seeks the ultimate supremacy, not only over other human beings but also over God himself. At worst such “reaching for the sky” is enacted in deliberate defiance of God, or it is simply a matter of ignoring God. The proud act as if God did not exist or at least will not hold them to account. They are too busy seeking elevation so they can look down on others to look up and notice God.
In Luke 10 Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples to preach about the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. When they returned they were elated and reported to Jesus with joy: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (v. 17). Jesus did not dispute their achievements. He responded: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (v. 18); he judges their work to be a “sky-high” achievement!
But then Jesus offers a gentle but firm correction: “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20). Apparently being known by God in heaven is worth more than the impressive achievement of causing Satan to fall from heaven or being famous on earth. It is not that Jesus was teaching that we take no pleasure in our achievements. We must be careful not to take Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples too absolutely. Rather, the “don’t do this, but rather that” construction is a Jewish way of speaking that seemingly negates something in order to stress the importance of something else.
Luke 10:20 offers a salutary lesson for wannabe “high achievers.” Jesus is saying not to seek your significance in your achievements, no matter how impressive they might be. We are worth more than our greatest accomplishments, which in the grand scheme of things are of little significance. Those who look to such things to secure their identity and boost their self-esteem will be let down in the long run. God’s esteem is of much greater value.
Jesus tells us that even if our achievements reach to “heaven … rejoice [instead] that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Our successes matter to us and to God. But finding your identity in your achievements is unwise. Having your name known to God and inscribed permanently in heaven gives our fleeting and feeble lives genuine and lasting significance and should lead to a healthy and realistic humility.