the shape of leadership

Is Ambition a Virtue?

What Moses’ journey reveals about complacency and contentment

John Greco on December 28, 2016

It was my first day on the job, but I was less than excited. It wasn’t exactly a new job. This Monday morning marked my return to a former employer. And though I was thankful for the work, I was disappointed when my boss explained that a management position was no longer available. The only work he had for me required a significant demotion. It was humiliating.

Over the next few months, I struggled, watching coworkers I had once supervised enjoying senior leadership roles in the company while I was back in an entry-level position. All at once, I felt guilty for wanting more — after all, God had provided a job in a tough economy.

I imagine those first few weeks and months as a shepherd among the Midianites were difficult for Moses. He had grown up in Pharaoh’s household and received an education that was arguably the finest at that time. His position, prestige and personal connections should have opened up every possible door of opportunity.

Yet, at age 40, Moses was chasing sheep in the hot sun.

But over the years, Moses learned about more than sheep. He discovered the peace that comes with a life of stability. Part complacency, part contentment, Moses seems settled in his routine when he encounters the God of his ancestors in a burning bush. Though he is given a commission that exceeds anything Pharaoh himself could offer, Moses resists. He has come to terms with his life as a humble shepherd. He is not looking for any kind of advancement — certainly not to be the deliverer of God’s people.

Contrast this attitude to the one we find in Moses during his early years. Back then, he was ready to be the hero:

“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand,” (Exodus 2:11,12).

The younger Moses had ambition. He had no problem seeing himself as the deliverer of the Hebrews. When he saw trouble, he sprang into action, without regard to the consequences. And it cost him everything.

In our world, it seems ambition has won out over contentment. We value those who rise to the top, who find career success and the power, position and prosperity that come with such achievement. Even in the Church, we often struggle with James’ admonition to refrain from showing favoritism (James 2:1). We often admire and give special honor to wealthy or famous Christians.

Intimacy with God is worth more than any good thing we can find in this world. 

In our better moments, we choose thankfulness, remembering Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 6:6 that “godliness with contentment is great gain.” We see the reflection of Christ in those who resist the temptation to get ahead by any means possible. And we discover that there is beauty in the simple life, and there is shalom when strivings cease.

Looking at Moses’ story, we can draw some powerful conclusions about the dangers of blind ambition and the virtues of contentment. Moses pays a dear price for his pride when he must flee the only home he’s known. But in Midian, living with Jethro and his family, Moses finds a certain level of tranquility in simplicity and routine. This period of Moses’ life helps prepare him for hearing God’s voice.

However, humility should never close the door to the big things God wants to do. At the burning bush, Moses repeatedly suggested that God had picked the wrong man to be the leader of His people. Clearly, Moses still had some growing to do.

As a young man in Egypt, he had taken matters into his own hands — and they became stained with blood. And here at the burning bush in Midian, his rough shepherding hands were also unyielding, even if now they were stained with sweat and soil. But now, it seems God is taking Moses deeper, to a place where success goes beyond achievement and happiness means more than satisfaction with the simple joys of life. In effect, God is asking Moses to let go — to open his hands in submission to Him.

This paradigm shift is evident later in the Exodus story, when Moses is back at the same mountain — Mount Sinai — this time with the nation of Israel. The people forge a golden calf to worship, kindling God’s wrath. He tells Moses He will destroy the nation and build a new one through him. Moses intercedes, and God relents. And it is apparent that something has changed in Moses.

The Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:1-3; emphasis added).

Did you catch that? God will no longer accompany them to the Promised Land. He plans to send an angel to guide them instead. This gesture is an act of love. Since holiness can have no part with sin, there is a very real danger that God will consume the people along the way.

Moses’ response to God is striking, however: “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (verse 15).

God had just promised Moses success, but Moses is no longer satisfied with mere victory. He has learned that, apart from God, ambition is meaningless, no matter how fruitful it may be. At the same time, without the Lord, there can be no true contentment, and Moses is willing to forego security for the joy of walking with God — something he was hesitant to do at the burning bush.  

Looking back on my demotion, I can see God’s hand at work. Fewer responsibilities gave me more time to pursue Bible study, and I attended seminary classes that wouldn’t have fit into my schedule in a management position. At the time, I failed to recognize the incredible opportunity God provided because all I could see was the loss of position. But as a follower of Christ, position is never really the point.

Intimacy with God is worth more than any good thing we can find in this world. Once we come to know the Lord, there’s nothing left to strive for apart from Him — and we’ll never be content settling for anything less.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 print version of Vital magazine and has been used with permission. 

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