You never forget an intervention from your best friends. I was 21, in my final year at University, and feeling pretty pleased with myself. For the previous year, I had worked my way up the slippery ladder of the student newspaper, and was now sitting at the top of what was admittedly a very small and under-nourished tree. My face was printed on 12,000 copies of what – when I read them back now – were gut-wrenchingly awful weekly editorial columns. People would vaguely recognise me in the student union bars. My relentless pursuit of the editor’s job over that last 12 months had paid off… but then, thank goodness for my friends.
Two of them sat me down in a pub in the city centre, and took it in turns to give me both barrels. You’ve become a horrible person, they said, in a slightly different form of words which I won’t republish here. You’re self-obsessed, you don’t care about anyone else anymore; you’re only interested in the paper. They explained, with uncomfortable examples, how I’d relentlessly prioritised the student rag over them; how it seemed that it was all that mattered to me. Becoming a columnist, then a section editor, then finally the top job. Everything had been about that for far too long, and now I’d changed. I would walk around the town, with a smug fixed grin on my face, waving to people who had no idea who I was like a guy who’s been hypnotised into thinking he’s the Queen. I had changed, and much for the worse.
Thankfully, the wounds of a friend are faithful. I knew in an instant they were right, and as the scales fell from my eyes, I also became immediately aware of what had gone wrong. I had allowed my ambition to outpace my character. I had been ferociously pursuing a goal, without giving any thought to the consequences of doing so.
Ambition can be a bit of an awkward word in Christian circles. We all instinctively gather that it’s probably not a virtue, but it’s present in most of us to a lesser or greater degree. For some of us, our ambitions stretch to experiencing a good life, with a family, a nice house and a decent holiday every year. For others, it’s much more pronounced: we want to reach the highest rung of employment that we possibly can, or see our business grow enormously. This is true outside the context of church, but also within it: some church leaders become obsessed with size and growth, and with the expansion of their own public profile. Largely speaking though, many Christians are in denial about all of this.