Stifling Vain Ambition

by | Apr. 30, 2009

It is so often the case that a virtue can, by a slight misuse or perversion, become a vice. So it is with ambition. We applaud those who are creative, who seek new and unusual ways to do their job more effectively. We teach our daughters to look carefully for spiritual strength, dependability, consistency, kindness, and yes, ambition in young men they date and may choose to marry. We recognize and honor those who are ambitious, who have a strong work ethic, and who know where they want to go in life. Indeed, people without ambition tend to wander, to hop from one attractive enterprise to another. They are unstable, bored, stagnant, and easily distracted. They have trouble focusing on a main idea and difficulty in moving down a planned pathway.

It is worth noting that though some of the dictionary definitions of the word ambition are positive and affirming, a surprising number are negative. For example, "an ardent (orig. inordinate) desire for distinction; . . . ostentatious; . . . display, pomp; . . . personal solicitation of honours; an aspiration to be, to do" (New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 64). We can thus gain some appreciation of why "vain ambition" is included in the sobering list of sins that prevent those who are called from being chosen. "And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men" (D&C 121:34-35, emphasis added).

Many are called, but few are chosen. President Harold B. Lee pointed out that even though we have our "agency here, there are many who were foreordained before the world was, to a greater state than they have prepared themselves for here. Even though they might have been among the noble and great, from among whom the Father declared he would make his chosen leaders, they may fail of that calling here in mortality" (Ensign, January 1974, 5). That is, they were called there but are not chosen here.

The vainly ambitious in the kingdom of God "aspire to the honors of men." Let us break this thought down. To begin with, there is nothing wrong with aspiring to greatness, aspiring to spirituality, aspiring to be the best we can be. There is surely no sin in seeking to be better, sharper, more proficient, more intelligent, more effective. In fact we really ought to work smarter in the Church and kingdom of God. And, secondly, there is nothing wrong with receiving the honors of men.

Many of our great Church leaders of the past have been acknowledged nationally and internationally for their gifts, talents, and contributions. Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was appointed United States Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration from 1952 to 1960. Elder Richard L. Evans of the Quorum of the Twelve served as president of Rotary International. President Thomas S. Monson has received some of the highest recognitions offered by the Boy Scouts of American for a life of dedication to this marvelous organization.

And the same is true for many other members of the Church. Thousands of our youth serve as school or class officers; many of our women have been recognized as Mother(s) of the Year; and large numbers of our academic, political, military, and industrial leaders have become known and sought after, around the world, for their expertise. This is how it should be: the disciples of Christ, the Saints of the Most High, are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, to make a difference because they are different, to allow their influence to be felt.

Where we get into difficulty is not in aspiring, nor is it in receiving honors. It is when we aspire to the honors of men. That is, we cross the line of gospel propriety when we seek for the honors of others.

Let’s be realistic for a moment. Each of us wants to feel needed, to feel appreciated, to be told that our meager efforts make a difference and that we are genuinely valued. In short, we all would like to be counted as persons worthy of recognition and honor. As we mature in the things of the Spirit, however, we begin to find personal satisfaction in a job well done, a good deed rendered, a church calling magnified, even if those contributions are not publicly acknowledged. Ideally, we are content to know what we have done and to know that God knows it.

While it does not appear to be a significant problem, there are some within the household of faith who aspire to Church callings and assignments. In some cases, these desires are not all bad, because the individual would simply like to know that she or he is known by our Father in Heaven, enjoys his favor, and, frankly, is worthy to be called to such an important responsibility.

On the other hand, if a man wants to be bishop in order to have people think highly of him, his motives are impure. If a woman wants to be the Relief Society president in order to be in a position of authority and prominence, her desires are out of bounds. As President J. Reuben Clark Jr. stated so eloquently, "In the service of the Lord, it is not where you serve but how. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one takes the place to which one is duly called, which place one neither seeks nor declines" (Conference Report, April 1951, 154).

The warning is not simply against ambition but against vain ambition. Something is vain when it is empty, shallow, meaningless in the eternal scheme of things. We have been called to labor. We have been selected to make choices, to set priorities, to see to it that we value some things more than others. There are men throughout the world who labor long hours in making a living. Some spend the greater part of the day adding to their pile of surplus, expanding upon the affluence they have already attained. Others build houses that more closely approximate castles, residences that almost resemble cathedrals.

Every family, to the extent that it can do so, likes to enjoy the little comforts, luxuries, and niceties that make life pleasurable, but we must, at the same time, take seriously the words of our Lord: "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). "He who dies with the most toys wins" is not really true, especially in regard to eternal matters. As Elder Lance B. Wickman taught: "This life is not so much a time for getting and accumulating as it is a time for giving and becoming" (Ensign, May 2008, 105).

It is tragic to witness how often men who would never consider being unfaithful to their wives are less than faithful in their priesthood responsibilities; those who would not think twice about whether to pursue the sexual pollutions of our day who yield instead to the persuasions of pleasurable living and spend most of their time in the lap of luxury. I say all of this to remind each of us how desperately our wives and children and friends and neighbors need our righteous influence and our service, and where exactly peace and contentment are ultimately to be found.

We ask ourselves, though, shouldn’t we seek to excel? Certainly we should do the work of the Lord excellently. We should have an excellent record of home teaching, an outward indication that we are meeting regularly with our assigned families, strengthening our bonds of friendship and nurturing them by the good work of God. Certainly we should seek to hold excellent, as opposed to shoddy, family prayers, family scripture readings, and family home evenings. Certainly we should be excellent in our attendance at church meetings, a regular, active, practicing, and involved member of the body of Christ. And so forth.

What we do not want to do, however, is to "seek to excel," that is, to do things to be considered excellent, to gain the applause of fickle observers. "A desire for such approval is not all bad, especially among Church members, who generally reserve their approval for accomplishments having positive value," observed Elder Bruce C. Hafen. "But other people are not finally our judge, and making too much of either the affirmative or the adverse judgments of others can actually undermine our relationship with God and our development of sound values" (Broken Heart, 97-99).

Our Lord and Redeemer taught a deeply profound lesson in a few words: "I receive not honour from men" (John 5:41). He did not court favor and was no respecter of persons. With all the light and knowledge and power at his disposal, he did not do things to make a good impression; he did not manage appearances, so that the Jews or the Gentiles would be wowed by his presence or his precepts. He "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38), but he did not put on airs. He served his fellow beings on earth, but he did so without fanfare. He lived a life in which he was so constantly inconvenienced, but he never boasted of it. He was who he was, and he thereby stands as our Model and our Prototype. His ambition was sublime, the grandest and most profound of all ambitions, namely, to save every living soul.

Adapted from Men of Influence, by Robert Millet. Copyright 2009, Deseret Book. Click here to buy.

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