Is ambition a sin?

'Woman working on an airplane motor at North American Aviation, Inc., plant in Calif. (LOC)' photo (c) 1939, The Library of Congress - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

It started with a list. 

Last week, Kent Shaffer at Church Relevance released his list of Top 200 Church Blogs, igniting multiple conversations across the faith-based blogosphere about why 93 percent of the bloggers listed were white men, and why prominent, high-traffic bloggers like Ann Voskamp and Jen Hatmaker somehow didn’t make the cut. 

I was happy to see fellow bloggers raise some good questions: Was this list simply a manifestation of inequities inherent to American church culture, or did it fail to reflect the very real influence women and minorities have, both online and in the everyday life of the church? Was it strictly scientific, or were the creators influenced by their own biases regarding what church leadership should look like? 

I weighed in a few times myself, thinking that, as one of just three women who made it to the Top 100, no one could accuse me of sour grapes. I even offered some tips regarding search engine optimization, design, posting schedule, and so on, hoping they might help some women whose content is great, but whose blogs might be blipping just under the radar. If we don’t like the list, I reasoned, let’s work to change it! 

After a few Twitter conversations, however, I was disappointed to see how many hardworking and talented bloggers, particularly women bloggers, were quick to resign themselves to not being included, or even considered, for such a list.  “Oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway,” many of them said. “We write for an audience of One. It’s wrong to ask for anything more.”  

While I certainly agree that as Christians we ultimately work to please and glorify God, I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. (This may be because I am apparently a textbook example of Enneagram Type 1. I have to judge and reform and nitpick and stuff. Sorry. Richard Rohr says I can’t help it.) 

Anyway, the plot thickened when, in response to some of the criticism his list was receiving, Shaffer responded with “An Open Letter to Christian Women Blogs.” On Twitter, he included me in a list of women for whom he said he wrote it. 

I think he meant well, but little good ever comes from an “open letter,” especially one that responds to reasonable critiques from women with a reminder that “it must be hard being a woman” since “women are wired to be more emotional than men.” Emotions, according to Shaffer, “are an incredible strength that society usually touts as a weakness. Yet well-harnessed emotions are what nurtures humanity to be more civilized. At the same time, emotions can sometimes be an Achille’s heel [sic] for the feeler causing self-doubt, depression, or unnecessary frustration at what sometimes are mere assumptions.”

[I get this reaction to my work a lot. It’s like every time I issue what I think is a thoughtfully-worded critique of the complementarian tendency to impose of modern, Western familial constructs onto Peter and Paul’s Greco-Roman household codes in the New Testament, I get called “shrill” and asked if I’m on my period. Dianna Anderson has offered a fuller examination of “gaslighting” here; it’s worth a read.]

But what really struck me about Shaffer’s letter was the conclusion, in which he reminded Christian women to keep their ambitions in check:  

“…Your worth is not in man-made metrics. The most valuable things in God’s Kingdom often defy these and confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Focus on your identity in Christ. Focus on obedience to God’s leading because an obedient blog that reaches 3 people is far better than a million follower blog that is out of God’s will….I feel frustrated at hints of jealousy I hear from bloggers that didn’t make the list. This is collateral damage from the list. It can be difficult, but I encourage you to celebrate the success that your brothers and sisters in Christ are having in writing about ministry. Please fight hard against bitter jealousy because it is divisive and demonic (James 3:13-18)..I feel angry at the thought of a blogger’s ego and self-centeredness growing because of the list…Don’t arrogantly boast or pridefully assume tomorrow lest God resists you (James 4:1-16 & Proverbs 16:18-19). Please fight hard against selfish ambition because it is divisive and demonic (James 3:13-18)... If God gives you a burden to blog, blog. If God tells you not to blog, don’t blog. If you enjoy blogging for the sake of blogging, blog. If blogging is an unstoppable stumbling block of pride, jealously, and/or selfish ambition for you, don’t blog.”

While I didn’t disagree with the general sentiments—of course jealously and selfishness are wrong! of course we should find our identity in Christ!—something about that little lecture at the end of Shaffer’s letter bothered me profoundly. 

Suddenly, it all clicked. 

Christians, particularly Christian women, have been trained to identify ambition as a sin. 

Perhaps Shaffer did not intend to communicate this, but his letter makes it sounds as though a woman who wants to see her blog grow and thrive is simply being selfish. A woman who wonders why her blog was not considered for the list when her numbers are comparable to blogs at the top must be operating out of bitterness and jealousy. A woman who, like me, is motivated by a little competition and who likes to keep an eye on her stats and sales numbers must be prideful, arrogant, and selfish. 

(I must say, all of these warnings against boasting sound a little disingenuous coming from the guy who, at the end of his list, included an embed code for a “Top 200 Church Blogs” badge so listed bloggers can announce it on their sites.) 

But the very fact that this list exists, and that bloggers are writing about it, reveals something about the strange relationship Christians have with ambition…particularly when it comes to ministry and art. 

Is it wrong to promote your work when you write or sing or speak about faith? Is it wrong to make goals and decisions based on numbers? Is it wrong to be discouraged when you don’t get the results you wanted, or frustrated when you feel like your accomplishments go unrecognized because of your gender? Is it wrong to want to succeed? 

I am speaking generally, of course, but I think Christian women wrestle with these questions most of all, perhaps because in a religious culture that often puts forth narrow and contested definitions of womanhood, young women whose interests and personalities might lead them away from the list of acceptable rules and roles are subtly punished for not exhibiting a more “gentle and quiet spirit,” for not reigning in some of that ambition and drive. (Also, several studies suggest that personality traits that are often admired in men—like ambition and drive—are perceived as negatives when applied to women.)  

When I’m discussing writing and blogging, Christian women are by far the hardest to convince that they may want to think about promotion and branding. I receive far more requests for help with promotion (book endorsements, reviews, etc.) from men than women, and I routinely encounter women who are absolutely convinced that any sort of self-promotion or metrics-based goal-setting is categorically wrong. One woman recently balked at me for including my own book in a list of upcoming fall releases I wanted my readers to know about. (Why wouldn’t I? I worked hard on that thing and I wrote it specifically for my readers!

I’m still working all this out in my head, but as a woman who has grown to accept her ambitious spirit rather than resist it (perhaps because of my upbringing, perhaps because of Dan’s influence and support, perhaps because of that whole Enneagram Type 1 thing), I offer just a few observations that I hope we can discuss further in the comment section: 

1. As Christians, we are not called to succeed or to fail, but rather to keep success and failure in perspective.  

On the one hand, you will hear some Christians say that it is imperative that followers of Jesus succeed—that they prosper, that they make the best art, that they impress the world with their accomplishments for the sake of the kingdom, that they name it and claim it.  On the other hand, you will hear some Christians say that it is imperative that followers of Jesus fail—that they sacrifice all for the sake of “ministry,” that they think nothing of their own desires or talents, that they avoiding looking to any “earthly” metrics of success. 

But the reality is, for most of us, both success and failure are a part of life. And it is for life that Jesus has equipped us.  So he has prepared us to see success for what it is—sometimes the result of faithfulness and hard work, sometimes not, sometimes used rightly to glorify God and care for his creation, sometimes used wrongly to glorify ourselves, never an entitlement, often a stumbling block, and always fleeting. It is a tool we can use wisely or foolishly. The same goes for “failure.” As Christians who worship a crucified and risen Lord, we, of all people should know that failure too can be gift, a refining fire, a creative catalyst, a way to focus on what really matters and to identify with Jesus. God causes rain to fall on both the evil and the good, and so we are all bound succeed and fail at some point in our lives.  We need not apologize for either. 

2. Most of us don’t work, or write, for an audience of One.  And that’s okay! 

Yes, it is true that we are ultimately called to glorify God with our work, regardless of whether other people notice or care. But it is also true that we were created to be in community with one another, to express ourselves to one another, to listen and learn from one another.  As creatives, we often feel compelled to share our work with other people, and that’s okay! There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to do good work, to share it, and to be recognized for it. This is true for artists, for ministers, for bricklayers, for parents, for caretakers, and for bloggers. 

3. Entitlement is wrong; speaking against inequity is not. 

Sometimes I get left off of lists. Sometimes I don’t get invited to conferences. And sometimes I get all entitled and whiny about it. When I do, I take a deep breath and remind myself that life is a gift, that I am not as important as I think, and that, in the words of Mark Twain, “the world doesn’t owe me anything; it was here first.” 

But I’m familiar enough with my own sense of entitlement to know the difference between it and the desire to see a more equitable and just world. Women should not be shamed for raising a few questions about an all-male speaker lineup at a conference or a list of top bloggers that is 93 percent white male.  These are reasonable, worthy concerns that we should be able to articulate with civility and boldness without fear of being judged as entitled, emotional, or selfish.  I believe with all of my heart that the world, and the Church, benefit from diversity, and there is nothing wrong or selfish about advocating for that. 

4. Let’s be honest. 

One way that religious folks avoid uncomfortable conversations about ambition is they cloak them with religious language. I was once told by a writer that she didn’t need a publicist because God was her publicist and prayer was her marketing plan.  (Let’s just hope God wasn’t also her editor!) While it is vital that Christians hold one another accountable for working for the glory of God, we should be careful of using God’s name carelessly or in vain in order to cover for our reluctance to promote our work…. especially when using such language discounts the very real and very hard work of the editors, publicists, marketing reps, sales reps, publishers, agents, and editors that make publishing (or whatever your field) possible. I’ve found that my readers are much more receptive to honest and straightforward explanations of where I am in the publishing/blogging process (sins, doubts, joys, hopes, and all!) than platitudes about how I’m too spiritual to consult my marketing team or celebrate a big accomplishment. 

5. It’s okay to work for success as long as you don’t root your identity in it. 

Want to be happy? Find your identity in something other than money, success, blog stats, and power. 

Want to increase your blog traffic because you like what you do and want to get better at it?  Watch what other successful bloggers do. Learn how to improve your search engine optimization. Write consistently.  Keep a predictable posting schedule. Stay engaged with your readers.  Be yourself. Be honest. Link to other blogs and contribute guest posts. Update the look of your blog. Avoid flowers and butterflies if you want to attract both male and female readers. Utilize social media. Admit when you make mistakes. Practice. Get better at titling. If it motivates you, be a little competitive and check on those other bloggers’ numbers now and then. Check your stats regularly, but no every day. Do more “list” posts. Do more “how to” posts. Do not write posts as long as Rachel Held Evans’; she needs an intervention.  Submit your blog for consideration for The Top 200 Church Blogs. Write the sort of posts that people want to share. And for the love, please don’t play music automatically!

It's okay to care when you struggle to grow your readership, and it's okay to care when you start to see results. If you don't care about connecting with your readers, you're not doing it right.

Christians are not called to be immune to the emotions that correspond with success, failure, and the expansive in-between. We are called to live fully, abundantly, and honestly in this world...where joy and frustration and ambition and disappointment are all part of what it means to be alive. 

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So what do you think? Do Christians have an uncomfortable, and perhaps unhealthy, relationship with ambition? Are women in particular discouraged from exhibiting drive and ambition in the church? Do you ever struggle with issues related to promotion and marketing? Discuss! 

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