I’m suspicious that one reason older generations of Christians tended to be skeptical toward ambition—even calling it a sin on occasion—is that they were able to see something more clearly than we moderns can. Life in the 21st century West is by definition fast, mobile, and wandering. If you want to do something else, you can. If you want to be something else, you can. For most people alive right now there’s never been another reality except this one. Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous illustration, we don’t really see this, we simply live within it.
Older saints, on the other hand, were more likely to see freedom and upward mobility as a singular thing, something that stood out when someone you knew claimed it surrounded by family and friends and community that were more or less resigned to their lot in life. For moderns ambition is ambient, but for them it was a condition with a definable list of attributes and consequences.
My point is this: When you’re removed from something in this way, removed enough to recognize it as something other and not just swim in it, you probably have a better angle of vision on it than others. And I think one thing that these older Christians saw within ambition was a rule of diminishing return with spiritual side effects. It’s what I’m learning right now in my own life and thinking:
There’s always something else.
The problem with most species of ambition is not that they seek good change or more success or greater mastery. The problem is that most species of ambition are self-referential. Ambitious people don’t generally say they want to make a million dollars or start 3 companies or earn 2 doctorates. They don’t put numbers to their ambition. They simply say, “I’m ambitious,” by which they mean, “I’m always moving.” The constancy and restlessness shift from the means to the end. Spiritually speaking, continual dissatisfaction—a resilient inability to say, “Ok, I’m good now”—has almost always been flagged as dangerous.
But it’s not just material ambition. What about spiritual ambition? Recently in my reading I came across this sentence from a theologian and it stopped me in my tracks: “There are no extraordinary means of grace in the Christian life.” I lingered over that line for a while as it delivered a broadside to most of my Christian walk. How many years have I spent as a believer earnestly, diligently, even tirelessly, seeking an extraordinary means by which I would finally feel the intimacy with Christ I desire and the temptations that beset me just fall off like sawdust? The matter-of-factness of that sentence pummeled me. That one book, that one sermon, that one conference or that one conversation I’m looking for to put all the jagged parts of my spiritual life into an incandescent whole…it does not exist. There’s always something else to do, but there are no extraordinary means of grace.
Extraordinary means are what most people want: in their spiritual lives, in their careers, and even in politics. Most political discourse, at least in the US, can be reduced to the following formula:
My unique solution + my unique implementation – the obnoxious, interchangeable input of others = the outcome you want.
This is one reason why politicians always contrast, and almost never compare, the current moment with history. You never hear things like, “This is exactly the kind of problem we were facing in 1930, and here’s what we learned then.” What you hear is some variation of, “We are at a utterly unique moment in our history and this is the most important election of our lifetime.” Nobody even cares that most adults can remember when the same politicians said the same words about the election four years ago. We just expect potential leaders to say this, possibly because we want it to be true.
Extraordinary means are sold everywhere. I love how Scott Alexander summarizes therapy lit:
All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root.
What we want are extraordinary fixes to ordinary problems. In this desire we miss the reality that there’s always something else to fix, there’s always something else to do, and there’s always something we’ll miss. Looking for extraordinary means is a roadmap to variously intense levels of personal frustration.
Ordinary means of grace are sufficient because our problems are ordinary. This is one of the things that becomes gloriously clear when you read books older than your parents, or heck, even when you just talk to your parents. The market of extraordinary means thrives in direct proportion to how little we are aware of the past, of the lives of others, or even the nature of objective reality. When you become hermetically sealed in the present, ordinary becomes a synonym for “ineffective.” The gnawing craving for a spectacular new solution becomes like water to a fish: all we know.
Consider the case of someone trying to break a pornography habit. I know from experience that the temptation here to look for an extraordinary means of grace—the one book, the one article—is overwhelming. This is why I’m almost to the point where I wish evangelicals would write a little bit less about porn. It’s become the topic du jure for Christian living content pieces (particularly those trying to get the attention of male readers), but I wonder if the sheer amount of words about overcoming pornography actually betray the most reliable sources of grace–namely, the church, the Word, and the ordinances. None of these things automatically destroy a guy’s porn habit. But what if God knows that, and still intends them to be the primary conduits of transformation? What if God values the kind of change that these ordinary means offer more than he values the speed which books and sermons implicitly offer?
Consider someone who is unsure about their future or calling. She’s stuck in what sure looks like a dead-end job, or a fruitless ministry, or an exhausting care-taking role. There’s a good chance she’ll attend the Christian conference looking for that one plenary message that will illuminate and inspire and create lasting satisfaction and contentment. What if the plenary messages all took the opportunity to say, “Actually, what you’re going through is normal, God is doing something good through it, and he’s given you a community of believers, his word, the ministry of prayer, and the Lord’s Supper to sustain you in this season?” That’s not going to sell many books. But it’s true.
I’ve been both of these people at different times of my life. I’m finally coming to the realization that there’s always something else; an extraordinary means will just run out of gas and leave two more issues for every one it seemed to fix. This is why ordinary means are so much better. They’re not for sale and they don’t expire. The URL won’t break and the guru won’t commit a moral failing. They’re wonderfully, gloriously, there, have been there, and will be there. Just like our troubles, and just like his grace.