When Integrity And Ambition Collide, Go With Integrity


I don’t know about you, but I find it disturbingly easy to relate to an anecdote that Donald Miller once told about the comedian, Tom Arnold:

“I caught an interview with Tom Arnold regarding his book How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years. The interviewer asked why he had written the book, and I was somewhat amazed at the honesty of Arnold’s answer. The comedian stated that most entertainers are in show business because they are broken people, looking for affirmation. ‘The reason I wrote this book,’ Tom Arnold said, ‘is because I wanted something out there so people would tell me they liked me. It’s the reason behind almost everything I do.'”

Speaking for myself here—simply replace “comedian” with “pastor,” and then replace “show business” with “ministry,” and you get the same person with the same issues, only in a different setting and vocational path. Genuinely good endeavors like comedy and ministry (or the arts, or business, or entrepreneurism, or parenting, or healthcare, or education, or government, or…) can easily become bent endeavors when we start depending on them to satisfy our thirst for love, esteem, applause and approval in ways that only Jesus can.

We are famous in God’s eyes through Jesus…and that is meant to be enough.

As a mostly driven, ambitious, Type-A, IFNJ and Enneagram 4w3 (aka, “a creative achiever”), I hope that my heart and my ambitions are aligned and in a healthy place most of the time. I hope that my subconscious desire to be the hero of my own story, or any kind of hero for that matter, is being kept at bay by the gracious work of the Spirit in my life. I hope that my inmost desires are becoming more and more that Jesus would increase and I would decrease—and that I would be deeply satisfied in my role as a supporting actor in his story, versus him being a supporting actor in mine (Oh, the horror!). I hope that the next time my dreams and ambitions are disrupted or brought to a halt—for they surely will be at some point, just as they have at various times in the past—I will be prepared to surrender everything to God with an open hand as Job and Jesus did, and to trust deeply the words of a wise old hymn:

Whate’er my God ordains is right:
Here shall my stand be taken;
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
Yet I am not forsaken.
My Father’s care is round me there;
He holds me that I shall not fall:
And so to him I leave it all.

What might this kind of trust look like in real time? I think it might look like my friend whom I will call Ted, an attorney who got pushed out of his firm not in spite of, but because of, his good and honest heart.

One day, Ted’s supervisor called a private meeting with him. During that meeting, the supervisor told him that if he wanted to keep his job, he would have to twist the truth concerning a particular client’s assets. “If the whole truth about the client’s assets became known by shareholders,” the supervisor reasoned, “it would be the end of the client’s business and, by extension, the end of a significant income stream coming into our firm from said client.”

Ted, from a place of loyalty to Jesus and a non-negotiable commitment to keeping his integrity, respectfully refused to follow his supervisor’s instructions. He was swiftly terminated from his job at the firm.

But then, there was more. It later became clear that Ted’s supervisor, by secretly slandering him to potential future employers, got him blackballed by virtually every other law firm in the city that was home to him and his family. This resulted in a long, two years of unemployment which had a deep and painful impact not only on Ted, but also on his loving wife and three children.

Somewhere in the middle of those two years, I caught Ted before a church service. Jokingly, I asked him if he wanted me to go out and get a jug of gasoline and some matches so he and I could go set his former place of employment on fire, starting with his former supervisor’s office.

Ted, with a witty smirk but also profoundly serious demeanor, looked me straight in the eye and uttered two words I will never forget:

“No retribution.”

This brief but powerful conversation reminded me of an important truth. What’s on the inside—whatever has always been there or, in Ted’s case, what has been cultivated through ordinary and daily practices of faithfulness—will eventually come out under pressure.

How about us? When our dreams and ambitions die, when we lose influence or reputation or a dream job, or when we experience injustice and betrayal like my friend Ted did, what will be revealed about our hearts? Will our hearts show themselves to be “right before God?” As Jesus said, “Will there be faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

Put another way, will we follow the path of ambition, even if it costs us our integrity?

Or will we follow the path of integrity, even if it costs us our ambition?

I don’t know about you, but I surely hope that when the time of testing comes for me, I too will pass.


Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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2 responses to “When Integrity And Ambition Collide, Go With Integrity”

  1. Joni Sherwood says:

    Scott, I appreciate your thoughtful essays. This one struck close to home with me reminding me of a miserable chapter I endured almost 25 years ago where, by His grace and strength, I was able to make the same decision Ted did. Strangely, we lived in Nashville at the time and I shared the same pew as the one asking me to compromise my integrity. Our pastor here in Castle Rock, Colorado calls this “the disease to please.” His main thought from his sermon two weeks ago was, “I can’t please everyone, I must live to please God.” People pleasing is a form of idolatry. It’s a spiritual problem more than a relationship problem. In order to “please” everyone, we fall into many traps including over-commitment and COMPROMISE. What we need is to develop what “Ted “ has — a deep sense of the awe of God, asking ourselves, “how did I live to please Him today?”

  2. Gail says:

    Last year during the height of the pandemic I had what I thought was a God-inspired idea that would be very helpful to people and as an entrepreneur I leapt into a new business and put 100% of my energy into it for eight months. I was imagining all the people that would appreciate my product and all the sales that I would have. I designed, prototyped, tested and completed the product, and with my husband and adult daughter together we launched a website, Tutorials, Facebook page, Instagram account, and waited for the sales to roll in. After five months and no orders I had to resist the temptation over and over to label myself as a failure. Not only battling the what if’s and should have, I was beating myself up for wasting precious time, involving the family in this attempt to be a great success. I am just now accepting that the God is molding my character and motives for His purposes, a different more important kind of success. When our circumstances cause us to deeply look within ourselves God can reveal what’s inside our hearts, a form of spring cleaning. The “integrity” test for me is to let go human pride, and be thankful, trusting that God better things in store. I am grateful to be molded as clay by the Potter while I still have an opportunity/blessing of being here to make a difference for Him while I am still on earth.

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