David Brooks just suggested in the New York Times that athletic success and humility necessarily conflict and cannot coexist in a person. He wrote his piece, “The Jeremy Lin Problem,” on New York Knicks star (I love writing that) Jeremy Lin, who led the Knicks to their eighth win in nine games yesterday against NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
Here’s what Brooks said about the conflict between “greatness” and “humility”:
Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.
For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.
And here is his closing word:
The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.
Read the whole piece. It’s very thought-provoking.
My buddy Barnabas Piper responded to Brooks last week. He said this: “Brooks smelled something that stinks. He is on to something because the tension does exist, but his conclusions miss the mark. I believe there is tension present in the world of Christian athletes. But it is not a tension unique to that situation. It is simply an expression of the tension that exists in all our hearts all the time – that of seeking to glorify myself rather than glorify God.” I think Barnabas is right.
If Brooks is correct, then humility essentially swallows ambition. There cannot ultimately be a place for what Alister Chapman has called “godly ambition” in his recent biography of John Stott (a work I commend). Stott believed that he best glorified the Lord by putting his gifts to work, not by stifling them in fear. Dave Harvey offered some similar thoughts in Rescuing Ambition.
Brooks is of course operating not from an evangelical worldview (though he is friendly to evangelicals, including Stott) but from a Jewish one. In the New Testament, Christ teaches the parable of the talents, in which he makes explicit that it is good to dream big and act boldly for kingdom purposes. In the story, a master rewards servants who “make” more talents by dint of effort and ambition. They hear “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23). There is another servant who fearfully buries his talent in order to preserve it. He reaps condemnation to himself:
“You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:26-30).
Clearly this parable is about more than just ambition; like so much of Christ’s teaching, it starts with a fairly mundane matter–how one works–and ends up setting the issues of faithfulness and diligence in a frightening eschatological context. Nonetheless, it seems clear that what one could call “godly ambition” is commended here.
As Barnabas pointed out (and Chapman notes), there is gray area in this discussion. We are sinful people, and even when we seek to please God, we can have some kind of mixed motive. I think we’re wrong to see ourselves in strict black-and-white. But this must not restrain us from working hard to promote the kingdom.
There were two moments in yesterday’s game against the Mavericks that I thought spoke pretty nicely to this discussion. At one point, Lin was on a fast break with no defenders to stop him from scoring; his teammate Landry Fields was on his wing. Many of the NBA’s leading lights would have taken the opportunity to show off, dunking the ball in spectacular fashion. I’m personally not going to say that’s wrong, though it’s not selfless, either. What did Lin do? He gave up an opportunity to make himself look good and passed the ball to Fields, who slammed it home. He made Fields, his weird-handshake buddy (read more), look good. In that instant, in my view, he showed Christian virtue, the humility Brooks suggested could not exist meaningfully in such a star.
Another play spoke to a different strength. The clock was winding down at the end of the first quarter. Lin realized as he must that he was the best playmaker on the floor. He attacked just before the buzzer sounded and hit a floater in the lane over Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks’ best player. In that moment, he showed confidence in his own abilities, but this was a confidence that served his teammates. Yes, it’s possible that there was pride in the decision to attack the basket, but I would see that play more as a way that Lin, clearly an unselfish point guard, served his teammates by using the skill given him by God.
This applies to all of life. We should practice humility and “esteem others better than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3). We should also take pains to identify the abilities God has given us and use them with great effort in service of the kingdom of Christ. Until Christ returns, yes, we will feel some tension at times over whether we’re putting ourselves forward, whether we’re acting in a given moment out of godly ambition or what James calls “selfish ambition” (James 3:16). It is right as sinful yet redeemed people that we feel this inner conflict. We must not make the mistake of thinking that our conversion naturally ennobles our every motive, every action, every word.
But in our sphere of productivity assigned us by God, we should work with alacrity and without slavish fear or worry for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). That’s true of the woman who wants to be the best mother and homemaker she can, the stockbroker who wants to make a great deal of money to bless his family and church, the church planter who believes that he is called of God to preach the gospel in a place that frankly doesn’t want it, the family that runs the best homeless shelter they can to care for the needy, and the athlete who plays, ultimately, for an audience of one.