Written by 11:22 am Ambition • 4 Comments

The Paradox of Humble Ambition

I love humility, which is why I advocate so loudly for ambition.

Not the narcissistic variety you see in sports, politics, and Hollywood, though. If you observe a man whose ego balloons into the stratosphere, pray for them. They are naked and not ashamed.

Then look down, and double check your own distance from the ground. After all, it takes one to know one.

No, that’s not the kind of ambition I’m talking about. I’m talking about godly ambition. The kind that gains velocity because it’s hedged in by humility. For a leader to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God,”[1] in William Carey-like fashion, God must be the enthralling object of our aspiration. True humility does not smother ambition in the name of modesty. Rather, true humility snuffs out love of self with the superior affection for a greater glory — specifically, God’s glory.

True Humility Guides Desire

Laziness often masquerades as meekness, but true humility guides — and even fuels — desire.

We are meant to see ourselves as “[God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). But we often get this backward in our churches. “Humility” provides cover for all kinds of sloth, ambivalence, and self-protection. If ambition is a vice, then indolence is a virtue, and the less-aspiring-one ends up more highly praised. “My, look at what a fine Christian specimen he is. He’s so modest that he reaches for nothing, aspires to nothing, and risks nothing!”

Blessed are the meek. . . . for they shall, what, sit on their hands?

Those who assume an anti-aspirational “modesty” that does not desire great things for God often use humility as a pretext. This is not the kind of humility God wants. The one who buries their talent to protect themselves from risk may find the Master condemning rather than celebrating their decision (see Matt 25:26).

Seeing Through Audacity

Another angle. Sometimes we encourage low aspirations not because we love humility but because we fear ambition. We prioritize eradicating inflated self-expectations above pastoring people toward a more glorious goal. I say, give me the young man who comes up after I preach, telling me he longs to do it better than me! I can smile and say, “You set the bar too low,” knowing God is fully competent to crush his pride. My job is to see beyond the blip of his immaturity and put a superior affection on his radar. I want to engage his longing for significance until he hears the gospel “ping!”, sets his significance aside and fixes a course for God’s greater glory.

If we will look beyond the audacity of young people, we may discover the future of the church.

Paradoxically, the same is true of their ambivalence.

Seeing Through Ambivalence

The first time I met the man who would succeed me in the church where I pastored for almost 3 decades, he was an unbeliever. Moreover, he was asleep in the front row. . . . while I was preaching. But God whacked him good with a conversion that eventually transformed his entire personality. He went from being bored by God’s Bride to wanting to “spend and be spent” in the service of her care. That church is still planting churches under his leadership. But you would never have expected it if all you saw was his ambivalence.

Both ungodly ambition and unyielding ambivalence can create a mess. One is not more — or less — righteous than the other. And God can call pastors with either flaw and forge them through his program of toil, failure, weakness, and suffering. He can light a fire under the unsuspecting un-assumers. And he knows how to install the humility-guardrails to keep dreamers moving in the right direction.

True Humility Subordinates Desires

True humility functions as guardrail (for the ambitious) and gasoline (for the ambivalent). It also acts as governor.

In God’s economy, talent possessed does not translate to talent employed. Mere presence of a gift does not warrant indiscriminate use. God longs to build a character that wisely hosts the gift. That’s why in Scripture, God sometimes takes high-impact players and “benches” them in the wilderness, or in prison, or obscurity. Or he causes them to suffer.

To God, a magnificent gift and the desire to use it is less important than achieving the right kind of glory. What makes true humility so beautiful is that it expels self-glory. If I am not motivated by God’s glory, there is no true virtue or modesty in my lack of ambition. If I am not gifted to start a business or be a leader (and for that reason I do not aspire), there is no deep humility in my non-pursuit. Sober judgement, yes. But not humility. I can tell people all day that I elected not to pitch for my college team. But it was an absence of talent, not humility, that benched me from collegiate athletics.

Restraining from Self-interest

You see, where there is an absence of gifts and desire, humility is unnecessary. Nothing is being denied or mortified in abandoning these paths. True humility, however, is seen in aspiration under restraint for a greater good or greater glory — like the governor that caps a golf cart’s speed so it can serve its proper purpose on the course.

Similarly, humility is the conscious limit of one desire for the more glorious indulgence of another. ”Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). We are not humble because we abandon self-interest but because we are not confined to it. Genuine humility subordinates self-interest to move outward toward the interests of others. The “self” shrinks so service can increase.

Straining for God’s Glory

Paul said that though Jesus “was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-7). His humility was displayed not by denying the reality of his glory but by releasing it (for a time) to achieve God’s redemptive plan.

Christ’s humility is not in the absence of ability, desire, or potential for glory; it’s in the control of it. Jesus was the only man who could ever say, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). Moreover, he explicitly sought glory from the Father — “Glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). And he even told us to seek glory ourselves — but the kind of glory that “comes from the only God,” the kind of glory that loves the Father and finds life in his Son (see John 5:39-45).

So humility is in not the denial of desire or the atrophy of ambition, but the subordination of each to the glory of God in his life-giving Son.

True Humility Directs Desires Forward

Leaders and aspirers, the times are growing darker, and we need serious leaders who desire great things for God’s glory. True humility acts as guardrails, gasoline, and governor. It also guides our gaze, directing our desires forward, in two ways. First, true humility is concerned with the true success. That is, it is concerned with successors. When we are most passionate about God’s glory, seasoned leaders will embrace ambitious youngins, looking beyond their glaring ambitions and ambivalences, because they are concerned with the future of Christ’s Bride.

But even more importantly, true humility directs our desires forward to Christ. All our ambitions are directed towards him. All our plans are in service of his kingdom, and his glory. We expect great things from, and attempt great things for, Jesus Christ, whose name is higher than any other name (Heb. 1:4). If humility is guardrail, gasoline, and governor, then Christ is the goal. We aspire to be only unworthy servants, thrilled with the privilege to simply enter into the joy of our master (Lk. 17:10; Matt. 25:23).

So embrace the humble ambition to use your gifts for God’s glory, in God’s timing, through the character and humility of Christ. Let true humility guard, shape, and guide you. Let the self-forgetting service of others direct your ambitions. And let the humble passion for God’s glory in Christ drive you forward.

[1] William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (Leicester: Ann Ireland, 1792), 8

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Last modified: February 21, 2024