In our past Tenacious Tuesday series, I noted that many Western Christians seem ambition-less and ambition-wary — and the church suffers for it. We will never rescue ambition until we understand its rightful place in the life of Christians and allow it to stand in contradiction to its corrupted twin—selfish ambition. And as we approach this new year, we need it now more than ever.
But it’s an uphill battle, because the present is not the only problem. Ambition has historically been viewed as inherently negative by Christians throughout the centuries.
Ambition in History
In his Confessions, Augustine called ambition “only a craving for honour and glory.” John Calvin termed it “the most slavish of all dispositions.” And Charles Spurgeon described man-centered ambition as “that craving for so-called ‘glory’ which makes a man court the homage of his fellow men, and which will not let him be content unless he is set up on a high pedestal for fools to stare at!”
We dare not ignore such cautions, especially when they come from such pastor-theologians as these. However, if this is the only way we think about ambition, we’re only seeing part of the picture.
Here’s the big picture: ambition is something God intends for good, but it’s easily corrupted by twisted beings such as us. When corrupted, it’s plutonium, positively glowing with depravity.
That may be why ambition took a mortal blow early in Christian history and never fully recovered. Among the church fathers, ambition was dogged by the assumption of sin. That view later spilled over into Western culture at large, which for centuries was heavily influenced by the church. Ambition became synonymous with the love of earthly position and honor. It meant vainglory, fame-hunting—radioactive stuff.
Understandably, respected voices throughout history decried it. The prevailing sentiment was summed up well by Shakespeare in Wolsey’s words to Cromwell in Henry VIII: “I charge thee, fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels.”
Nobody set out to murder ambition. But that was the effect. While many in previous generations were often driven by selfish ambition, today we face a different issue—Christians, both young and old, missing the adventure of aspiration. Transcendent vision is lost. The engine of ambition lies silent.
Unknowingly influenced by these cultural trends, the church is undergoing a slow, painless atrophy. The organ of ambition—the God-implanted drive to improve, produce, develop, create, do things—is neglected and well on its way to paralysis. For some Christians, dreams are numbed. For others, there are no dreams; life just happens.
Os Guinness says it this way:
On the one hand, we are told by a myriad of Christian speakers that we should be thinking about our legacy—the clear knowledge of our contribution after our time on earth. On the other hand, we are told by countless other Christians that ambition is always wrong; synonymous with egotism, it is selfish and quite un-Christian. Both of these positions are wrong. In fact, they are the opposite way around. For as followers of Jesus we can and should be ambitious, but we should never be concerned with our legacies. 1Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, 92
I’ve been writing over this past year to recover this ambition that Guinness says we “can and should” possess. I don’t want the past robbing us of the future. I don’t want the people I love and the people you love being conformed to the world’s way of thinking about today and tomorrow. I don’t want the mission to stall because we have misdiagnosed motivation and assumed it to be selfish.
As Christians, there’s much in the past that we love and must treasure. But we’re also called to the future. It’s a future secured by the cross and commissioned by the Savior. A future both given and grabbed, protected and pursued. It’s our future, if we dare to believe God’s promises.
That future is too important to put off until tomorrow. We must dream about it for 2024. We must dream about it today.
I believe God wants ambition back in our understanding of godliness and spiritual health. Sure, let’s not fail to evaluate our motives and strive for humility—that’s essential. But let’s not swing too far and become paralyzed by self-analysis.
God calls us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). He calls us to run it in such a way that we win the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24), to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13), to invest our talents wisely (Matthew 25:14–30), and to be a people “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He looks us straight in the eye and says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,[g] serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12: 11) Those are all God’s way to say, “Keep the pistons of ambition pumping for God!”
Let’s not just kick-start the engine for 2024. Let’s move into the future expecting that God can use us to make a difference!
Tenacious Tuesday Questions
In 2 Timothy, Paul used the metaphors of an athlete, soldier, and hard-working farmer as he encouraged Timothy to faithfully pursue the call of God. Read 2 Timothy 2:1–7. Take away ambition and how do these metaphors land? Now write out 3 ways you want to see God move in and through you over the next year.
Lord Jesus, help me to put to death the ungodly ambitions within me, and stir in me an ambition that seeks the things that you desire. And let this next year be marked by not being slothful in zeal, being fervent in spirit, and serving you.