A few years ago I wrote the book Rescuing Ambition and called for a rescue. I wanted to snatch ambition from the heap of failed motivations and put it to work for the glory of God. I wanted Christians to realize that to understand our ambition, we must understand that we are on a quest for glory. And where we find glory determines the success of our quest. Since I wrote that book, many suggested that I address God’s design for ambition in the workplace and in one’s daily calling. What follows is just that, part one of a multi-part series on rescuing ambition in the workplace.
“If you could tell Christians in the business world one thing, what would it be?”
I posed the question to a friend, a successful CEO of several companies over many years in the marketplace. In four decades of leadership, he’d seen Christians of every size, shape, and tradition in the workplace. And to put it bluntly, he wasn’t impressed.
Meeting my gaze he said, “I’d tell them it’s OK for Christians to compete in the marketplace.” He went on to explain that there’s a way Christians understand godliness that seems to gut their motivation to perform.
Christians had become so modest they aspired to little. Humility was suffocating ambition. And in their minds it was good, because ambition is bad.
My CEO friend was hitting on something important. The idea of ambition—of pursuing glory, of cherishing grand dreams and working hard to achieve them—rests awkwardly on Christians in the marketplace. Maybe that’s because in the cultural conversation, ambition often gets a bad rap. Ambition begets suspicion. It conceals those shady places in the soul where aggression, pride, and cold, calculating competition fester. Ambition is insatiably hungry for money, power, and prestige. Always craving, never satisfied. Or so it seems.
We all know “that guy.” In fact, we pray we don’t become “that guy.” You know, the hard-driving boss, the win-at-all-costs teammate, the supposed friend who uses people to climb the social ladder. Shakespeare summed it up well: “I charge thee, fling away ambition: By that sin, fell the angels.”
Good-bye ambition, hello happiness! Right?
I’m not so sure.
But I think my friend is right. When it comes to Christians in the workplace, ambition needs to be rescued.
Rescued from What?
Rescued from Selfishness
In its holiest form, ambition is simply the desire to use our gifts for God’s glory. There is an inherent drive within us to create and produce in a way that reflects the Creator himself. In Genesis 1–2, we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply—to fill the earth, to subdue the earth, to have dominion over the earth. Prior to sin’s arrival, Adam is acting in harmony with the way he was created: laboring in the garden, initiating fruitful work, applying himself in creation before the presence of God. Ambition was originally noble because it expressed an instinct to produce for the glory of God.
If you want to find the biblical formula for ambition in business, you can start with the creation mandate – drive to work hard, capacity to innovate, vision to build – its all there in the hardwiring of creation. People created in the image of God should be about the world of business. So where’s the problem?
But ambition was corrupted in the Fall. Adam’s heart was polluted; it became infected with a pervasive desire to be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). The glory of God was displaced by the pursuit of personal glory. Ambition curved inward and became selfish. And that’s what was passed down to us. Our natural ambition is no longer to glorify God or reflect God. We want to replace God and enthrone self.
What could be more foolish than attempting to depose God? Imagine if I ran a business totally dependent on government contracts. And one day I decide to stick it to the Man. All those government specs – shred ‘em. The Man wants 10,000 units in gray and white? We’re gonna give him fifty thousand in day-glo yellow. We recruit for our marketing team from Al Quaeda. What do you think is going to happen to my business prospects? You guessed it, the company tanks and yours truly in the federal pen. That’s the Fall of man in all its stupidity. That’s the corruption of ambition.
When ambition seeks its own fulfillment, whether in business or life, it ceases to produce what it was intended to produce. It becomes, in the language of the book of James, “selfish ambition,” producing “disorder and every evil practice.” But in the gospel there is not only rescue of ourselves, there is rescue of our ambitions. We rediscover the joy of living for the glory of God and the good of others. Our work and innovation and vision are invested toward profit in this world, and the world beyond.
Dave’s a guy in our church who owns a successful construction company. He built the company from the ground up, increasing the revenue every year. He’s built homes, remodeled businesses, and employed a growing number of people. Families are being supported because of jobs this company provides. Clients now have homes to live in, lawn care services now get new business, and of course, plenty of taxes are now paid … all because Dave’s company exists.
But business success—as God-glorifying as that can be—isn’t what defines Dave. What defines Dave is his heart for the gospel and how he applies his ambitions for God. For the past several years, Dave has traveled to Uganda with Covenant Mercies (a gospel-centered mercy ministry based in our church) to build homes and schools for orphans in Nagongera, Uganda. In addition, he’s released various employees for two-week stints to complete the same projects. Dave’s twin ambitions are to glorify God in his business and to see God’s mercy expressed through God’s people—and he’s using his gifts to make both happen.
That’s godly ambition.
Rescued from Misplaced Humility
This one’s going to sound crazy, but I’m totally serious. Ready? Ambition must be rescued from a wrong understanding and application of humility. I know this might seem positively unspiritual at first glance, but I think misplaced humility undercuts business ambition for some Christians before they even get out of the starting gate. Let me give you my take on it.
In Philippians 2, Christ’s humility is displayed in his action. “He made himself nothing.” “He took the form of a servant.” “He humbled himself by becoming obedient.” We’re commanded to “have this mind among yourselves”—and that means we’re to follow an example of action, intention, and initiative (v. 5). Christ’s humility did not restrain his enterprise; it defined it.
Humility should not be a fabric softener on our aspirations—smoothing, softening, and tempering our dreams to the point where we’re just too darn modest to reach for anything. I came across an amazing insight from G.K. Chesterton that speaks right to this issue. He saw it in his day and called it “humility in the wrong place.” Chesterton appealed for a return to the “old humility,” saying,
The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working all together.
When we become too humble to aspire, we’ve ceased being humble.
Humility should never be an excuse for inactivity. It should harness— but never hinder—zealous, godly ambitions. Humility provides the guardrails for our aspirations, ensuring they remain on God’s road, moving in the direction of his glory. Talking about our dreams of how we want to spend our lives for God isn’t proud; it’s essential.
John Stott has it right:
Ambitions for self may be quite modest…Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world? No. Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honour, and accorded his true place, which is the supreme place. We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere.
Are you getting the picture? The stoking of godly ambition is far from inconsequential. Without it, exploration dies, research stops, , industry stalls, causes fail, civilizations crumble, the gospel stands still. For anyone building a business godly ambition is the driver that keeps us going when the contract doesn’t come through, when our best producer joins a competitor or when we realize that success is keeping things afloat in a turbulent economy. We can’t cash in ambition in the name of humility. If our ambitions are worthy of God’s glory, they can never be modest. The servant who is faithful with little is faithful precisely because he has an eye on the much.
We must rescue ambition from the chilling effects of misplaced humility. To encourage such passivity is to stunt ambition’s growth. Let us rescue ambition and restore it to the watchful care of true humility. There it will grow in grace and innovate new ways to glorify God.
 Shakespeare, King Henry VIII, Act 3, Scene 2.
 John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 172–173.