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.
Rescued from the Paralysis of Lost Dreams
The Harvard Business Review called it “middlescence.” It’s the growing phenomenon among middle-aged workers to be “burned out, bottlenecked and bored.” But it’s more than that. It’s men and women realizing they’ll never achieve certain dreams. The manager beginning to realize he’ll never be an executive, the technician who feels her sacrifices for work were fruitless, the artist confronting the limitations of his gifting, the worker bored stiff while confronting the probability that this is all there is. “Like adolescence,” the Review sums it up, “middlescence can be a time of frustration, confusion and alienation.”
Middlescense can settle into our vocation like a fog, clouding our vision and obscuring our goals. “We don’t realize how influential our dreams are until mid-life,” Paul Tripp says. “All of a sudden, we feel cheated, conned, and stuck. What satisfied us before doesn’t do it anymore.”
It’s more than just dissatisfaction. It’s the death of cherished ambitions. Middlescence is where dreams go to die
But have you ever considered that sometimes God’s agenda for our good involves the burial of our dreams?
It’s a fact of life that ambitions get denied. In many cases, some of our long-term dreams are just that—dreams. I grew up dreaming I’d be a professional ballplayer. Football, baseball, it didn’t matter. In fact, maybe both—why not? As you can probably tell, reality rarely checked in with me back then. But there was one unannounced arrival I will never forget. I was pitching for my high school baseball team against a city rival. As I recall, and I say this with all humility, I was awesome. I don’t think the stats supported my assumption, but when you’re awesome, stats never matter.
At a crucial moment the best player on the other team stepped into the batter’s box—a kid named Dan Marino. You might remember him as a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback. Well, to me he was just another potential notch on my belt of glory.
When you’re a pitcher, you never want to hear THWACK. This particular sound is a cue for the pitcher to whip around and watch the baseball sail off into the sunset. Dan Marino hit that ball so far it set off alarms at NASA Mission Control in Houston. All I remember is that the center fielder was still chasing the ball when Dan Marino crossed home plate. That ball may still be orbiting the earth.
Here’s the interesting part. For Dan Marino that was just another step in a secondary sport over an anonymous opponent on the way to another dream. For me it was the high-water mark of my sports career. But dreams die hard when you’re awesome in your own mind, and mine didn’t give up the ghost easily. Over time, though, they began to deflate as I recognized that skill and gifting are required for higher levels of sports…and I didn’t have them! Awesome died in the arms of reality.
No one gets all he ever wanted or accomplishes all she set out to do. Our ambitions are strained through the limits of opportunity, time, resources, or our own physical capabilities. There will always be Bill Gates and Warren Buffets and John D. Rockefellers in the world. But not many. And even they can’t do everything they’d like to do. In other words, God’s sovereignty fixes certain limits to our lives.
Here’s something I’ve noticed in pastoring people. When we run up against those limits—when our ambitions crash and burn and we’re surrounded by the wreckage of our dreams—God’s sovereignty is often the first thing to go on our internal witness stand. It’s not that we change our theology. It’s that our theology isn’t connected to our unfulfilled desires. We lose sight of God’s omniscience and omnipotence. We fail to connect our circumstances with God’s goodness.
This is where the power of that great memory verse, Romans 8:28, kicks in. Don’t leave these words on a refrigerator magnet; let them sink into your soul: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
It can be one of the hardest things we ever learn, but denied ambitions can be part of God’s sovereign plan to direct our lives toward his appointed ends. God uses our lost dreams to achieve his ambition for us. What’s that ambition? He outlines it in the next verse: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (v. 29).
Lost dreams are not simply God’s nightstick to whack us into submission. They’re experiences in which we can discover God’s love, his irresistible grace, and the true potency of the gospel. Through our disappointment, God remakes us in the image of Jesus Christ. He refines our ambitions, weans us from selfishness, and teaches us to cherish dreams for his glory. He denies something in us so that we might delight in all of him.
Making the connection between our circumstances and God’s goodness can be the difference between delight and disillusionment. This will transform the way you think about that promotion you didn’t get, the job interview that tanked, or the sales commission of the year that somehow evaporated. The denial of ambitions isn’t ultimately a penalty or punishment. It’s the gracious work of a loving God defining the path for our walk. He installs fences along the way to keep us moving in his direction. When God is fencing in our ambition, it can sure seem to constrain our freedom. But fences don’t simply contain; they protect. A good fence keeps us on the right path and prevents us from chasing a good thing right over the edge of a cliff.
Remember, God’s agenda for our ambition begins not with what we do, but with who we become. That lost dream might be the doorway to stronger character, , deeper trust in God, and new experiences of his provision. It might even be the first step on the path to an avenue of God-glorifying service you haven’t yet dreamed of. God’s not beyond denying certain ambitions to achieve a greater good in us and through us.
What happens when selfishness, false humility, or disillusionment stifle ambition? What’s the result when “I don’t want to be that hard-driving, win-at-all-costs jerk” morphs into “I don’t have any dreams at all”?
The nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville described it well, long before “middlescence” became a buzzword:
What worries me most is the danger that amid all the constant, trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time base with the result that progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.
Tocqueville’s observation should worry all of us. There is an unintended consequence when we stigmatize ambition. It shrinks. Men don’t aspire. Women don’t dream. Kids don’t want to be astronauts; they’re content to watch them on TV. Dreams give way to concerns about safety and the protection of our way of life. Our inner pioneer retires, content to putter around rather than produce. We memorialize the past and abandon the future. Life impact gets buried under life management. Becoming settles for simply being. Ambition, as Tocqueville observed, loses its force and its greatness.
And being a Christian doesn’t mean this is what your day at work should look like.
Imagine two workers, both Christians. One sees his job as a hindrance to his desire for impact—a life that counts. Work is what you have to do to make a living. Daily grind stuff. In his mind, your vocation is how you pass the time waiting for God to put you into the real game.
The other Christian goes to work each day knowing that he is representing the King of Kings—his true Master. He’s an ambassador in a cubicle. Every work relationship has eternal significance. Every project is an opportunity to reflect the Creator himself. This guy wants to excel because that will increase his influence for the gospel. Work matters because it’s the field God has entrusted to him. It’s a place to sow ambition, and I mean the good kind.
What’s it all mean? Here’s the big point: God is looking for a holy ambition. Not the self-centered kind of ambition that evaluates success only by ascent. No! I’m talking about the white-hot, courageous, fiercely humble and humbly fierce ambition that burns to see Christ’s name exalted and God’s purposes advanced. I wrote Rescuing Ambition as an impassioned plea to ignite this kind of ambition.
Paul had it. He said, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Rom. 15:19–20).
Paul’s ambition had accomplished something amazing: “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s quite a goal to check off the to-do list! To be able to die saying that should satisfy any Christian. But Paul was not satisfied. He was grateful for present fruit but ambitious for future opportunity. Unlike a corporate executive who is always busy but never finished, Paul’s godly ambitions allowed him to perceive that his work in one place was done. They also led him to consider new places he could go to glorify God’s name through the gospel. Content in the present but hungry for the future—that was Paul, the apostle of ambition.
Are we called to be ambitious? Most definitely. But the aim of our ambition is gospel clarity for the workplace, fruitful work for the good of others, godly character for a strong work ethic, for integrity, for strong and clear leadership. We’re not looking to stroke our own ego or fulfill our own dreams. No, we’re looking to make a statement about the gospel and to testify to the powerful work of grace within us to help us walk a different road. Christians belong in the marketplace because the gospel belongs in the marketplace.
The Call to Compete
My CEO friend perceived a real need among Christians—the need for Paul’s motivation in today’s marketplace. An aspiration to exploit our gifts for their full God-glorifying potential, an ambition that lives grateful for past success while stretching and straining forward to what lies ahead.
Why should the business world be left to the selfishly ambitious? My desire is to see godly Christians open up branch offices for godly ambition right in the heart of commerce, government, academy, and institution. Wherever ideas are being put into play, the gospel has things to say. We need an ambition that won’t rest until more businesses are started, more leaders trained, more problems solved, more marriages helped, more art created, more people reached, more churches planted, more disciples made; an ambition that lives happy today but wants more for God and from God tomorrow.
Why shouldn’t that be you?
 Robert Morrison, Tamara Erickson, Ken Dychtwald, “Managing Middlescence,” Harvard Business Review (March 2006), 79.
 Ibid., 80.
 Paul Tripp, Lost in the Middle (Walwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2004), 139.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, quoted in David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 271.