Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Stewarding Our Ambition
By now, we’re all too familiar with the cautionary tale. The ambitious Christian businessman gives himself to a relentless pursuit of success, climbing the corporate ladder at the expense of his marriage, his family and sadly, his spiritual life in Christ. The consequences can be devastating and we do well to steer clear of living such a life in view of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 16.
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
In response, some might suggest that any hint of ambition must be eschewed and viewed with suspicion. However, such a view begs the question – is ambition necessarily or even typically wrong? If not, how does a Christian rightly steward his/her ambition?
My friend, Phil who encouraged me to tackle this topic of ambition insists that it’s an important one and the struggle to make sense of it is common to many Christians. I think he’s right. I know of some Christians who aggressively pursue their dreams of advancement with low grade guilt while others respond with a disinterest to any ambition in the workplace, almost viewing it as unspiritual. Frankly, it’s a struggle I’ve experienced in my own life. It’s a difficult topic and a brief search on Google leaves me to conclude that far too little has been written about this. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to discuss what godly ambition looks like and how we should steward this ambition in light of scripture.
I’ll begin by making three assertions about what it means to steward our ambition in a manner that is Christ exalting and discuss the first assertion on this post.
Assertion #1: Stewarding our ambition means being rightly motivated.
Assertion #2: Stewarding our ambition means trusting God.
Assertion #3: Stewarding our ambition means being faithful.
Rightly Motivated Ambition
The premise I’m starting with is that at least some, if not most of our dreams and ambitions are given by God. They are to be received not with suspicion but with thanksgiving to God. It’s true that you could have dreams and ambitions that are fundamentally selfish or even evil. For us to not acknowledge that possibility is to turn a blind eye to all scripture teaches about our fallen nature and the doctrine of indwelling sin. Yet, the ability to dream great things or to envision a promising outcome is unique to humans created in the image of God. To further accompany those dreams with drive and initiative is the substance of ambition which comes from God.
However, to steward our dreams and ambitions in a manner pleasing to God requires that we are rightly motivated. To begin with, I find in scripture and in personal experience that rightly motivated ambition is rooted in a love for God’s fame.
One of the most compelling examples of godly ambition in the Bible is that of Nehemiah. He lived in the time when Judah was a province of the Persian Empire. Through his brother Hanani, and perhaps from other sources (Neh. 1:2; 2:3), he heard of the mournful and desolate condition of Jerusalem, and was filled with sadness of heart. As a cupbearer for the King Artaxerxes, he was moved to make a request of the king that he might be released from his duties to pursue his dream of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. He had ambition but it was rooted in God’s redemptive purpose. He pursued his ambition but always in keeping with the context of God’s own plan to restore Jerusalem.
Herein is the lesson for us - our dreams, ambitions and in fact, all of our lives must be viewed through the lens of God’s redemptive purpose. On this side of the cross, this means viewing the fame of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ as our great delight and the fuel of our ambitions.
How is this actualized and applied in our lives? I see a two-fold application in my own life. First, it means ensuring that the good news of God’s salvation rather than the attainment of my ambition form the basis of my joy and delight. The prominence of the gospel as our basis for joy is exactly what Jesus spoke of, when he addressed the returning seventy two disciples after a successful ministry campaign.
"Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:20)
A second application in my life pertains to the fame of God functioning as fuel for my ambition. Given our sinful hearts, much of what we do, we do for ourselves – either to prove ourselves, to enrich ourselves or to fulfill ourselves. Unrestrained, this attitude quickly degenerates to a sort of self idolatry. Yet, when engaging our ambition, we need to do so with a sort of forgetfulness of self. This is truly difficult if not altogether impossible unless we are simultaneously envisioned by a desire for God’s fame. Simply put, we need to love the fame of God's name rather than our own. If you're anything like me, this point alone will lead to many opportunities for repentance on any given week.
Loving God's fame also means pursuing excellence in what we do so that might we might honor God through our work. Whether we work as a project manager, a programmer or a mother at home, the content of our work and the manner by which we conduct our work must bring honor to Christ.
Finally, being rightly motivated means working for the good of others. No one in the gospels were as overtly ambitious as John and James whom Jesus named “the sons of thunder”, perhaps for their unbridled ambition. Here’s the account of their ambition as noted in the gospel of Mark:
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." (Mark 10:35-37)
Interestingly, making their ambition known to Jesus does not elicit a rebuke from the Savior. Instead, upon discovering that the rest of the disciples were indignant over the audacity of the request, Jesus uses the episode as a teaching moment.
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)
Even today, Jesus’ statement is revolutionary and counter-intuitive. Unlike the latest management fad where service is positioned as a means to effectiveness, Jesus is actually equating service with greatness, offering his life as an example. This unusual way of thinking must permeate all of our roles. Even when we find ourselves in a leadership role, the emphasis of our posture is on serving the ones we lead.
In the end, our dreams and ambitions do matter. Rather than dispelling any hint of ambition in our lives, perhaps a more mature view is to receive ambition as a gift from God and to nuture it with godly motivation in place.
Next in the series: Trusting God with Our Ambition