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

27 comments:

Mick said...

Great Job!
I am struggling with a decision right now and am wrestling with my "motivation". Your post helped very much.

I can see that my motivation is of my love for Christ and my desire to express that to someone else.

I was worried about some "residule" ambition. In that I can take what I am gaining through ministering to this couple and continue to use it.

It boils down to this: Will it glorify God?

The answer to my decision is yes. Even if I feel some reward and empowerment, I will not be glorifying myself, but Christ.

I look forward to the future posts on this topic.

phil said...

Thanks for the time that you put into writing this Andre. Your tether to God's word is strong and much appreciated. I too look forward to learning from you as you continue to post.

andre said...

Mick

Thanks for your kind comments. I'm delighted that the post is a blessing to you.

Ambition isn't wrong, nor is the delight you receive in helping someone else as you're doing. But asking the right questions to test our motivation is a good thing.

andre said...

Phil

Thanks for taking time to comment...please continue to offer feedback on how this is helpful (or not).

If there are aspects of this topic that I'm missing, or if you think the discussion could be expanded, do post a comment to let me know...it'll further discussion and our mutual learning.

Andre

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is such a great topic to discuss. Thanks for starting these articles Andre. I really wondered about this and right now I'm in a transition/decision phase.

Thank you so much!

Chrystal Coleman =)

PARoss said...

"Our presentation of the gospel and of ourselves as Christians must reflect the truth of the gospel. We must make our appeal by using the values and aesthetics of Scripture because it is precisely those values and aesthetics that will appeal to those who will ultimately respond to God's grace. Conversely, to use the values and aesthetics of the world in the presentation of the gospel is a waste of time and resources because those who see the values and aesthetics of Scripture as silly and irrelevant are exactly the people that Paul is talking about in this verse. They are or consider themselves to be “worldly wise,” and they consider the gospel in and of itself—without embellishment—to be foolish and powerless.

Christians don't need to make an appeal on the basis of worldly values and aesthetics because those who will respond will respond to the power of the gospel alone. They will not be dissuaded by what the world sees as a foolish and irrelevant message. In other words, it is a waste of time and resources to try to make the gospel appear to be wise and/or relevant to the world. It is in and of itself already relevant to those who will be saved.

Many very smart Christians get caught up in trying to impress the world with their learning, abilities and/or stylishness — scientists, scholars, theologians, musicians and artists. They are not trying to be unfaithful. Rather, they are trying to keep Christianity on the cutting edge, to keep it relevant in the face of astounding scientific discoveries, with advances in academic research, and with cutting edge anthropology, with new styles in music and art. We don't want to sell them short. They are trying to do what they think is right. Most of them are a lot smarter than we are. Nonetheless, the point to be made is that such Christians are chasing the culture, not leading it. They are following the world, not the Lord."

(from a serom on Pride)

andre said...

Chrystal

I'm glad you found this encouraging and I hope it'll be helpful to you in your transition.

Andre

Small Group Guy said...

Andre,

Keep up the good posting, I look forward to reading more as it comes along.

I have a very hard time, especially right now starting a new job in a Christian environment, of balancing how to "self promote" so to speak, and how to let my experience speak for itself.

Coming from the dog eat dog civillian work environment where talking myself up is mandatory to get a leg up...it is difficult.

In the end it is an act of faith. The writer in Proverbs was on to something when he said "The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives. (Prov 27:21)

May we all pass that test and be seen fit to wear the crown of glory on the day of judgement.

andre said...

small group guy,

Thanks for reading and then taking the time to comment. It must be an interesting adjustment to go from a 'regular' job in the marketplace to a 'christian' work environment. I suspect many of the challenges and temptations remain the same.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andre, it's really a great posting by you on this topic. I was also in the midst of putting up something like yours but you have put in much details and truly enlightening. Will put a link to yr blog in my blog too.

I did struggle with this matter too when I was presented with some good business opportunity. The balance you have to put in between my church ministries, family life (married with kids too) and the secular work was very heavy indeed but I made it thus far.

I just need to seek your approval whether I could "plagiarise" your work here ..... hehe but with full attribution back to you of course. Just need to pluck some of your understanding in this matter to compliment what I intend to share with my youth back home.

When it comes to dreams (my favourite topic) I will always encourage people to dream as big as they can and do not restrict their dreams according to their current circumstances or previous background/experiences. Many people I have came across DARE NOT dream for fear of not able to attain those dreams in which I view that could be dampening your gifts or talents. So, they rather stay at where they are right now.

With those dreams/ambitions in mind, we should always bring it before our God and stay in tuned with God till you hear it or have peace with that dream/ambition of yours. This was my experience and God has placed all things accordingly. By having those dreams/ambitions in place, your time for God and family should not deteriorate too. It seems easy just to talk about it but achievable. Many things to share on this topic as I did experience it. God is just too great to me and He wants to see his people succeeding DAILY and not failing.

andre said...

anonymous,

thanks for your comments, kind words and for sharing your heart.

As far as referencing this and using the content of this and other posts...please feel free to do so.There's nothing special with anything I've written and I'm honored that you consider it worthy of referencing.

Let me know when your post is up...I'd love to check it out.

Johnny Ong said...

i wonder why i was not recorded with my proper identity y'day. anyway i'm johnny ong wif a proper blog as well.

The Hedonese said...

Guess wat? I think this post deserves a wider readership here:

http://taketheleap.org/community/index.php?topic=239.0

Marcus said...

Hi Andre-- I'm catching up on the past few months of your blog. Your posts point me to our Great God, and within him lies my strength and my joy. A few notes: I have been particulary helped in the area of worship as I read your posts. Thank you for the reminders of how it is good and right to give thanks to God for things such as ambition and desires. It opens my eyes to see God's wisdom as wider and deeper than before, and I worship. Also, thank you for your scripture and Spurgeon quotes and inviting others to comment.
As for the discussion on ambition (bearing in mind I haven't read through all of them yet!)-- in my own experience, my litmus test for ungodly ambition is to ask: if the Lord should not grant this to me, will I be dissappointed? This is often a "yes", and if it isn't a "yes", it is because I have settled for indifference. Thus, I commonly struggle with feeling my ambition is vain.
I share this knowing that God is changing my thinking, and I'm on a journey of knowing his mind. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

andre said...

Marcus

Thanks for commenting and joining the discussion. I'm grateful to God that your finding encouragement through this blog.

Thanks for honestly sharing the tug of "two polarities" - between wanting something too much and complete indifference. I'm guessing that you're not the only one struggling with this.

Your comment about the litmus test of ungodly ambition being whether you're "disappointed when you don't get what you desire" is an interesting one. It made me ponder ...thanks for continuing the discussion but it led to a question/thought.

In your mind, is disappointment wrong? If I may humbly ask - isn't it normal to be disappointed if you want something, even something good? Could your litmus test contribute to the problem of the "two polarities"?

I wonder if we're so concerned that we preempt disappointment rather have faith to deal with disappointment in the context of trusting in God's love, wisdom and rule.

What do you think?

L.L. Barkat said...

Andre... I do not mind at all that you put this link in the comments. I believe this is a subject we need to discuss more, for there seems to be a "go-with-your-heart" movement afoot without much biblical perspective.

Also, I question whether other cultures in other places would be having this discussion at all. Maybe it would be framed instead as the struggle to deal with family or community ambition? Not sure, but, as always, curious...

andre said...

LL

Yes, this post deals with our response to pressures/implications of ambition. But you make a good point - that impulse or pressure for ambition isn't just personal or internal, it can also be driven by community and family expectations.

You make a very valid point.

Marcus said...

Hi Andre,

Thank you for continuing the discussion with me about Godly ambition and the struggle of "two polarities" of wanting something too much and feeling indifferent.

I have considered for a few days the comment you made about dissappointment being normal, and even good, in the context of God's love, wisdom, and absolute sovereignty. This is a new thought for me! I have much to learn, have I not?

This is what I'm thinking/considering now: I have used this "will I be dissappointed?" litmus test to identify sinful cravings and idols in my heart, and consequently rule out ambitions. Would a more truth-obeying response to God be: 1) trust His sovereignty even over my ambitions, and apply the doctrine of sin and repentance to those areas I might be harboring idols? 2) the possibility of future dissappointment does not always expose sinful craving? If so-- how should we examine our hearts?

To other readers who may come across this discussion: I am asking Andre these questions because I know him in the context of a local church and hope not just to exchange ideas in debate, but to seek help in living out truths in community.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm....channeling ambition to the end, that God is glorified and His kingdom enhanced. Interesting concept. Thank you!

Stefan Walker said...

Hi. My name is Stefan and I was looking for an article on ambition and the bible. I found yours and loved it. It shed some like on a lot of things going on in my life. I'm in school right now studying business and my passion is business so ambition is a concern of mine with God. I've been getting involved in different business opportunities that I feel have been put in place by God himself seeing how they showed up when I was pursuing something else that I set for myself. My faith has grown deeper even when I fail at acheiving what ever I pursue. In fact it almost feels good to fail at times, because it seems to all be part of God's plan. Through all of my failures I have discovered a gift that God gave me. A gift to inspire others to pursue their dreams and hold on believing. So I could say that my ambitions failures opened up doors and opportunities to connect with God on a deeper level. I still have rarely any sort of wealth or income, but I'm content with the love in my life from God and the people in my life. To me ambition is good to a degree, but faith is greater. Ambition can be a way to connect with God through the failure of achieving it. I am now able to help the people that I care about through God's gift of inspiration.

Stefan Walker said...

P.S. I believe that you have a message that other people should here. Already you have a whole list of readers. It appears that help answer a question that is on a lot of peoples mind. So when you pursued to tackle the topic you starle tackling a lot of peoples topic. Thanks for your message again

Every Square Inch said...

Stefan

thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I'm humbled that you find this helpful to you - thanks for sharing your story

Anonymous said...

I am an ambitious person and ambition has always served me well. However, after reading your article I am experiencing a paradigm shift.

God humbled Himself by coming into this world as Jesus Christ. He chose to suffer and to become nothing. Our attitude should be like that. Ambition would only take us as far as death whereas humility would lead us to eternity.

To be humble does not mean to be mediocre and weak. It means to reflect the strength of God through our lives. Jesus Christ was humble and self-disciplined. If we replace our ambition with humility and self-discipline then we would be successful in this life and in the hereafter.

Every Square Inch said...

Anonymous - thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I'm humbled and delighted that you're served by this post.

May you be blessed by a Christ centered ambition.

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Anonymous said...

could it be said that Christ had to have ambition as well to go to the cross? I always saw it as ambition, but Christ had always focus the "Father in Heaven" as part of his ambition.

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