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It’s OK to be ambitious? Yeah … nah.

From the Australian Church Record

‘It’s OK to be ambitious.’ Have you heard Christians say this? Have you said it yourself? This is the idea: Ambition—a desire to achieve a vision, to strive for excellence and great goals—is inherently a good thing. Of course, not all ambition is good. Obviously, if you’re ambitious for your own selfish or worldly ends, that ambition is not good. But if you’re ambitious for God, for his glory, for achieving great things for him, for being excellent in ministry, for growing your church, then great! Therefore the Bible says it’s OK to be ambitious—in fact, ambition is a good thing; it just depends on what you’re ambitious for. So we need to foster ambition among Christians, and promote it amongst Christian ministers.

Well to all that stuff, I want to say: yeah … nah.

Yeah, OK, there’s something to it. Yeah, at a very basic level, ambition and striving is part of what it means to be a healthy human being. Yeah, it’s good and right to have plans and seek to achieve goals in life. ‘The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty’ (Proverbs 21:5). Yeah, the Bible does talk about ambition and goals and striving in Christian life and ministry and mission. Paul says things like: ‘Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy’ (1 Corinthians 14:1); ‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known’ (Romans 15:20). So yeah, technically, it’s OK to be ambitious. Set goals, create visions and ministry strategies, measure your progress, and all that kind of stuff, yeah.

But … nah. The problem is, if you just say it that way, you (or the people you’re talking to) run the strong risk of simply taking the world’s idea of ‘ambition’ and baptising it. You risk clothing a worldly concept in Christian garb. You risk missing the core message of the Bible: the incredible, earth-shattering, upside-down-making gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t just modify what we should be ambitious for. The gospel judges the very concept of ambition itself. Jesus doesn’t baptise worldly desire and ambition. He throws it out, along with all the other bathwater, and replaces it with an entirely different, cross-shaped view of our purposes in life and what we should be heading for.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

That’s why almost every time the concept of ambition is mentioned in the New Testament, it’s expressed in radical, upside-down terms. You don’t find passages in the New Testament saying: ‘It’s OK to be ambitious, as long as it’s ambition for God’s glory.’ No, you get the Bible turning the whole concept of ambition completely on its head.

You get Jesus, in Mark 10:35–45, talking to his ambitious disciples striving for advancement, saying, ‘whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (v. 44), and giving his own sacrificial atoning death as the foundation of it all (v. 45).

You get Paul, in Philippians 3, after listing all the glorious God-ordained things he used to rely on and strive for in his former life and ministry, declaring it all to be damaging garbage, and replacing it with a new, world-shattering, upside-down kind of ambition: an ‘ambition’ for righteousness from Christ, for sharing in Christ’s sufferings in this world, longing for the future resurrection from the dead, pressing on and striving for life in Christ rather than in this world, and calling his fellow Christians to do the same.

You also get Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5, describing his own weirdo weak cross-shaped ministry goals and ambitions. In the face of the Corinthians’ striving for human power (see 1:10–17), Paul declares that he deliberately rejected excellence in ministry. He rejected lofty speech and human wisdom. He embraced weakness, fear, trembling. Lack of power. Lack of anything that smacked of victorious living. This is because his ambition was shaped and utterly transformed by his message: the message of the cross, that looks stupid and foolish to the world, but is in fact the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18–31).

That is also why the list of characteristics for ministry leaders in 1 Timothy 3 seems so unsatisfyingly incomplete for the needs of the modern ministry scene. Paul begins the chapter with a statement about ambition and aspiration and desire for ministry leadership: ‘Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.’ This sounds like an endorsement of ambition for great and noble things in ministry, doesn’t it? Except that literally, the phrase translated ‘noble task’ in the NIV is just ‘good work’. Paul is literally saying: ‘Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a good work.’ A ‘good work’ is just a basic, morally good work, fitting for God’s creation. For Paul, good works are something to be done by all Christians, including and especially godly women (e.g. 1 Tim 2:10, 5:10). So when Paul talks about ambition for ministry leadership in 1 Timothy 3, he’s not talking about having a lofty, noble goal for your own life. He’s saying: If you want to be an overseer, great—but do realise this is just an ambition for a good work—like everybody else. Like Jesus. A ministry leader is a leader in good works. That’s why Paul goes on to focus on those basic things that sound boringly unambitious in the eyes of the world, but are in fact deeply precious in God’s sight for those whose world has been turned upside-down by Christ’s death and resurrection: things like goodness, faithfulness and gentleness in the day-to-day relationships of life. This is not a call to strive for some ideal of ministry excellence. It’s about being excellent to each other.1

So is it OK to be ambitious? Yeah … but nah. Not if you’re still operating with the view of ‘ambition’ shaped by the world. It only works if your life has been turned completely upside-down by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and Jesus has set your hopes and desires and life on an entirely opposite path, towards suffering and costly love and heavenly glory. In that case, ambition isn’t just OK—it’s absolutely fundamental. In that case, we can say with Paul: ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:13–14).

  1. And in chapter 4, it also involves not following the false teachers’ rejection of the good things God has created, especially marriage and food (4:1-3). In other words, party on dudes.
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