My worst days were also my most ambitious days.
I was 30 and had just become pastor of a new church. I threw myself into ministry. I was motivated by God’s glory, but I was also motivated by a desire to prove myself adequate to the larger role I’d just taken.
My ambition was interrupted one day by my wife. She had been gently dropping hints that I wasn’t paying adequate attention to our relationship, but I’d missed them. On that particular day, she tried a more direct approach. She got my attention. In my ambition, I’d failed at one of my primary callings: to love my wife as Christ loved the church.
Ambition isn’t all bad. “Ambition is prizing something so much that we go after it; we’re willing to sacrifice to get it,” writes Dave Harvey in his book Rescuing Ambition. I can think of some circumstances in which it’s commendable to cultivate ambition toward a worthy goal.
But we should also exercise caution. “To be ambitious of true honour and of the real glory and perfection of our nature is the very principle and incentive of virtue,” wrote Sir Philip Sidney, “but to be ambitious of titles, place, ceremonial respects, and pageantry, is as vain and little as the things are which we court.” Or, put more bluntly, “The Christian who is ambitious to be a star disqualifies himself as a leader” (David Watson).
I’ve been meditating lately on 1 Thessalonians 4:10-11: “But we urge you, brothers, to … aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
Paul tells them to set an ambition to live a quiet life. In a way, he’s encouraging them to make their ambition to have no ambition. Paul tells them to aspire to live quietly, doing their own work, not looking for external validation, and not meddling with the lives of others.
Does this mean we abandon all goals? Chad Bird explains:
To lead a quiet life doesn’t mean we lower our expectations; it means we lower our eyes. We look beside us. We look around us. Rather than gaping upward at the next trophy we’ll win, the next raise we’ll earn, we look beside us at the people whom God has placed in our lives for us to serve. And we consider their interests, their needs, more significant than our own (Phil 2:3). We shift our gaze from the “next big thing” to all the little things we miss when we’re mesmerized by the idols of bigger, better, bolder.
At the same time, we lower our eyes to see God at work in the underwhelming simplicities of ordinary, daily life.
I don’t exactly know how to resolve the tension in my life. I want to sacrifice for worthy goals. I want to be ambitious in a godly way. But I should also aspire to just be faithful with what God’s put in front of me: the people he’s given me to love, the place where he’s called me to serve, and the work that he’s given me to do.
I suppose I still have some ambition, but I’m learning to trust it less. Ambition can lead us down some dangerous roads, so it’s important to learn how to be ambitious to live a quiet life, quietly discharging the work God has given us to do.