Almost six years ago, I quit my job as a corporate lawyer to join full-time ministry. My plan was to ambitiously pioneer a new ministry that would reach out to young people through dance with authenticity and creativity.
Soon after, I realised something strange going on. As I began hitting roadblocks along the way, I found myself increasingly preoccupied with questions that were anything but God-centred.
- Am I doing enough?
- How can I do more to prove this ministry is good and viable to onlookers?
- Am I good enough to lead this ministry?
The consistency of such questions soon made me genuinely confused. Was my original ambition godly or not?
And if it was godly, why was my pursuit often coloured with ugly streaks of pride, self-centredness and anxiety? Where did my focus on God and the peace that comes with trusting Him go?
My ambition had birthed not just a new ministry, it had brought to light the reality of the intense warfare in my heart between the spirit and my flesh.
THE TRICKY THING ABOUT AMBITION
I started thinking: If ambition could possibly trigger the worse in us, should we even be ambitious?
Turning our attention to the life of Paul from the Bible, it appears he was a highly ambitious man.
In Romans 15:20, Paul clearly lays out his lofty ministry ambition: To preach Christ where He has never been heard.
Sure enough, he set up at least 14 churches across his decades of public ministry!
Paul is THE poster child of godly ambition fulfilled.
But that isn’t the only thing Paul has said about his ambition.
He employs the same Greek word (philotimeomai) used to describe ambition again in 2 Corinthians 5:9. And this time, he phrases it this way: “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” (NASB)
And in a version we might be more familiar with: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (NIV)
Godly ambition is always relationally driven, not results driven.
This verse provides the key to Paul’s single-minded and clear pursuit of his goal for God, even in the face of challenges. I mean, the apostle has been through a lot (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).
And yet he remained steadfast, never becoming inward looking and never stopping. Even when he became totally hindered in the work when he was thrown behind bars, Paul’s ambition burned on (Philippians 1:12-14).
THE HEART OF OUR AMBITION
Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:9 clarified something important for me. Ambition certainly can’t be wrong in and of itself.
Godly ambition is always relationally driven, not results driven. It is the closeness of our walk with the Lord and the depth of our relationship with Him that must daily fuel our passion.
The danger of doing otherwise is perhaps best illustrated by the older son in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). The older son had looked every part the perfect child – committed to the father’s work, obedient and faithful.
However, the re-appearance of his wayward brother uncovered the true nature of the older son’s industriousness.
The older son raged when he realised how lavish his father’s grace was upon the return of his good-for-nothing brother. His complaint betrayed precisely what he was working hard for.
It wasn’t for love for the father but for what he could get out of him.
THE GODLINESS OF OUR AMBITION
I wonder, did anyone know the state of the older son’s heart? Did the older son even know it himself?
After all, it isn’t quite so easy to determine what truly fuels our ambitions.
While peering into my own heart, here are some helpful handles I’ve discovered while figuring out whether my ambitions were godly or not.
1. Identity check
“What do you fear the most in your pursuit of your ‘godly’ ambition?”
If fear is a controlling factor in your pursuit of your ambition, you’re likely suffering from an identity crisis where you’ve invested your identity right at the point of your fears.
This could manifest in questions like these:
“If I don’t do this, what will people think of me?”
“If I stop/don’t do more/don’t do better, will it mean I’m a bad Christian?”
Friends, you’re not in a Christian popularity contest where your ticket into the kingdom depends on garnering high scores from others.
Instead, our primary identity in the kingdom is as a child of God. We belong and are significant based on our relationship to the King.
And as the Spirit leads us day by day to be more confident and secure in God’s fatherly love, fear looses its grip on us (1 John 4:18).
PRO-TIP: Pray regularly about your specific fears and anxieties.
2. Contentment check
“Are you content?”
For all his ambitious endeavours, Paul has certainly led a pretty simple life.
Knowing the specific hardships he went through (see above), I’m blown away by how he declares in Philippians 4:12-13 that he has learnt the secret of being content in any and every circumstance.
What is the status of our hearts? Are we truly resting in our walk with the Lord and whatever His hand provides at any time?
Or are we constantly itching to be somewhere else and do something else? Unfortunately, we sometimes repackage this very itch of discontentment as “ambition”.
However, I’ve learnt that if godly ambition is truly fuelled by wanting to please the Lord, we will learn to be content to trust Him even in the most dire of circumstances, including unforeseen changes, mistakes, setbacks and failures.
PRO-TIP: Keep a daily thanksgiving log where you intentionally give thanks to God for specific blessings in the day.
3. People check
“How do you treat others?”
When the love of God is actively at work in the hearts of His children, something interesting happens. Not only does the Spirit lead us to love Him, we’re also compelled to start loving others boldly.
God’s great mission has always been to reconcile a wayward people to Him in love (2 Corinthians 5:11-15). Certainly an ambition that is birthed through His Spirit would feed back into this greater mission.
And yet, how often have we failed to flavour our interactions with His love and grace?
This is especially so during crunch times when people hinder our hard work or mess up our plans. Our instinct is to react with annoyance or anger, betraying our tendencies to prioritise our ambition over people.
PRO-TIP: Actively look out for people who are in your communities to encourage and affirm.
If you’re struggling with your pursuit of your godly ambition, take heart because you’re in a most opportune place for growth (Hebrews 12:7-11).
It is precisely through hardships that God sharpens His children to yield fruit, not simply in terms of ministry results, but in the depth of our character and intimacy with Him!
THINK + TALK
- What are some dreams or ambitions that God has placed on your heart?
- What do you fear the most in the pursuit of the above?
- Can you think of an instance where you have personally witnessed someone’s ambition being a source of encouragement or discouragement to others.