Women in the Bible tend to feel more like supporting characters to the men. They might not have expected more from life besides getting married or carrying out domestic duties. Think Esther, who was told to run for the king’s beauty pageant by her uncle Mordecai. Ruth, widow who remarried Boaz with the help of her mother-in-law Naomi. Mary, virgin betrothed to Joseph who receives a Heavenly decree to carry God’s Son.
These women didn’t have education systems or corporate ladders to climb. Neither were they born with battles to fight or new lands to discover, really. But the women of today, at least for those in Singapore, are schooled, given (almost) equal opportunities to succeed in the workplace and essentially allowed to think outside of the home and household. To have ambitions of their own, for their own lives.
Culturally, we’re so different from the women in the Bible! So where are we supposed to get answers about rising in the corporate ranks, pursuing our passions professionally or investing in a new business? Are we wrong for desiring more out of life than the docile women of the Holy Book?
Is it wrong for a godly woman to be ambitious at all?
So in the spirit of Women’s History Month (every March) and International Women’s Day (8 March), we take a look at 3 questions we can consider in turn, with the help of the examples of 3 Biblical Wonder Women.
WONDER NO MORE, WOMEN: BIG QUESTIONS WITH BIBLICAL ANSWERS
1. Where does my ambition come from?
I had big dreams for my adulthood when I was still in college. In fact, it was probably my time in business school that opened my eyes to the glitz and glamour of the working world – the enticing titles, benefits and glory that awaited those who knew how to navigate the system.
Yes, there was hard work to be done and harsh corporate jungles to survive, but I was game. This, after all, was my (earthly) father’s world. It would soon be my time to join it.
Thinking back, I realise a large part of my desire to succeed in this particular way came from a place of wanting to prove myself. An old habit, nurtured from the seed of what a younger me thought was parental disapproval and rejection as an imperfect child.
It had reared its ugly head through the years as an obsession with academic results, but with the impending end of my student life, ambition now took on its full form – making a name for myself. Unknowingly, it became my tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4), my own claim to significance and strength.
Meet the Proverbs 31 Woman
Ms Proverbs 31 is a hard worker, working with eager hands (Proverbs 31:13), strong arms (Proverbs 31:17) and a sharp mind (Proverbs 31:18). She does what she has to do, buying fields, trading her wares and working with her hands, even caring for those around her (Proverbs 31:16), including the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:20).
But instead of being clothed with competitiveness and a hunger for success, she is clothed with strength and dignity. She doesn’t work to prove herself or validate her worth. Significance and strength is where she starts from. It’s not so much about how ambitious you are – it’s about what is compelling that ambition in the first place.
2. Where is my ambition taking me?
Ambition can be defined as a strong desire to achieve something or some sort of success. What that something is or how we define success is a huge determinant of where this ambition within us will take us, what it will compel us to do.
My version of success looked like a high position in an organisation, where I would be celebrated for my competencies and entrusted with big campaigns and projects. Where God chose to take me after graduation is another story altogether, but the desire in me for commercial greatness was undeniably there. I would have gone the distance for it.
Where is your ambition taking you? Has it brought you closer to God or further from Him in the process?
Like a friend, God is a Person who longs for connection and in the busyness of doing what it takes for our ambitions, we disconnect from just about anything unrelated to them. And if He was never in them to begin with, if our reasons why have little or nothing to do with Him (refer to Question 1) – then we run the very real risk of desiring something above our desire for God.
From our desires and priorities – our ambitions – flow our actions and decisions. And they don’t always take us to the best places if God is not in them.
Meet Deborah the Judge
Deborah is the only female judge mentioned in the book of Judges and the only judge identified as a prophet – so if there’s an ambitious woman in the Bible we might be able to relate to, it would be Deborah. She even accompanies her commander, Barak, to a battle “the Lord has given into their hands”, all because the man insists he would not go without her (Judges 4:8).
The desire to see Israel free from oppression – the reason for the impending battle – may have been strong in Deborah’s heart, but this wasn’t just personal ambition. It was very much spiritual too. “God has commanded.” “The Lord will go out before you.” “I will surely go.” She was only going where God was leading – and we should too.
3. Where has your ambition brought you?
I may have been an ambitious young woman fresh out of business school, ready to take on the world, but the underlying desire of my heart was always to serve God with my gifts and capabilities.
In my head, this meant going out into the marketplace and honing my skills, getting recognised for my abilities and attaining a credible position that would make me a legitimate professional in my industry. I believed that this would qualify me to work for the Kingdom, that this was what the Bible meant by a workman approved by God (2 Timothy 2:15).
(Spoiler alert to that other story: God had other plans.)
My unrefined, youthful ambition may have attracted me to the prestige of the corporate ladder, but it was that same ambition – the God part of it – that pulled me into places I could never have imagined. By His grace and wisdom, I entered the industry I’d always desired to be in, but not in the manner I’d envisioned. And through this divine intervention, I found myself encountering God in ways I could have never planned for myself and taken to countries to see His work across the globe.
You could say I started with a dream that focussed in, only to discover a God-given destiny that focussed out.
Meet Lydia the Tradeswoman
Our third ambitious woman appears briefly in Paul’s travel stories recorded in Acts 16. Paul and Silas meet Lydia in Philippi, along the riverside where a prayer meeting is being held on the Sabbath. She’s from another part of town, being a travelling tradeswoman, and has joined the other God-fearing women on her day off. She isn’t a follower of Jesus yet, but when she hears Paul preach, “the Lord opens her heart” and she receives the gift of salvation. She goes on to open her house for fellow believers to gather often.
Lydia may have been a businesswoman to begin with, but she had been recognised by God as a woman after His heart even before she’d met Paul and Silas. Her day job might have brought her to different places, but her devotion to the God of her work ultimately brought her to the riverside that day and into the full time ministry of every Christian.
THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE GREATEST AMBITION
To every Christian woman who’s struggled with the desire to make something of your life, be it to get really good at something or be remembered for something one day: You are not alone.
Know that the longing points to something deeper, so before you jump in head first and fight your way to the top, search your heart and be honest with yourself: Am I searching for significance in something other than God? Am I going where God is leading? Am I devoted to God above my career?
Ambition is a lovely trait in men and women alike, but when God ceases to be the source, reason and partner for the journey, zeal turns to striving and success is hollow rather than holy. In the words of Proverbs 31:30, a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
And that should be our greatest ambition.