Is personal ambition bad for the Christian?
It depends. In certain arenas, one should only start if success is the goal. When someone studies for their entrance exam into law or medical school, I would guess that they have some sort of ambition to become an attorney or a doctor and that they most likely desire a successful practice. The entrepreneur doesn’t launch a business hoping to just break even financially. And as a former church planter, I have never met anyone who sets out to start a church hoping the impact will be minimal. When my friends and I decided to start our church, we had high hopes of reaching a lot of people for Christ and sending church members across the globe to make a worldwide impact. We weren’t aiming for a few friends having a house church.
Pastor Dan Dodds wrote that in Scripture, “The word ambition is employed in both positive and negative contexts. Negatively, James condemns those who have ‘bitter jealousy and selfish ambition’ (James 3:14). Positively, Paul ‘makes it [his] ambition to preach the gospel’ (Rom. 15:20). Clearly, the Bible acknowledges both good and bad ambition. How do we know the difference?”
My friend Matt Smethurst wrote, “One thing that separates biblical Christianity from almost every other religion is its laser-like focus on our hearts. Our Creator cares what we do, to be sure, but most fundamentally he cares how and why we do certain things. He’s interested in those intentions that are hidden from human eyes.” Motives matter.
When I watch a crime drama, one of the keys to solving the crime is establishing a motive. This can narrow down the search for suspects. When it comes to personal ambition, even in good goals such as growing a ministry or running a thriving business, motive matters to God. As we examine our own hearts, we must launch an investigation to identify our motives.
Further, our ambitions need proper direction and grounding. Pastor Dave Harvey wrote a helpful book called Rescuing Ambition. I think there are immediate takeaways from the title alone. He didn’t say to avoid ambition or to run full speed ahead in hustle. He said ambition needs to be rescued. There is a good kind and a bad kind, and rather than urge ambitious Christians to suppress all their drive, Dave suggests instead that it needs guardrails.
If you’ve ever driven on mountain roads, you know that guardrails not only protect drivers and passengers, they also make it easier to keep a good speed. My family goes to the North Carolina mountains every summer, and we love to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The winding sections of that drive without guardrails cause me to slow down, take exceeding caution, and (honestly) freak out. But when there are guardrails, I can more comfortably keep a good pace and stay in the lane. Similarly, we can press the gas on ambition a bit more confidently when the proper guardrails are lining the roads, helping us avoid an unhindered, unsafe, and undirected trajectory.
Guardrails for ambition
So what are these guardrails? The apostle Paul commands: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Do nothing out of selfish ambition. But instead look to the interests of others. So we know our efforts are to be done in humility and for a purpose. We know we are to work to glorify God and serve others.
Without the guardrails of humility, ambition can quickly redirect Christians from living as servants of God to living as servants of their own desires. This will be a battle for as long as we are on this earth, because “selfish ambition is a sin that always seems to be ‘crouching at the door’ (Genesis 4:7).” In Rescuing Ambitions, Dave Harvey says guardrails keep us on God’s road and move in the direction of His glory. This is the very thing we should be seeking – God’s glory. If you’re into sports, politics, wrestling, or even Star Wars, you know what a rivalry is. Consider this: In our own lives, God’s glory versus our own is the ultimate rivalry. It makes pairings like Alabama vs. Auburn, the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, and Republicans vs. Democrats look like they are holding hands and skipping in a field. We cannot be simultaneously glorifying God and glorifying ourselves. We cannot even aim to blend them just a little bit.
Godly ambition requires the discipline of turning our eyes to Christ and evaluating our own motives. God wants us to think sensibly (Rom. 12:3). This begins by not being conformed to the patterns of the world (Rom. 12:2), being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2), and not thinking of ourselves more highly than we should (Rom. 12:3). Paul modeled this recovering of ambition, resolving, “We make it our aim to be pleasing to him” (2 Cor. 5:9). This was the ambition that consumed Paul. Since Jesus had taken hold of him (Phil. 3:12), Paul’s ambition was to pursue Christ even more.
I once was asked to be the guest speaker for a visiting team at a college football chapel service. The team had a 0-10 record on the season and was about to play a top ten team in the nation. In other words, it was gonna get ugly. They weren’t just going to lose; someone was going to get hurt. In that situation, the typical player’s ambition is making it back home for Christmas break in one piece. I wasn’t sure how many on the team were Christians, but I decided to speak directly to those who knew the Lord. I told them, “You have a reason to play tomorrow. You have motivation to hustle on the field. And you have all you need for purpose going into the game: you are playing for the glory of God. Win or lose, we as Christians have different goals than the world around us. Our goals are aimed at worshiping God and using our opportunities for His glory. You know what? Sometimes that means losing well.
Excerpted from Getting Over Yourself: Trading Believe-in-Yourself Religion for Christ-Centered Christianity by Dean Inserra (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.