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“Give me this hill country . . . and I shall drive them out.” These are the words of eighty-year-old Caleb, recorded in the book of Joshua, as the Israelites surged into the land and prepared to engage their enemies (Josh. 14:12). In light of the obstacles in front of Caleb and the dangers they represented, one would be hard pressed to think of him as being anything less than ambitious.
But were Caleb’s ambitions good or bad? Too often the word ambition conjures up negative images of Wall Street investment bankers rationalizing self-serving greed. Or, one might find the word plastered across a motivational poster with a climber clinging to the side of a mountain attempting an ascent. But which is it? Is ambition bad, or should we cultivate it in ourselves and in our children? Does the Bible promote ambition?
When we do a search for the word ambition in the Bible—looking through various English translations—we see it in multiple texts translated from several Greek words. 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?
Let’s be reminded what ambition is. The dictionary definition is simply a desire to achieve a particular end. But this definition is perhaps a little too weak—it can be applied in everyday life decisions that would not be considered ambitious. Therefore, let me suggest the following definition of ambition: a strong desire that leads to a willingness to overcome obstacles to achieve a particular end. There are two important observations to make here. First is the relationship of “desire” and “end.” Second, note that the definition also includes the words “overcome obstacles” and “achieve,” suggesting that some degree of effort will be required and that means will be employed to do so. Let’s consider each of these observations in more detail.
Desires and Ends
All of us have desires: desires of the mind and of the flesh. Desiring is an aspect of being a creature, a product of having a mind and a body. The problem is that sin distorts this relationship in several ways. First, sin results in desires (lust, cravings, passions) for the wrong ends. That is, our sinful nature distorts our thinking such that we desire to pursue ends that are not pleasing to God (James 4:1–3).
Second, sin distorts the proportionality of the desire-end relationship, causing us to desire even right ends with the wrong proportion of desire (weak desire for the best things, strong desire for the mediocre or trivial). Remember here the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
As such, we must be reminded in Scripture time and again to renew our minds to value what God values and to hate what God hates. We must train our minds (and thus our emotions) to love what God loves. Note Rom. 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”; and Ps. 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
The second part of the definition of ambition is the use of means to achieve the desired ends. Sin leads us to distort God’s revealed means of bringing about ends; we will often employ sinful methodologies to achieve them. But the means used must also be in accordance with God’s Word. Scripture is replete with commands and principles that guide us in the use of means, telling us what is lawful and what is not. Even if the desire is good and the end is pleasing to God, we are not to use unlawful means in order to fulfill that desire. We might desire to have a child, and this would be pleasing to God, but to kidnap someone’s baby as a means to this end would be sinful.
Implications for Godly Ambition
So, let’s put these observations together and come up with a biblical perspective on ambition. First, we should have godly ambitions. Paul describes himself as ambitious, and certainly, our Lord was ambitious (using our definition above) about fulfilling His calling as Prophet, Priest, and King. Second, godly ambition requires desires that are rightly related to righteous ends. Third, godly ambition uses righteous means to achieve those ends. But how do we develop godly ambition?
Discipline, Duty, and Desire
First, we must recognize and implement the tools God gives us. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:7, “Train yourself for godliness.” We need to understand that there is a role for discipline in the life of every Christian to overcome laziness and to work to grow in godliness.
Second, there is duty. Many Christians cringe when the word duty is mentioned. But duty should be understood as a means to an end. Duty is disciplined obedience with an eye toward developing a love for that which is practiced. Duty is practicing delight in what delights God until that actual delight is experienced. My wife and I have assigned chores to our children, and they often balk at doing them, but our goal is to help them develop a love of order and work so that the duty underlying them becomes secondary. Discipline and duty are paths to delight.
Christian Identity and Ambition
Another way to grow in godly ambition is for Christians to understand their identity, their place, and their purpose.
Regarding place, each Christian should have a clear, biblical understanding of the nature of their citizenship in the kingdom of God. Understanding that we are children of the Creator and in covenant with Him is fundamental to understanding who we are. Reflecting on kingdom priorities and the final judgment will help us forge godly ambition.
In addition to understanding who we are (place), we need to know why we are (purpose). At the very outset of creation, God tells Adam and Eve what they are to do—we call it the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28). We are called to be fruitful and multiply. Sadly, many who profess Christ have minimized the responsibility to marry and have children. In modern culture, both are considered difficult and even counterproductive to personal freedom and joy. But like the train that wants to be free from the tracks, so are those who look to fulfill their self-appointed destiny contrary to the very creational purposes for which God created mankind. As Christians, we must buck this trend and hold up marriage as a gift from God. Unless we have the rare, specific calling to singleness for the sake of ministry, we should be ambitious to be married, to have children, and to raise godly families.
The mandate to have dominion over the planet addresses the issue of vocation, of calling. Do you see your job as in some way a part of that mandate? You should if it is a lawful job. And when you do see your work as a part of God’s plan, His big picture, then your ambition to do well, to succeed, should grow.
The above mandates relate to the family and the civil realm. But God also placed us in the church. In so doing, He also prescribes for us the role we are to play in our callings as brothers and sisters. God gives each believer a spiritual giftedness (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; 1 Peter 4) by which we minister to one another. We are also given the mandate to go into the world and proclaim the gospel (Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Both emphases—internal ministry in the church and external proclamation to the world—are essential to godly Christian ambition and practice.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “We have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (NASB). May this be true of us as well.