Do thankfulness and ambition go together? Such a combination seems incongruous. If you’re truly thankful for something, surely ambition seems a little bit dangerous. It might sound a little bit like being discontented or even covetous. Is real, genuine, heartfelt thankfulness incompatible with ambition?
Let’s think about ambition for a moment. It is one of those themes in Scripture where our minds seem to naturally turn to the misuse and abuse of ambition, of which there are numerous examples. The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and the rich fool in Luke 12 are the most obvious. In both cases, we have an ambition that is self-sufficient; God is not a factor in their thinking. In Babel, it is the making of a name for themselves that motivates the builders, while in Luke 12, the rich fool makes his plans to accrue material wealth and build bigger barns without reference to God. Clearly, ambition can be dangerous.
Yet, that doesn’t negate the fact that ambition is something that God has hard-wired into human beings. Ambition in and of itself is not ungodly but is something that God has given us to use for our good and that of others. Godly ambition involves a strong desire and discipline to achieve righteous ends.
We live in a world where our hopes and plans don’t always come to fruition.
Adam and Eve were given a clear command by God to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28). Noah had that call reaffirmed after the flood (9:1). This creation mandate was to be their ambition. The psalmist commands, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). The Apostle Paul was ambitious for the gospel, and he pressed on for the prize of that upward call (Phil. 3:14). He explicitly tells us that his ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ had not been named (Rom. 15:19–20). The Lord Jesus Himself was zealous for His Father’s glory and obedient to His will. He teaches us that His disciples are to be people who hunger and thirst for righteousness and that His people are to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:6; 6:33). First Corinthians 10:31 tells us that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should do it all to the glory of God.
Thankfulness and godly ambition must go hand in hand. It is thankfulness for all of God’s good gifts—His creation, redemption, preservation, and certain future hope—that should fuel our ambition that we might live lives that resound to His glory and to the good of others. Thankfulness must never lead us to a self-satisfied existence where we coast along in life. The knowledge of God and His work in Christ must lead to a desire to live and labor for Him. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we exist to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The ambition to do that is in the DNA of every child of God.
We were made to plan, and our wise plans made for the glory of God—whether with regard to our family, our home, our finances, or even our fitness—are good and are part of what it means to be human. Of course, we must test our ambitions. We know that our hearts are deceitful, and sometimes there is a fine line between godly zeal and selfish ambition. Yet, we are called to live in the light of all that God has done and is doing for us, to use the time and resources that He has so generously given us, and to live in a way that is ambitious for God’s glory.
What about when our ambitions don’t succeed? We live in a world where our hopes and plans don’t always come to fruition, and many Christians know severe disappointment. Hebrews 11 is a chapter full of our heroes of the faith, and yet there are the nameless champions at the end of the chapter who suffered mocking and flogging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were killed with the sword. I doubt very much that that was the ambition of these men and women as they went out to serve the Lord. Each member of the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 died in faith not having received the things promised.
We are thrown back on the truth that God is God. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8–9). God graciously—and often—redirects us in His sovereign will. We take the words of Proverbs 37:5, committing our ways to the Lord, trusting in Him that He will act. Even the disappointment of thwarted ambition can be a source of thankfulness. As the hymn writer says, “What’er my God ordains is right; his holy will abideth.” God knows best, so be thankful, and be ambitious for His glory and for your joy.
Rev. Paul Levy is minister of International Presbyterian Church Ealing in London.