Life & Relationships

Redeeming Ambition, Part 1: Is It Wrong to Want to Be Great?

Rebecca Kelsall January 30, 2017

I jogged into the high school newspaper room just months before my graduation.

Clutching my cell phone, I exclaimed, “I’m going to D.C.!” I’d just received the phone call.

I had been selected to go to Washington, D.C., with a group of high school seniors from across the country, representing student journalists on the rise.

I’d worked tenaciously to get here. I wanted both to help the world and be skilled at my craft. I wanted to be among the good. Or even among the great.

But in college, something happened: The gospel started to make sense to me.

Two years after D.C., in a coffee shop I frequented, I confided to a friend, “I think my ambitions are selfish.”

I knew how hard I worked and how much I liked being the best. But now I also knew that sharing Christ’s love was the best purpose to live for.

The next year, I’d poured my energy into ministry and learning to share my faith, when I met a Christian editor who stopped me in my tracks.

After telling him about my journalistic background, I said, “But I think I’m going to be a missionary, instead.”

“Are you going to be a journalist, too?” he prodded.

“Well, I just realized a lot of my motives were very ambitious.”

“Well, what’s wrong with ambition?” he asked me.

I didn’t know what to say.

Ambition: Going after what we want

Dictionary.com defines ambition as “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.”   

Ambition is eagerly pursuing what we want.

The Bible says much about striving and desire, but it’s not all straightforward. Some passages seem to emphasize freeing oneself from ambition (like Philippians 2:3), while others endorse endeavoring for certain goals (like Hebrews 12:1).

But there are certain ideas about ambition we can automatically eliminate as we search for the truth.

What I Know to be False About Ambition

Fallacy 1: “God exists to make our dreams come true.”

This false gospel is preached all over the world. But God is zealous for His glory, not our own.

In Isaiah 48:11, He says, “For My own sake, for My own sake, I do it, for how should My name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”

Fallacy 2: “All ambition is bad ambition,” or “God doesn’t want me to dream.”

While not all ambition is good, the Bible entreats us toward specific ambitions. When Paul uses the Olympics as a metaphor, it affirms striving toward worthy goals.

He says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Fallacy 3: “Certain activities – like preaching – are good ambitions, but others – like sports or business – are worldly.”

God made each of us with different talents and desires to reflect Him in different ways. Some worship God in art, others in parenting, and others preach; but all have a worthy contribution.

Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

The Truth About Ambition

Ambition is a drive toward something; there is an end goal, a prize. The truth is that everyone is ambitious; we’re all pursuing some idea of greatness.

It may not look the same. Some people are pursuing comfort. Some are pursuing fame. Some are pursuing wealth.

There is an ugly side to ambition: one that pursues an end that does not honor God. But there is also a beautiful side.

In Matthew 13:44, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

We are ambitious creatures, sacrificing for what we believe is great. Because, as believers, we are in Christ, He is redeeming that drive.

What’s Next?

How can we tell the good and the bad ambition apart? How can we be sure our ambition is beneficial, not destructive? Learn more in Redeeming Ambition, Part 2.

For more, read Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey.

Rebecca, a missionary journalist with Cru, graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in multimedia journalism. Proudly Hispanic American and a newlywed, her interests include culture and psychology. Contact her at Rebecca.Kelsall@cru.org.

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