A young, Middle Eastern man stood with feet planted on the dusty ground watching chaos unfold.
A Christian missionary had just made a passionate speech, but rather than sway the crowd around him, he enraged them. The mob rushed at him violently.
The young spectator had a bright future ahead of him. He was passionate and intelligent. He was from the right family, city and country. He would be great.
Eventually he would storm into homes and drag Christians off to prison, demanding their execution. Churches feared him. They all knew his name. He had great power, but his zeal was misplaced.
His name was Saul of Tarsus, but you might know him as the apostle Paul.
The Danger of Ambition
Paul is among the most ambitious men in the Bible. From his introduction in Acts 7 to his final letters to the churches of Christ, Paul is sharp, energized and driven. But his early life, before he encountered Christ, is a perfect example of ambition gone dangerously awry.
Ambition, which we are defining as the earnest desire and eager pursuit of what we want, is built into every human heart. We all long for something great – something beautiful, to be someone important.
We know some ambition honors God, but He doesn’t condone all ambition. Where’s the line?
Finding the Line
The difference between godly and worldly ambition comes down to the issue of motivation and the heart.
Here are some key questions to ask about the motivation, or agenda, behind your ambition:
- Where does your value come from?
It’s easy to take an ambition and make it everything, the justification for our existence. It’s something we sacrifice for and shrink without. Our dream is what we serve.
What do you love to the point where, if you lost it, you’d lose yourself? Does your dream define who you are? If God took it from you, would He be enough?
- Who are you trying to impress?
Knowing your audience is a great way of discerning between worldly and godly ambition.
When you achieve your goal, who do you hope applauds? If you don’t achieve it, who is disappointed? Do you give yourself grace – as God does – when you fail?
- What are the repercussions for people?
I heard this haunting story when I reconsidered pursuing journalism. A reporter published a story about a child who was hungry. But he did not help. He let the child starve. At the time, the child was a means to an end, not a person.
While most will never be in this position, they may sacrifice people for ambition in other ways.
Does your dream mean “being better,” in that your neighbor or coworker is beneath you? Are your ambitions helping people or hurting them?
- Who is your life all about?
If we neglect others and God while seeking our own dreams, we make our world as small as ourselves. Instead of achieving the glory we long for, we starve ourselves of the glory around us.
What is everything else in your life subject to? If failing made God look awesome, would you be willing to do that?
Bringing Grace into the Equation
Admittedly, even while writing these questions, I find myself thinking, “How do I know I’m not still working out of selfish ambition? Can I answer these questions confidently?”
The answer is “no.” Thank God for grace.
After an honest examination of my motives, knowing I still don’t have all the answers, I can look to the Lord, step out in faith and believe that His grace is enough for me. At the end of the day, I do my best to give my dreams to God, to honor Him and know, by grace, it is enough.
Can We Be Sure Ambition is Ever Good?
When Christians realize how corrupt and worldly their ambitions can be, it is tempting to forsake ambition altogether. But remember the story of the apostle Paul?
Paul was not dissimilar to a brilliant student who brings his accomplishments into every conversation. He was not much different than the journalist who left a child to starve for a story – actually, he demanded the death of people for his goals.
But Christ claimed Paul for himself, and everything changed, including his ambition. Paul continued to be earnest and driven, but now he had a new heart and a new agenda.
Paul went on to write a sizable chunk of the New Testament, plant some of the first churches and teach the Gentile world about Christ. He left a legacy that billions can recall.
God used Paul for His glory and to help people. Paul was not perfect after he became a Christian, but God was constantly redeeming his ambition.
- Do you need to come before the Lord to examine your heart and possibly lay down selfish motives? Take time to do so this week.
- To learn about some basic fallacies concerning ambition (like “it is always worldly”) read Part 1 of this series.