Can Christians be ambitious in a way that is pleasing to God? Or is all ambition purely selfish?
Allow me to lay down some context for the above questions by simply saying this: The pursuit of glory is a never-ending battle between the Spirit and the flesh, and it is a part of the human experience.
For example, in one minute I’ll have a burning desire to use the gifts God has given me in a way that is honoring to him, and it is utterly clear to me that my desires are solely for the spread of his fame. But in the next minute, my thoughts will have turned 180 degrees to my own self-glory: If I use this gift, what will people think? Will I get recognized if I work hard? Will the outcome of this effort be in my favor?
In Paul’s very appropriate (and true) words,
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23)
Captivity? Yes. A war being waged? Absolutely. My guess is that you know this glory-battle well. In fact, I would not believe you if you claimed you had never struggled with it! The fall of mankind into sin (Genesis 3) was a result of this very battle between the flesh and the Spirit, between “the law of God” and the “law of sin,” so it only makes sense that we would continue to struggle with it to this day.
Now that we’ve pinpointed the problem, what do we do about it? What does the Bible say about Christians being ambitious?
Let’s learn from the story of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra (Acts 14). We are told that the apostle Paul has just healed a lame man, crippled from birth, with the Spirit-empowered words, “Stand upright on your feet.” Imagine that you are a bystander in the crowd and, before your very eyes, a lame beggar immediately becomes well. Amazing! Astonishing! You would hardly believe what you were seeing, and you would immediately assume that Paul had spiritual forces working on his behalf.
This is exactly what is happening in Acts 14. Seeing this miraculous episode, the crowds begin to worship Paul and Barnabas as Greek gods, calling them Zeus and Hermes (v12).
But notice the response of the apostles:
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. (Acts 14:15-18)
This account teaches a life-transforming truth about how believers are to examine their pursuits: When the mercy and grace of Christ as revealed in the gospel is our primary focus, then his glory, not our own, will be our ambition.
So when the glory-battle arises within our flesh, we can use these three questions, formed from Acts 14, to redirect our focus to the grace and mercy of Christ:
Am I seeing God clearly? Paul and Barnabas describe God as “the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (v15). All things come from God’s creative hand; therefore he holds authority over all his creation, including our very lives. He is a living God, actively working in his creation and ordering all events for the accomplishment of his sovereign purposes.
Our very existence purposes to bring God glory because we were created in his image and out of the overflow of his own self-sufficiency and love. Seeing God clearly gives us the proper perspective by which we can then examine ourselves.
Am I seeing myself clearly? Author Jen Wilkin says it plainly: “There can be no true knowledge of self apart from the knowledge of God.” Now that we have remembered that God is holy, sovereign, and supreme, we can then understand ourselves properly. And it doesn’t take much time to see that, by nature, we are none of those things!
In Acts 14, the apostles say to the crowds, “We also are men, of like nature with you” (v15). By “nature” we are captive to the law of sin (Romans 7), which distorts our desires and motives. As a result of sin, our default mode is performance and selfish gain. Even those of us who have placed our faith in Christ experience the battle between the flesh and the Spirit because we have not yet been made perfect.
Knowing that our tendency is to perform for selfish gain, we can be on guard against these vanities of the flesh by doing a few things.
One, we can renew our minds in the Scriptures first thing in the morning because, in beholding the glory of God in his Word, we will be changed (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Two, we can meditate on the grace and mercy of God shown through the gospel: that God made Jesus to be sin, who had no sin, that we might become his righteousness by faith (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thinking about the gospel reminds us that we did nothing to deserve God’s favor, that we have been purchased by Jesus’ blood, and that every good gift is an extension of God’s mercy, to be used for his glory alone.
Finally, to guard against selfish ambition, we can pray for God to turn our eyes from looking at worthless things to gazing upon the true source of life and joy, Jesus Christ (Psalm 119:37).
What am I pursuing? Finally, Paul and Barnabas say this: “We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God.” The good news spoken of here is that Jesus Christ came to free sinners from a life burdened by joy-stealing, selfish pursuits. The good news is that, by looking to the “living God,” our sights can be set on the infinitely more excellent pursuit of reflecting Christ to a hungry, hopeless, watching world.
The good news is that we have actually been pursuing far too little for far too long, when the eternal glory and everlasting joy of Christ is ours by faith!
So, can Christians be ambitious in a way that pleases God? Yes! Christ lived, died, and resurrected to free us from bondage to selfish ambition and vanity, giving us a purpose beyond merely making ourselves comfortable, happy, rich, and well-liked. The glory of the Father was Christ’s pursuit, and it took him all the way to Calvary for your sake and for mine.
And all of this so that Jesus, himself, would be our ultimate and lasting pursuit, our holy ambition.