One Glorious Ambition?
One of the early Passion songs that I've often enjoyed singing is, "One Pure and Holy Passion." The refrain summs up the song:
Give me one pure and holy passion
Give me on magnificent obsession
Give me one glorious ambition for my life
To know and follow hard after You
Those lyrics represent a heart-felt prayer filled with ambition. Is it right to be so ambitious as a Christian? After all, isn't ambition spoken of negatively in the Bible.
The Bible condemns a kind of ambition, namely selfish ambition. Paul speaks against doing anything from selfish ambition or conceit (Phil. 2:3). James tells us that the existence of selfish ambition leads to "disorder and every vile practice" (Jam. 3:16). The danger, however, is coming away thinking that ambition in and of itself should be shunned altogether. What Paul, James, and Scripture warn against is selfish ambition. As Jesus exemplified this when He prayed in His hour of agony, "not my will, but Your will be done."
One alternative approach to selfish ambition that some have mistakenly adopted is to think that it is better simply to mark the time by coasting through life. No need to get too excited about things, set goals, accept challenges, or live in pursuit of great accomplishment or usefulness. The mentality here is that mediocre is a better alternative than extraordinary since you don't have to worry about getting credit or boasting in a sinful, self-referential way. I hope that most of us would conclude that this is not an acceptable alternative to selfish ambition. However, when we consider our lives, it is likely that we are more vulnerable to coasting through life than living with selfish ambition.
Neither selfish ambition nor coasting honors Christ. We need to reject both and pursue a biblical approach to handling ambition. As a working definition (from Webster), ambition is simply "the desire to achieve a particular end." That short definition has three keys words: desire (referring to the heart), achieve (referring to the will), and end (referring to the mind). When I am truly ambitious, my mind, my heart, and my will are all fully engaged. Under the influence and leadership of the Holy Spirit, these faculties are employed as redemptive components of a glorious ambition to live whole-heartedly for Jesus Christ.
Is God Ambitious?
The primary reason why Christians should be ambitious is because God is ambitious. In light of the aforementioned definition is it really right to suggest that God has a desire to achieve a particular end? Absolutely! God has a goal for all His works. We see this unfolded in the most magnificent way in the book of Revelation. It is the restoration of all things--His bringing His redeemed and glorified people together in Christ to enjoy His presence. God has purposed to reconcile all things to Himself (Col. 1:20) through Jesus, in whom all things are united (Eph. 1:9-10). God has focused all His works toward this aim; and all of redemptive history points to God's purposes and mystery as they are revealed in Jesus Christ.
God not only has an end goal--He has desires directed toward that end goal. God expresses His goodness in all that He has made, but He exhibits His love through the giving of His Son. God's passion to accomplish His purposes is demonstrated in that He did not withhold His own Son from us (Rom. 8:32). Jesus came that we might have the same joy of the Father that He has had in Himself (among the Persons of the Godhead) throughout all eternity (John 15:11; 17:13). God's desires are not mingled with sin or weakened by human limitations. They are eternally strong and transcendentally pure. God's desire is for His own glory to be put on display through the joy of His own people utterly wrapped in all that He is for them in Jesus Christ.
God is also determined to achieve the particular end that He most desires. His kingdom will come. His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God accomplishes all that He sets out to achieve, and His promises are our guarantee that His omnipotent Hand is mighty in the battle, assuring in the storm, and guiding in the journey home. To those who call upon God as Father, it is a constant reminder of His pre-determined adopting love to have us for Himself—the very ones who were once rebels and traitors to His good and gracious rule.
You could say God is passionate (desires) to keep His promises (achievements) in order to fulfill His purposes (particular end) in the world. God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in His Word in such a way that His people would build their lives on the foundation of His ambition in the world. Christians ought to be ambitious because the God they represent is ambitious. But what does that kind of ambition look like in a Christian’s life?
One Glorious Ambition
As followers of Jesus Christ, we should have a glorious ambition. Ambition may be seen in extraordinary accomplishments in life, but I would argue that ambition is glorious in the ordinary. Paul said we are to eat and drink to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Nothing is more ordinary than eating and drinking. Nothing is more commonplace or thoughtlessly done than eating and drinking. But Paul says a Christian does the ordinary differently than the world. They do it with a glorious ambition. They want to eat and drink in ways that put Jesus on display and reveal His greatness to the world around them. God deserves to be magnified in every sphere of our existence, and that includes having a desire to accomplish a particular end even in our eating and drinking.
A glorious ambition also turns the way the world thinks about ambition upside down. Jesus taught us that those who wish to be first will be last and servant of all (Mark 9:35). He said those who exalt themselves (selfish ambition) will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 9:14). He said that accomplishment is not found in being served but serving others (Matt. 20:28). Jesus inverted the world's philosophy of ambition by teaching us that the way up is down, the way to save your life is to lose it, and the way to really live is to die to self daily. No wonder that Paul would say things like "If in Christ we hoped in this life only, we of all people are most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:19) and refer to himself and others elsewhere as "the scum of the world" (1 Cor. 4:13). They had embraced a glorious ambition that was counterintuitive to the amition of the world while at the same time an ambition that caused the world to never be the same.
Followers of Jesus should have a glorious ambition fueled by God's Gospel, channeled through His church, and aimed for His glory. This is what we see in the revelation of the Triune God. It is what we see lived out in the life of the apostle Paul and other early church leaders. Our minds should singularly aim and focus without debate or doubt for the magnification of the name of Jesus as our chief meditation and highest ideal. Our desires ought to be white hot, full of passion, fully directed toward the supremacy of Christ in all things. Our wills ought to be unwavering and resolute in the cruciform life our Lord patterned before us. Together, this kind of ambition is glorious, because we find our ambitions wrapped up in God’s ambition for His glory.
John Piper God's Passion for His Glory (1998)
John Piper A Holy Ambition: To Preach Where Christ Has Not Been Named (2011)
Dave Harvey Rescuing Ambition (2010) - Sample PDF
Michael Horton "Ordinary: The New Radical?"
Justin Taylor "Stott on Godly Ambition"