“One’s life must matter, beyond all the cooking and cleaning and the children! One’s life must mean more than that. I cannot die washing a teacup.”
So said a young Miss Thatcher in response to her boyfriend’s wedding proposal. These were her terms of agreement. Fortunately for him, she also said “yes”.
Margaret Thatcher was driven by ambition. Her youth was marked by poverty, hard work at the family grocery store, and fervent political involvement. These ingredients, combined with a deep-seated ambition, equipped her to make her mark on the history of the United Kingdom – and to be recognized. Not only did she lead her nation successfully through tumultuous times, but she became the first female Prime Minister.
Her story inspires me. It causes me to dream about how I could use my life to bring about real impact in my time. Given enough time, hard work, and dedication, what might I be capable of? When I breathe my last breath, how will I be remembered?
At the same time, Jesus has called us to give up our lives so we can find real life. The cost of discipleship is high. Is giving up ambition part of the price we pay?
The Heart of Ambition
Ambition is a desire for success and accomplishment that moves you into action. You long for the Olympic gold medal so you practice long after your peers have already gone home. You hope to be recognized as Emperor of planet Earth, so you invade those neighboring countries you’ve had your eye on. Ambition makes you do harmful, neutral, or helpful things, all with the intent of growing in greatness. It is bound tightly to your sense of self, which can mean that ambition can take us in directions that help us at others’ expense.
When we begin to follow Jesus, the gospel begins renewing our minds and overthrowing our ambition. Just listen as the apostle Paul describes his experience:
“…If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Philippians 3:4-7)
He had godly parents who observed the right traditions. He wore the right genes. He knew and lived the laws given by God, and he fiercely defended his faith. We know from other Scriptures that he had Ivy-league religious training from Sanhedrin member and renowned rabbi Gamaliel. Like Margaret Thatcher, this was a man whose background and towering ambition led to great achievement. But when he began to follow Jesus, his earlier ambition and achievements became ghosts of a more selfish time. Interestingly, Paul was recognized and respected before his conversion, but his new ambition to carry the gospel abroad propelled him to become a household name.
So no, following Jesus doesn’t mean the death of your ambition. But it does mean the death of your old self, which forever refocuses your ambition: bringing glory to God.
Not Out of the Woods Yet
There’s a reason that Paul encourages believers to “put on” the new self like clothing (Eph. 4:22-24). We still have the freedom to put on our ratty old self in times of weakness. James warns us against this when he writes, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:16).
So how can we tell where selfish ambition ends and godly ambition begins?
Bob Pierce laid the groundwork for one of the world’s largest and most impactful charitable organizations during a 1947 evangelistic crusade in China. With a broken heart and a camera, he filmed starving and impoverished children that he met during his travels. He came home on a mission to convince the Church to adopt these kids in spirit by sending money to support them each month. His venture was called “World Vision International”, and he dedicated his life and ministry to the organization and the children it served. He achieved incredible success through his leadership, though his ambition kept him away from his own children and wife for 10 months of the year. In time, he suffered a nervous breakdown. His daughter committed suicide after pleading with him to come home. His wife separated from him. And he finally resigned from the organization he had pioneered.
I don’t doubt that this man had great faith and genuine concern for children in need. There were surely other contributing factors that led to the devastation of his family. But I suspect that he masked “old self” tendencies like workaholism and family neglect by spiritualizing his ambition and throwing himself whole-heartedly into ministry. You may have seen this before in your own church community, in your own family, or in your own life. And sadly, this wreckage gives the world all the more reason to doubt in Jesus’ ability to change a life.
Our world is as desperate for the gospel as ever. It’s waiting for messengers whose first ambition is to love God and others. When they meet these trustworthy messengers, they’ll listen to their transforming message.
A Playbook for Godly Ambition
The next time you’re preparing to take significant action in response to ambition, prayerfully answer these key questions that may help you operate out of a godly ambition:
- What do you stand to gain by taking this action?
Include things like social status, money, power, influence, favors, relationships, no matter how small those gains may be.
- Who might be negatively impacted by taking this action?
It could be your family, friends, neighborhood, or church. It could be strangers. Or yourself.
- What potential is there for this action to bring glory to God?
Regardless of whether or not your decision is directly linked to serving God, it can help or hinder the advance of His Kingdom in our world.
Aim to take the course of action that maximizes potential for glorifying God, and minimizes damages done to others. If those matters are in order, it matters little how much you stand to gain personally. But beware of actions that primarily seem to tilt the scales in your favor.
Watch Your Self
Feel free to run for Prime Minister. Aim to win Olympic gold. Start a ministry to feed starving children. You can follow Jesus without giving up your ambition. Only take care that your ambition is rooted in the new self that Jesus has so graciously offered. It means the difference between destruction and life.
About P.J. Oswald
P.J. Oswald is Director of Enrollment Management and Marketing at his alma mater, Western Seminary, where he also serves as an adjunct faculty member from time to time. He is an elder at the Mustard Seed Community, a home-based church family in the Sacramento, CA area that aims to “Know God. Live His mission. Transform our community”.