“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thess 4:11-12)
In a 1970s television show, called Kung Fu, a young orphan boy was raised by a group of Shaolin Monks in mid-nineteenth-century China. The boy is trained as a priest, and in the first episode, we see him discussing the idea of ambition with his blind mentor, Master Po.
“You have learned discipline and acquired many new abilities. However, never forget that a priest’s life is a simple one and must remain free of ambition,” says Master Po to his disciple.
“Have you no ambition, Master Po?”
“Only one. Five years hence, it is my wish to make a pilgrimage to the Forbidden City. It is a place where even priests receive no special status. There in the Temple of Heaven, will be a festival, The full moon of May. It will be the thirteenth day of the fifth month in the Year of the Dog.”
“That is not such a great ambition.”
“But it is ambition, nonetheless. Who among us is without flaw?”
Five years later, Master Po attends the festival only to be killed in a street fight by the emperor’s nephew, reinforcing Buddhism’s negative view of ambition. And while I have heard many sermons reminding me to keep my life content and free from ambition, is this what the scriptures teach? Do Buddhism and Christianity agree on this point?
Ambition in Scripture
At first blush, scripture seems somewhat mixed concerning ambition. James criticizes those who have “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” (James 3:14, ESV) Paul warned us against unbridled appetites (Phil 3:19) and the danger of loving money. (1 Tim 6:10) Yet, Paul makes it his “ambition to preach the gospel” (Rom 15:20) and to take the gospel to Spain. Paul tells Timothy that it is a godly ambition for some men to set their hearts on being an elder. (1 Tim 3:1)
The Bible acknowledges both good and wicked ambition, but how do we know the difference?
New Testament scholars have suggested that when Paul was converted, so was his ambition. Theologian David Kuck writes:
What Paul can teach us is that there is a gospel-centered way to speak about competitiveness, a way to be ambitious for the sake of Christ, a way to raise the desire for success above the level of self-interest or ideology.
Ambition is part of our anthropology, something God has hard-wired into human beings made in His image. Ambition is not good or evil, but something God has given us for our own and the common good.
As one author writes, ambition is “a strong desire that leads to a willingness to overcome obstacles to achieve a particular end.” Therefore, Godly ambition involves a strong desire and discipline to achieve righteous ends through righteous means. Yet, far too often, God is not a factor as we ambitiously plan our future success.
The Struggle of Ungodly Ambition
We see an example of this in Genesis 11 when a group of men gets together to build a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens. While there is nothing wrong with building a city, even one with a tower that reaches the heavens, the text reveals their motive. Their ambition is driven by the desire to make a name for themselves. It did not work out well for them.
Our offices are just outside of Washington, DC, and there are all sorts of people, many of them Christians, who come here to make a name for themselves. Many of them have partitioned off their faith from their business lives and see very little connection between what they do on Sunday with what they do on Monday. They end up using their ambition to chase selfish ends and use unrighteous means to get there. It did not work out well for most of them either.
Like the apostle Paul, we must have our ambition redeemed by the Holy Spirit’s work. Paul tells the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Phil 4:12) Paul can say this because he has learned that contentment follows Godly ambition.
If you are struggling with contentment at work, ask yourself what is motivating you. Are you seeking worldly or Godly ends? What are the means you are using to reach those ends? Paul is content at the end of the day because he knows that his love of God and neighbor drives everything he has done. (Matt 22:35-40)
Yes, this is a high bar, but it is one that God wants us all to strive for with all of our ambition.