A few years ago I wrote the book Rescuing Ambition and called for a rescue. I wanted to snatch ambition from the heap of failed motivations and put it to work for the glory of God. I wanted Christians to realize that to understand our ambition, we must understand that we are on a quest for glory. And where we find glory determines the success of our quest. Since I wrote that book, many suggested that I address God’s design for ambition in the workplace and in one’s daily calling. This is part 4 of a multi-part series on rescuing ambition in the workplace. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here and part 3 here.
What happens when selfishness, false humility, or disillusionment stifle ambition? What’s the result when “I don’t want to be that hard-driving, win-at-all-costs jerk” morphs into “I don’t have any dreams at all”?
The nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville described it well, long before “middlescence” became a buzzword:
What worries me most is the danger that amid all the constant, trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time base with the result that progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.
Tocqueville’s observation should worry all of us. There is an unintended consequence when we stigmatize ambition. It shrinks. Men don’t aspire. Women don’t dream. Kids don’t want to be astronauts; they’re content to watch them on TV. Dreams give way to concerns about safety and the protection of our way of life. Our inner pioneer retires, content to putter around rather than produce. We memorialize the past and abandon the future. Life impact gets buried under life management. Becoming settles for simply being. Ambition, as Tocqueville observed, loses its force and its greatness.
And being a Christian doesn’t mean this is what your day at work should look like.
Imagine two workers, both Christians. One sees his job as a hindrance to his desire for impact—a life that counts. Work is what you have to do to make a living. Daily grind stuff. In his mind, your vocation is how you pass the time waiting for God to put you into the real game.
The other Christian goes to work each day knowing that he is representing the King of Kings—his true Master. He’s an ambassador in a cubicle. Every work relationship has eternal significance. Every project is an opportunity to reflect the Creator himself. This guy wants to excel because that will increase his influence for the gospel. Work matters because it’s the field God has entrusted to him. It’s a place to sow ambition, and I mean the good kind.
What’s it all mean? Here’s the big point: God is looking for a holy ambition. Not the self-centered kind of ambition that evaluates success only by ascent. No! I’m talking about the white-hot, courageous, fiercely humble and humbly fierce ambition that burns to see Christ’s name exalted and God’s purposes advanced. I wrote Rescuing Ambition as an impassioned plea to ignite this kind of ambition.
Paul had it. He said, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Rom. 15:19–20).
Paul’s ambition had accomplished something amazing: “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s quite a goal to check off the to-do list! To be able to die saying that should satisfy any Christian. But Paul was not satisfied. He was grateful for present fruit but ambitious for future opportunity. Unlike a corporate executive who is always busy but never finished, Paul’s godly ambitions allowed him to perceive that his work in one place was done. They also led him to consider new places he could go to glorify God’s name through the gospel. Content in the present but hungry for the future—that was Paul, the apostle of ambition.
Are we called to be ambitious? Most definitely. But the aim of our ambition is gospel clarity for the workplace, fruitful work for the good of others, godly character for a strong work ethic, for integrity, for strong and clear leadership. We’re not looking to stroke our own ego or fulfill our own dreams. No, we’re looking to make a statement about the gospel and to testify to the powerful work of grace within us to help us walk a different road. Christians belong in the marketplace because the gospel belongs in the marketplace.
The Call to Compete
My CEO friend perceived a real need among Christians—the need for Paul’s motivation in today’s marketplace. An aspiration to exploit our gifts for their full God-glorifying potential, an ambition that lives grateful for past success while stretching and straining forward to what lies ahead.
Why should the business world be left to the selfishly ambitious? My desire is to see godly Christians open up branch offices for godly ambition right in the heart of commerce, government, academy, and institution. Wherever ideas are being put into play, the gospel has things to say. We need an ambition that won’t rest until more businesses are started, more leaders trained, more problems solved, more marriages helped, more art created, more people reached, more churches planted, more disciples made; an ambition that lives happy today but wants more for God and from God tomorrow.
Why shouldn’t that be you?
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, quoted in David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 271.