God calls us to be ambitious for the growth and expansion of his kingdom between the “already” of our conversions and the “not yet” of our home going.

Paul David Tripp, Lead, p. 34

Tripp’s quote attempts to relieve a bit of tension for those in ministry positions. Many Christian leaders seem to struggle with the morality of ambition. On the one hand, we have all seen leadership ambition used as a means to advance platforms, use others, and do whatever it takes to advance a personal agenda. On the other hand, we all desire to make disciples and reach the nations, which requires ambitious influence. These two polar ends of the spectrum stir the tension within us as it pertains to the moral concept of ambition. The tension that many Christian leaders rightly wrestle with is distinguishing between ambition that is self-serving and ambition that is Savior exalting. Believe it or not, the lines between the two can sometimes be a bit fuzzy.

Defining Ambition

Before we begin, we should look at how the Bible defines the term “ambition.” The Apostle Paul in Romans 15:20 wrote, “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.” The Greek word in the text is “philotimoumenon” from the verb “philotimeomai.” The word may be translated as either “ambition,” “aim,” “strive,” or “labor.” Paul indicates that it is his aim or ambition to preach the gospel to those who have never heard (cf. Romans 15:17-21). Therefore, the definition of “ambition” implies a person’s motive for making something they want to happen, happen.

Does this definition line up with the other two uses of this word in the New Testament? The Greek word for “ambition” is found in both 2 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, which were also penned by the Apostle Paul. Let us review these two uses by highlighting the word in each text. 2 Corinthians 5:9 states, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” First Thessalonians 4:11 reads, “But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” From these three instances, we can rightly infer that ambition is attached to a person’s motivation, and the Bible seems to affirm and assign gospel advancing and faithful living ambition as morally praiseworthy.

Sin: The Distortion of the Good

If the three uses of “ambition” in Scripture seem to be morally praiseworthy, why do we feel tension as leaders about our ambitions? One of the reasons is that we live within the “now” and “not yet” reality. When we put our faith and trust in the work of Jesus Christ, we are now saved, but we are not yet fully sanctified. Of course, we are being sanctified in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This means that we live in the presence of God as leaders, but we still struggle with sin in the present. Therefore, we desire for our ambition to be purely motivated, but we know that the residue of sin still dwells within our hearts and thus, distorts ambition from Savior glorifying to self-serving.

The tension we experience is due to the reality that sin distorts what God has declared good. Leaders still wrestle with sin, and this means we wrestle with the motives of morally praiseworthy ambition. Paul clearly outlines ambition that is correctly motivated, but we live in an age that seems to declare success in ministry as being famous rather than one’s faithfulness. This is why I think many leaders feel tension between praiseworthy and blameworthy ambition. The former exists as God honoring and glorifying while the latter is self-exalting.

Godly ambition found in Paul’s writings is about pleasing God with our lives and exalting him by going to those who are unreached (cf. Rom 15:17-21 and 1 Cor 5:9). Yet, sometimes we can fool ourselves to think that we are displaying godly ambition by using Christian language to cover up self-exaltation. The reality is that our motives in the present reality are complex and may not be as pure as we think. This is what I call ambition fuzziness.

What Is Your Motive? The Fuzziness of Ambition

What is ambition fuzziness? For many leaders, it is difficult to determine when our ambition is morally praiseworthy and when it is morally reprehensible. This is because or motives can be mixed and complex. On occasion, we all cross the line from godly ambition to self and status, but sometimes we aim to intentionally influence others for the glory of God without self-praise. How do you know what your motives are? My recommendation is for you to ask the Holy Spirit during your prayer and Bible study times to show you your true motives as it pertains to the area of ambition. God, out of his goodness, did not leave us as orphans to figure all this out on our own, but rather gave us his Spirit to conform us into the image of his Son. One day we will no longer wrestle with sin, but until that day, we will still struggle to purse godly ambition like the Apostle Paul did in his letters. Therefore, continue “to fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12).

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