3 Questions to Ask Your Ambitions
For the Christian, ambition is not some optional add-on to the work we do. We bear the image of a creative God who has done all things with excellence and has called us to reflect Him in every endeavor. As poet Scott Cairns writes: “Either we are called to greatness, or we are not called at all.”1
“Ambition is a many-splendored, much-maligned thing,” writes Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith in his latest book, On the Road with Saint Augustine. He points out that ambition can function as virtue or vice, depending on the situation. Surrounded by corporate ladder-climbing, social media self-aggrandizing, or even prideful ministry power-grabbing? Then ambition is offensive, ugly, and vicious.
But if, on the other hand, “you’re surrounded by placid, passive, go-with-the-flow, aw-shucks folk who are leaving unused gifts on the table and failing to respond to their calling, then ambition looks like faithfulness” (77).
How can we know if our relationship with ambition is healthy or harmful? How can we assess if we are in the “safe zone” of ambition-as-faithfulness, and just as importantly: how do we stay there?
Finding our way home to sanctified ambitions begins with asking the right questions.
What outcome have I placed my hope in?
What do I hope to gain with my ambition? Or perhaps a better way of asking the question is: what is my ambition aimed at? Not only will determining this help us to quantify current levels of success, it will reveal the aspirations of our heart.
At our most honest moments of exploring this question, we are likely to find a bundle of complicated desires: notoriety, attention, domination, pride…and the list goes on.
For Augustine, and for Christians today in any industry, our ambition should be for the sake of bringing honor to the God who does all things with excellence, precision, and care (1 Cor. 10:31).
Why do I want this?
Ultimately, we want to learn two things here. First, is this a goal worth having? People spend years, if not decades, in pursuit of ambitions that are little more than chasing the wind (Eccl. 1:14). Second, do I want this thing for the right reasons?
Do you feel the need to be busy at all times because, at root, you really believe the appearance of busyness is necessary for being (and feeling) important? Could it be that your perfectionism is motivated by a fear that your insufficiencies make you undeserving of someone’s love? Is it possible that your pristine Instagram feed, complete with color-coordinated home decor and carefully curated “imperfections,” is really an attempt to make yourself worthy of being noticed?
The scary reality is that many of our motivations lie closer to idolatry than to faithfulness. Smith points out the cutting irony: “Our idolatries are less like conscious decisions to believe a falsehood and more like learned dispositions to hope in what will disappoint” (82). And later, “we choose anxiety and fear over simplicity and merriment. It’s as if we imagine our frantic ambition will bring joy” (86).
The gospel has better answers than our idols.
We are important because we bear the image of a divine creator (Gen. 1:26-27). While we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8), we were made worthy of earthly love by His divine love for us. By the very act of loving us in the midst of our ugliness, His love makes us beautiful. And we are already worthy of being noticed, because the Lord not only takes notice of us, but delights over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17 CSB).
We cannot ignore what Smith calls the “Augustinian question” of ambition: “What do I love when I long for achievement?” (78).
Would attaining this outcome give evidence of rightly ordered loves within my own heart?
For Augustine, the fundamental characteristic of personhood and individuality is all about what we love–not so much what we do or say or even believe. And because of sin, we move through the world with restless hearts that are fueled by disordered loves.
We love lesser things too greatly.
We give undue affection and inordinate longing to fleeting pleasures and cheap thrills.
We make tiny gods out of small concerns.
Rest from this frenetic wandering is found only in God. More specifically, God finds us in our waywardness and begins to re-order the chaos of our longings. He rightly orders the loves in our hearts, teaching us to love Himself wholly and then to love our neighbor sacrificially (Matt. 22:37-39).
So we are left to ask whether our current ambitions illustrate hearts of rightly ordered loves or disordered affections. “He loves you too little who loves anything together with you, which he does not love for your sake,” Augustine famously wrote. Wherever my ambition is aimed, does that trajectory bend toward the fame of God’s name, or my own? Whose glory marks both road and resting place of my ambition?
One useful practice on this road is to regularly check in: is my ambition leading toward burnout or toward joy?
“For Augustine, we are made for joy. Joy is another name for the rest we find when we give ourselves over to the One who, for the joy that was set before him, gave himself for us. We find joy when we look for the satisfaction of our hungers in the Triune God who will never leave us or forsake us, when we find our enjoyment in an immortal God whose love is unfailing. That is rightly ordered love, and it is rightly ordered worship” (82).
The narrator of Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Great Silence” rightly observes: “It’s no coincidence that ‘aspiration’ means both hope and the act of breathing.” Right there, baked into our very language, is the reality: if we are breathing, we are also striving, dreaming, reaching. Ambition is not going anywhere, and it isn’t optional. The work of the Christian life is to bend our aspirations toward honoring Christ with both the means and ends of our ambition.
- Quoted in Smith, James K. A. On the Road with Saint Augustine. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), p. 78.