There two possible meanings of “ambitious.” (1) “having a desire to achieve a particular goal” and (2) “having a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous.” For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that Christians should be ambitious in this first sense. It is wise to set goals and then desire to achieve them, presuming the goal is worthy. My interest is in that second sense, and here particularly, in the realm of one’s career. Should Christians be ambitious in their careers? Should a Christian want to be “the boss?”
I feel two tensions here. The first tension pertains to internal motivations. Does the desire to move up the ladder come from pride? Does it come from a desire to be seen as great in the eyes of others? Do we desire external success (a promotion, a raise, greater fame) because it will validate us or give us a sense of worth? Do we want the extra power for its own sake? This sort of “naked ambition” comes from a heart that is not satisfied in God. This would be a cause to reconsider your deepest values, deepest loves.
But on the other side of this pride is a false humility wherein we bury the talents God has given us. Are we shirking added responsibilities and thereby withholding our gifts from God and from our neighbors? Are we so “content” in our present condition that we’re unwilling to step up and step out into the more dangerous and risky world that God is calling us to?
On the one side there is see the danger of pride. On the other side is the danger of neglect or laziness. In the Gospel at Work, authors Traeger and Gilbert describe these as the dangers of idolatry and idleness.
The second, and related, tension, pertains to the expected outcome; the goal. Whose kingdom are you building? Are you building your own personal kingdom or are you building the kingdom of God? That is, are you primarily serving yourself or others?
How can ambition be used to serve others? There are several ways: Perhaps you want to increase your salary so that your family no longer lives so close to the bone? Or perhaps you want to make more money so that you can be more generous with others? Or, perhaps you know that by taking or seeking that promotion you can help the business you work for better serve its customers. For most jobs, to be skilled in that job and to be in a position to utilize those skills, gives you opportunities to do appreciable, even if modest, good to your neighbor.
But perhaps your ambition has nothing to do with serving others. What would that look like? Seeking a promotion or a new position even though you know you aren’t skilled or qualified to really carry out the job well. Seeking wealth purely for its own sake or (going back to the beginning) simply out of pride, for the feeling that you “made it.”
We come back again to the same dangers we saw before. On the one side is the desire to build your own kingdom, for your own sake. On the other side is a disregard for – or perhaps fear of – using your gifts for the sake of your neighbor.
Where does this leave us? Should Christians be ambitions? My answer is that it depends on your motivation. Are you trying to serve only yourself or are you trying to serve God and others? Are you trying to glorify yourself or are you doing everything to the glory of God?