On the topic of Christian ambition, I heard a friend of mine present it in an interesting way one time. As he was preaching on the duties and privileges of the officer of elder, he summoned us to use our sanctified imaginations to wonder what it would be like if the younger generation aspired to the office of overseer like it quite often aspires to the office of superstar athlete. Rather than posters of Michael Jordan or Aaron Judge, what if the next generation had posters of Jared Smith or Wade Speas.
If that seems silly to you, it is in part because we are so enmeshed in the aspirations and ambitions of the prevailing culture that we hardly ever think of the offices of the church as things to which young boys ought to aspire. And yet, Paul himself says in his first letter to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1 ESV). Though we may think of ambition negatively, and it certainly can be, Christian ambition is a thing, and we should positively encourage aspirations in line with the guidance of Scripture.
Now, it’s helpful to apply the modifier “Christian” to ambition because it is true that ambition is often a negative thing. It often includes a notion of self-interest at the expense of others. Unsurprisingly, then, when Paul lays out for the Ephesian elders his own take on Christian ambition in his speech to them in Acts 20, it is quite counter-cultural. Using his own ministry to the Ephesian church as a model, he sketches out a model of leadership that is quite unlike what you will find in most leadership books. I’ll just make two observations to reinforce this point.
In the first place, he reminds the Ephesians that he never sought to build himself up. His service to them was characterized by modesty. He did not seek to exalt himself, but to be lowly among them. He didn’t preserve a detailed resume of his ministry among them so that he could boast of it later, but humbly sought to serve that church for their sake. That is to say, Paul was encouraging these elders to aspire to humility.
Secondly, he called them to cast off false notions of strength. Though the world will tell you that there is no crying in baseball, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that his affections were engaged in his ministry. His tears were not manipulative, nor were they really an indicator of weakness. Rather, they were evidence of his deep concern for others and a willingness to allow a place for the pain of life in this fallen world.
However, Christian ambition is not reserved only for those who seek the office of elder. More generally, Christian ambition is something in Scripture that defines the ways we ought to aspire to live in this world. To develop this idea, we can briefly consider three texts that make reference to Christian ambition. In these texts, it remains true that the Christian’s ambition is quite different from the world’s.
To begin, we can consider Paul’s own words to the church at Rome about his own ambition more broadly. In Rom 15:20 (ESV), Paul says, “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 idea here is that Paul’s ambition is to fulfill the calling that God has placed on his life. His ambition as the apostle to the Gentiles is to preach to those who have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. His ambition is to zealously pursue his purpose in life which God has given to him. The Christian’s ambition is always the same: to immerse oneself in whatever pursuit God has called one to pursue.
Closely related to this idea, Paul says to the Corinthians, “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:8-9 NAS). As Christian’s zealously pursue God’s call on their lives, their ambition is to please God in that pursuit rather than themselves. The Christian’s ambition is not inwardly focused but God-wardly focused.
Finally, Paul says to the Thessalonians, “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” (1 Thess 4:11 NIV). Christian ambition is quiet ambition. As the Christian zealously pursues God’s call so that God would be pleased, there is nothing fancy that happens. No fanfare is desired. Christian ambition is to desire to work hard for the glory of God.