I’m always deeply conflicted about the tension between ambition and faithfulness to Christ. On the one hand, I was taught from a young age to believe in the Bible’s call to surrender, to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever He leads. And I still believe it now. So “follow your dream” talk makes me nervous whenever I hear it.
“Follow your dream” talk makes me nervous whenever I hear it.
At the same time, I do believe God helps us, especially as we grow into adulthood, to find our gifts and strengths and talents and where they might be best applied in the body of Christ. So I think ambition is healthy at times.
I’ve experienced all kinds of struggles trying to sort out where in my personal life ambition belongs, if anywhere at all. It seems reasonable that “following my dream” while exercising my God-given gifts and talents and “being all that I can be” is gratifying to my Creator. My deliberate choice to follow Jesus must take precedence over and inform all of my ambition. After all, following Jesus is a priceless privilege and the hinge on which all my existence, peace, and joy depend. I suspect that when my primary aim is to follow Jesus, my ambitions align with His plans and purposes for my life.
It seems that my ambitions pose threats only when I’m more focused on following them than Jesus. In other words, it seems that my greatest struggle is not to reject my aspirations, or to despise money, prestige, or success, but to remain primarily focused on following Him while living in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it.
I love that thought—you’re really striking at something important. Ambition and surrender are not enemies. In fact, I think they are tied together in one sense of calling. When we listen to the Lord, when we apply our gifts and talents to the God-given opportunities in front of us, we should be really ambitious about doing what it is God has put us on earth to do. To be lethargic and blasé about pursuing the mission of God is not a virtue.
I suspect that when my primary aim is to follow Jesus, my ambitions align with His plans and purposes for my life.
When I’m evaluating people to join my team, one of the things I look for is this mix of ambition and calling and listening to God. Too often I’ve found that young Christians are so consumed with finding this ethereal sense of “God’s will” that they are unable to make choices, to put one foot in front of the other. Or I have to coax them into action. I’d much rather have someone a bit overambitious working for me, whom I can slow down a bit and channel energy into his or her calling.
On the other hand, it’s important for us, I think, to guard against confusing our calling with “trying to be a thing.” This is a fine line—and something we often don’t see in ourselves and need others to point out. But a good diagnostic question is, Am I trying to make a name for myself or am I trying to pursue meaningful work for the glory of God?
I resonate with that question. I wish I could trust myself to answer truthfully. However, over my 68 years, I’ve seen how easily my motives become mixed and how naturally my life becomes a bundle of paradoxes.
Herein lies, for me, one of the most remarkable and compelling characteristics of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus never occupied Himself with selfish ambitions He had set or allowed others to impose. To the contrary, His one ambition was doing the will of God. From His first recorded words in the temple (“Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2:49 NLT]) to His last words on the cross (“Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” [Luke 23:46 NLT]). He claimed, “The Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing” [John 5:19 NLT]).
In the context of our conversation, it’s fascinating to me that the first thing Jesus asked His recruits was, “What do you want?” (John 1:38 NLT). Again and again, Jesus asked people about their ambitions. He never aims to dismiss or deny people’s longings. Jesus sees the opportunity for transformation hidden within people’s desires. His most intimate interactions often revealed the true nature of people’s yearnings, leading them to make space for God in their life.
I’ve spent the past 20 years exploring the ancient connection between desire and discipleship. I’m utterly convinced that the depth of our intimacy with God is proportional to the intensity of our passion for God. In his classic A Testament of Devotion, Thomas R. Kelly provides constant reassurance that the life we long for is genuinely possible, on the condition that we must want to attain it.
So ambition, it seems, has its rightful place, as long as it’s aimed in the right direction. My prayer today: “God, give me the right desire.”
That’s a great point on “the connection between desire and discipleship.” Sometimes our teaching in evangelical circles comes across to us as “Don’t have dreams and don’t have desires.” But it’s not that our dreams are wrong—it’s that they are misdirected. So the more we grow in our intimacy with Christ, the more He shapes our desires in ways that align with His mission. This is what I think the psalmist means when he says “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Think of David. His dream was to build a temple for God. God’s response, in 2 Samuel 7, was essentially, “David, I don’t need a temple to show my glory on the earth. I’m not like those false gods. And your dreams are too small. I am not only going to have a temple built by your son, but I’m also going to build out of your family an everlasting kingdom and an everlasting throne.”
Jesus never aims to dismiss people’s longings. He sees the opportunity for transformation hidden within their desires.
God does use our dreams to accomplish His purposes. But if we’re being honest, quite often His will for us is to suffer and experience hardship in this life. Sometimes His will for us is obscure and private and unlike what the world considers success. Yet even as we suffer for His name’s sake, this is only for but a short whisper of time. One day our longings will be perfectly pure and will be fully and finally realized in the New Jerusalem as we rule and reign with Him forever.
I love the distinction you make: “It’s not that our dreams are wrong—it’s that they are misdirected,” followed with your keen insight about how “God shapes our desires so they align with His.”
I wholeheartedly agree that it’s God who redirects and shapes our desires. To believe that it’s our responsibility is a terrible mistake, setting us up for a lifetime of failure and disappointment. Instead, our task is to allow God to undertake the necessary renovation of our desires.
When His desires become our desires, we experience the fullness of life that Jesus had in mind when He asked, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matt. 7:9-11). God yearns to give us the good things our hearts desire. But to receive them, our hearts must begin beating in sync with His.
Illustration by João Fazenda