On its face, ambition means we’re working hard to achieve something. As long as that desire and determination is wrapped up in God’s glory and not our own, it’s a good impulse. But in all of us, the lines can blur and cause a sort of whiplash. One day we work joyfully unto the Lord, and the next we’re dominated by the idol of self-made success. So we wonder: How do I discern when my ambition is godly? Is godly ambition only related to missions work? Does having concrete goals of “success” mean that I’m not trusting God’s unseen hand?
Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s good to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.
Godly Ambition Hustles
God has made us to use our hands, our minds, and our time to love others through our labor. He’s blessed us with business savvy, or mathematical acuity, or teaching ability, or the patience to read through tax documents, or the organizational gifting to run an office. When driven by God-centered ambition, we will produce our best work.
We should work hard and take the classes, read the books, listen to the podcasts, seek the mentors, or whatever else seems helpful to accomplish our ambitions. We should grit our teeth and try and try again, instead of sitting around and waiting for God to “open a door.” Whatever our craft, success doesn’t just happen—laboring unto the Lord requires hustle.
The passive person who shuns personal effort because they “trust God” might sound spiritual, but the sentiment is an excuse for laziness and lack of responsibility. Trusting God for a harvest is worthless if you’re unwilling to plant and water seeds.
Like most new writers, I wish I could “trust God” to hand me success on a silver platter and have a publisher come knocking at my door. I don’t want to worry about things like marketing and platform—I just want to write! But, it doesn’t work like that. Nobody pursues unknown writers with a book deal. If I expect an easy road, it shows that I feel entitled to success, and entitlement is rooted in pride.
Trusting God doesn’t mean folding our hands, it means using the hands He’s given us to hustle.
Godly Ambition is Humble
That said, countless people hustle for the wrong reasons. They build alters of wealth, fame, and admiration, and seek their worth in accomplishments. Such self-aggrandizement has no place in the Kingdom of God.
We’ve each been given gifts to steward for the glory of God, growth of the church, and good of our neighbors. This isn’t just about formal ministry. A CEO, a chef, a stay-at-home mom, a writer, a teacher, a doctor, a plumber, a waitress, a photographer, and a farmer can incorporate these ambitions into their work.
When we’re humbly ambitious, we’ll be far more concerned about how our work reflects on God than how it reflects on us. We’ll be far more driven to grow for the sake of our neighbors rather than ourselves. We’ll cultivate creatively because we love to imitate the Creator of all good things. We’ll strive to increase our profits with integrity, and manage them as godly stewards. We’ll go for the promotion, because we want to better serve our families and employers. Our hustle won’t be for the honor of our name but for the honor of His.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with my ambition to write and sell lots of books. I love writing, believe God’s called me to it, and want my labor to be fruitful. Books can’t yield fruit unless people actually read them! But I know that my ambition is tainted—I do crave affirmation from others besides God—and that’s what must be crucified.
We don’t crucify pride by stifling ambition, but by refining it. And the only way to fight our thirst for glory is to be consumed with His. Nothing keeps us humble like drawing near to the Holy One. The more we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the more our work will be worship unto Him.
Author’s note: this article was first published at The Gospel Coalition