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  • Jonathan Shumate

Cultivating a Holy Ambition

Updated: Oct 10, 2018


I grew up with a grueling ambition to be the absolute best—it was my whole identity. Even now as a believer with my hope set in Christ, I sometimes wonder if I am enough to be worthwhile, usually based on comparison with others. Please, my soul begs, when am I enough so that I can be at peace?


Never, as long as my ambition is centered on me rather than God.


Too often we absorb cultural assumptions as fact—as something barely examined, like breathing or gravity. We happily believe that our education and career are for our own exaltation; if our life path does not serve the end goal of “being all we can be,” then it is a waste of talent and training. A sacrificial mindset focused on God’s desires is either absent from our thinking, or denounced as subjugation.


I desperately do not want my children to walk the same harsh and deadly road of selfish ambition that I once walked. I can see clearly now that much of what I strove for—worshipped, really—betrayed me, as false gods are certain to do. My utmost desire for my children is that they love the Lord and walk in his ways all the days of their lives. That is the sum of success. Anything else, no matter how glowing, is a mirage.


What are the best questions?


Many of us Christian parents aspire for our children to become competent and successful in their spheres of influence, to God’s glory.


But what if my child has a disability? Or, God forbid, has a short lifespan? What if my child’s skill set or intelligence does not incline them toward college or a white-collar job? What if my child is not a leader in the traditional sense, or is content with “less:” less money, less prestige, less visibility? Will he or she be a success still?


And for those billions of people living in a very different culture from mine: What if success means having enough food to eat? Having a sturdy home? Having a skill that allows for an honorable job? What if becoming great in the world’s eyes is not on the radar?


What is success in God’s eyes? And how do we Christians envision and live out a holy ambition, empowering our children to do the same?


The founder and perfecter of our faith


When God in the flesh walked on this earth, he worked a trade with his father and learned from his Heavenly Father. His short period of public ministry drew a following, but it seemed to dissolve at his death. He alienated most of the religious and political leaders around him, even within Judaism. At his crucifixion he was readily forsaken by almost everyone.


But that is neither the full story nor the end of the story. Jesus died as the exact fulfillment of God’s plan from before the beginning of time, to save his people from their sins, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). His ransomed followers will come from every tribe and tongue and nation. His death was not even the end of his work. He rose again, defeating death, and foreshadowing our own resurrection to eternal life with God. Christ, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” and is now “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).


His death and resurrection were the greatest success the world has ever known. There is no greater glory than that which Christ earned.


We children of God who died with Christ will be raised and glorified with him. We will share his precious inheritance as his brothers and sisters. We receive not only ultimate glory but the heady, nourishing love of our Heavenly Father that we all crave and for which we will find various substitutes until we are found by him.


If Christ’s death accomplished this for him and for us, should we not sprint forward to die to self along with him? He died that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). It sounds like madness to the flesh, but with an eternal perspective, it is the most rational route to ultimate success.


Servanthood and glory


Philippians 2:3-9ff is the best explanation we could ask for:


“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves… Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name...”


Selfish ambition goes hand in hand with conceit and only caring about our own interests. We are instead called to observe and emulate Jesus, to look to others and their needs as more important than ourselves, and to become servants in humble obedience to God.


Jesus was obedient to the point of death, and though we too may die for the Lord, we will certainly not die the atoning death he died, experiencing God’s wrath. But because of his obedience in degradation, Jesus is now exalted above all, worshipped rightfully as God. It was worth it.


We are wise to follow Jesus and seek after heavenly treasure that cannot be stolen or destroyed by decay. The things we chase in selfish ambition—exalted positions, wealth, envied experiences, physical beauty—will burn in God’s judgment.


In God’s estimation of success, the day laborer who reads haltingly and has no degrees, and gives freely to those in need out of love for Christ, is a success. The paraplegic who cannot work or walk, and lives daily with faith in Christ that secures joy and hope, is a success. And the millions of people who struggle every day to procure life’s necessities without any fanfare, and who bow down before Christ, are successes.


Servanthood is the route to true glory.


(Read Part 2 here.)