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  • Jonathan Shumate

Cultivating a Holy Ambition, Part 2


[Read Part 1 here.]


If holy ambition is about servanthood, about treasuring Christ above all else in our work, then how do we do it and model it?


We work hard by God’s grace, to fulfill a holy calling with humility, for God’s glory.


We work hard. We are not given the option of laziness just because God is sovereign. And we know that all our work depends on God’s grace to have any meaning or fruitfulness. Our work must be marked by humility and self-forgetfulness, because our eyes are so fixed on Christ. We must pursue things pleasing and desirable to God with the steadfast goal of God’s glory.


By “work,” I mean the full range of constructive things we do here on earth. There is no division between the “sacred” and “secular.” In other words, being a missionary or pastor is no more holy or pleasing to God in and of itself than being a physicist or barber. All of these callings (assuming they are ethical) can and should serve God’s ends in the world.


Remember that work is rooted in creation. God gave Adam and Eve the grand job to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” over it (Genesis 1:28). In God’s perfect plan, work was to be delightful and fulfilling, and magnify his love and loveliness throughout creation. The back-breaking toil it has become is due to the fall of humankind: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). We long for God’s restoration of all things when work will once again be pure pleasure; until then we endure the hardships but aim for our work to reflect its original purpose.


Rest, too, is rooted in creation. God rested on the seventh day and he commands us to do the same. Jesus reinforces this command, with his burden-breaking, joy-restoring corrective to legalism: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Rest is not laziness or copping out, and it is not optional. It is a gift, meant for our restoration and our continued dependence on God. Ambition that shuns rest will not succeed in the long run. Take care not to believe the strange lie that becoming a workaholic in the name of doing more for God is impressive to him.


That the next generation might know


If God has called you to marriage and given you children, your foremost ministry is to your family. The Bible teaches illustratively about the unique importance of marriage and its reflection of Christ's relationship with the church. The inherent dependence of our children, coupled with the Bible's repeated exhortations to "teach them diligently" (Deuteronomy 6:7) about the ways of the Lord and to "tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done…that the next generation might know…so that they should set their hope in God." (Psalm 78:4-7)—these make it very clear that God will hold us accountable for the discipleship of our children.


Our ambition must prioritize this. I am not talking about letting the world revolve around our kids, which teaches them a worldview of entitlement and self-absorption. The point is to invest in them so that their world revolves around the Lord.

How do we raise our children to believe and follow this?


We disciple them in the truth. We teach them the whole counsel of Scripture. We teach them that true success is modeled and enacted by the once-dead and now-risen Jesus. We impress in their minds the counter-cultural idea that servanthood is the path to glory, and that pleasing God is more desirable than pleasing themselves or the world.


Modeling servanthood is key. If our children see and participate with us in loving, serving, and learning from the “least of these,” their hearts catch the idea that this is what we do; this is special and a great privilege. This is what God loves and this is what I love. This is true life. And we will not have many greater joys than witnessing our kids selflessly care for someone else, glowing from the joy of it.


We must examine how we are living as individuals and families. Do we tell our children that most of all we want to please God, and then throw a fit when we don’t get that job promotion, or mourn despondently that our body does not look like it did in our youth? Do we tell them that our treasure is in heaven, but hoard our money and drool after the endless torrent of bigger and better stuff? Do we yearn (and pray) most of all for holiness and joy and justice, or to win what we want and finally be on top? Do we gather with the body of Christ faithfully even when it costs us something, or do we make church and fellowship a lukewarm priority?


We must also have educational and career expectations for them that line up with these truths. Do we drill it into their heads that education is about getting the best grades and the most recognition, to get into the best college with the most recognition, to get the best job with the most recognition? Do we do the same thing subtly, by being over the moon about academic achievement and hardly involved in their spiritual development? What messages do we send, explicitly and implicitly, to communicate that our most cherished hope for them is an upward-climbing career?


Instead, let us encourage and support them in diligently flourishing in their studies and later in their families and careers, so that they can minister God’s love and truth in their life’s work. Let us grow our philosophy on the trellis of knowing that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,” and that “it is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2). Let us place success within the helpful boundary of knowing that all of it is worth nothing if we magnify ourselves instead of Christ.


How will people respond?


This vignette about John G. Paton never fails to snap me back to the real point of life. He and his wife, upon their departure to be missionaries to an unreached island, were warned by an elder that they would be eaten by cannibals. Paton responded:


"Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms."


I’m thankful it is very unlikely for most of us to be eaten by cannibals. Still, following Christ means giving up things that even fellow Christians do not understand.


Some people are frightened by giving up the security of worldly gain, and want to silence others who say this is what Christ calls us to. Some have come up with the idea that worldly influence, at any cost, is the means to do the most good in the world. But imagined “good” does not justify unholy living, and wealth is more seductive than any of us imagine (recall the parable of the sower and the seeds sown among thorns: Matt 13:18-23). Many people simply think that worldly treasure is the only treasure, and you are a fool to give it up for something unseen.


Giving up your opportunities to “live to the fullest” is seen as a betrayal of yourself; a betrayal of the god within and all he or she could accomplish. If you give up any worldly advantage to raise your children and serve your family, as a man or woman, you are a dupe. As a woman, you are even worse: a traitor to the cause.


It is good to be prepared for these reactions, and fortify ourselves with truth so as not to turn back when the path is lonely.


God with us


If God gives us opportunities, such as intelligence, skills, and education, we use them for his kingdom, without shame. His gifts are not signs of superiority or occasions for guilt. Do it all for God’s glory. But be on your guard. Earthly success is not an enemy, but we know that the true enemy will happily use success to destroy us by diverting our attention and affection to something other than the Lord.


There is no easy and clear-sailing flow chart for living out holy ambition. But God will not leave us bewildered; he will answer us when we ask him to make us holy and to live for his glory. He may not (probably won’t) give us a neon sign telling us how to make every choice, but he himself will be with us.