I write this article on the day commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who is of course best known for his leadership in the movement that broke the stranglehold of segregation from the lives of black Americans. Though it is not often factored into his great legacy, King also had a profound conviction about the importance of ambition and excellence in vocational work and the effect hard work has on the formation of character.
Undoubtedly King’s great ambition was a determining factor in the success of the freedom movement, as it would have been impossible to capture the conscience of the nation and achieve landmark legislative success without ambitious goals. As formidable as segregation was in the 1950s and 1960s American South, it would not have been defeated without ambition and the excellence of implementation it produces.
Often Christians feel squeamish or hesitant about ambition. We are rightly sensitive to the ways ambition has driven some among us to greed and has caused others to neglect their families and spiritual lives.
But, I ask, is such a commitment to ambition and excellence godly? Which is to further inquire if it is a proper attribute for a Christian? And if so, how does ambition and excellence inform our discipleship’s emphasis on vocation and how should it influence how pastors pursue their callings as leaders, preachers, and shepherds?
Ambition, Excellence, and the Bible
Is it surprising that Paul, who is known by many Bible students as the apostle of grace, often chose effort language to describe his ministry and to validate his calling? In 1 Corinthians 15:8 he explains that the grace he champions was not without effect in his ministry because he “worked harder” than the other apostles.
We should not think this is the language of competition but of commitment and proof the self-evident grace that was in the work of the twelve was undeniably present in Paul’s labors because he worked even harder than they did.
Paul uses similar language when exhorting his protégé Timothy in his ministerial calling: “the hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops” (2 Tim 2:6). And even in his first letter to Timothy, Paul’s instruction is meant to instill ministerial excellence. As he states, “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Tim 4:15). Apparently, the mindset Paul wanted for his apprentices was one of discipline, hard work, ambition, and excellence.
And yet I find way more emphasis on rest and sabbath language in discipleship talk today than on the diligent pursuit of godly ambition and excellence.
These are not mutually exclusive, of course, but might an increased emphasis on ambition and excellence in how we disciple our men and women result in a kingdom harvest?
Ambition Principles and Practices for the Church
John Wesley’s provocative statement to the English Methodists that they should make as much money as they can, save as much as they can, and give away as much as they can has always struck me as a revolutionary statement from a missionary-minded gospel preacher. Should we really aspire to make as much money as we can? Well, yes, if you want to maximize your generosity. According to Wesley’s logic, our capacity to give meaningfully to others is not simply measured by our resources, but by the size of our desire to increase those resources for optimal giving.
In Acts 20:34-35, Paul explains the work he and his companions did with their “own hands” was not just to ensure their independence from those they served in gospel ministry but to show the Ephesians that “by this kind of hard work we must help the weak.” It seems we cannot meaningfully help the weak without the initiative and drive, indeed the ambition, to serve them from the fruit of our work, and Paul wanted that important principle to be caught by those he mentored in the faith and Christian leadership.
This has far-reaching implications for those of us who are pastors.
If we are going to instill ambition and excellence in those they disciple, we are going to need to demonstrate and model the same. We need to be clear that excellence is not about achievement or success. It is about commitment and the urgency of work and the prioritization of its results. This means that pastors have to labor hard in leadership, preaching and shepherding if their congregants will steward their own labors for the success of the kingdom and gospel ministry. By implication, pastors then must be consistently prepared for meetings, give thoughtful consideration to the missional direction of their churches and wrestle with other leaders around the effectiveness of their vision, they must fight and pray to get command of the texts they preach and teach, and be just as concerned with how they present God’s Word. Pastors will be stretched to spend time with their people in shepherding relationships, doing visitation, making phone calls, and above all praying fervently for all the saints under their care. This is hard work and requires ambition — even a desire not to be outdone by others in the same calling.
Such a commitment to diligent excellence is much more likely to capture in the minds and hearts of men and women when they are convinced that such a mindset is essential to following Christ and furthering the cause of his work. Being like Jesus is having a prayerful ambition, even asking the Father to send ambitious workers into his vineyard for a bountiful harvest.
Ambition Is Risky
However, ambition does not come without its spiritual risks, and it can undermine the very goal of discipleship which is to see people formed into Christlikeness.
Since Solomon tells us that “all hard work brings a profit,” we must know that the ambitious pursuit of excellence is likely to result in success. And nothing can corrupt the soul and produce pride like achievement.
How does one guard against temptation and not end up standing opposite God due to overinflated confidence?
Moses anticipated this risk for Israel when he confronted it in Deuteronomy 8:17-18:
“You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”
Moses reminds them that the prosperity they are enjoying has only come by God’s gracious provision, not their own power. Though it may be true that our productivity is the means by which wealth is attained, we must know that it is only because the Lord has chosen our labor as the means of his provision.
Since we are called to work, he blesses it. And so, we must remind ourselves of that so that ambition does not lure us away from God as it produces a return on the investment of our excellent labors.
Another way ambition is a risk to our souls is by it becoming overinflated such that we pursue production or aspire to success for its own sake. Not in fulfilling the loving and kingdom ends that our endeavors are meant to satisfy.
We must know that in God’s economy all productivity is intended for redemptive and gracious purposes, i.e. providing for the needs of our family, giving to those who don’t have what they need, and supporting God’s kingdom work. There is no godly way to abstract our ambition from those ends. And certainly, our ambition must never be intended as the means for us to tantalize our appetites with rare and scrumptious worldly delights.
Excellence on its own is only glorifying to God when it achieves purposes which are themselves glorifying to God.
All aspiration and excellence is a stewardship of the gifts that undergird them. Those gifts are given to us for Christ’s glory and the strengthening of Christ’s body; discipleship must emphasize this, even as ministers model it.
And now, my mind returns to King and lands on his famous “The Street Sweeper” message: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
Might heaven take notice of our ambitious diligence?
Is there a diligence in our vocation and our ministry that can be said to produce both godliness and gospel effectiveness? If diligent work is the means God supplies for gospel ministry, then yes. If aspirational excellence is the means by which God provides for families, whether through earnings or through gifts out of the earnings of others, then yes. If the labors of ministers result in the salvation and sanctification of souls, then absolutely yes.
Ambition is never optional, nor is excellence reserved only for those who decide to pursue it. Because in light of the ambitious excellence of Jesus’ ministry, we are called to ambitious excellence, since we are all called to be like him.