This is the second post examining ambition vs. contentment, or, in other words— If there’s something we really, really want, should we teach ourselves contentment because we don’t have it, or develop our God-given talents in order to achieve it? I promised I would examine both contentment and ambition in more depth today. But before I start I’d like to emphasize my exploration should in no way be authoritative, though I hope it’s helpful.
First, let’s look at contentment.
If contentment is something you struggle with, there are thousands of resources out there to help you develop a spirit of contentment within yourself. If man’s purpose is to glorify God, as mentioned in the previous post, then we obviously won’t be content if we focus on anything other than him. What I want to explore here is whether, knowing that we are required to be content, we should ever try to achieve anything. After all, doesn’t the drive to achieve (or ambition) stem from discontent? Usually ambition is an attempt to fill our lives on our own without God’s help.
Besides this, we must take seriously the well-known biblical passages on contentment. There are of course Paul’s well-known words about being content in all circumstances, but there is also this little gem from 1 Thessalonians 4:
“Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters… to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
This is a very modest aim!* All a Christian needs to do is live a quiet life and work with their hands. This should be very comforting for anyone who feels guilt over not running a mega-ministry, or giving up everything they own to go to the ends of the earth to spread the gospel. It’s quite clear that not every Christian is required to do the same thing Paul did, and that in fact the vast majority of Christians are just supposed to be ordinary. In other words, despite our culture insisting big ambitions are absolutely necessary, and even some well-meaning Christians trying to spur you on to do ‘great things for God,’ it is ok to live a quiet life.
This is a great relief to me, when I consider all the big, world-changing things I am not achieving.
So it is ok to live quietly–but it is ok to want to do more than that?
Well, one step to figuring this out is to recognize that too much emphasis on contentment leads to determinism.
You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try for anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just fall into your lap.
Clearly this is an unbiblical message.
There are a few caveats to the idea of contentment that help us avoid determinism. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words—strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you.
Choosing what to strive for still involves difficulties, especially when the striving involves sacrificing time or money, but I’ll discuss this under ‘ambition.’ But no one needs to be ashamed over a little goal. And there must be some big goals that can fit in a Christian life as well.
Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including contentment in the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, ‘don’t be ambitious,’ but rather, ‘I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.’ These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God—whether in chains or free (1 Corinthians 7), whether rich or poor—no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none!
We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation.
We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices—we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything.
But rather than arriving at this conclusion and then ignoring it, we should think about whether this is really correct.
It’s one thing to be content when we don’t have a choice in our situation. But should we be content when we do?
I think when we recognize our desires, we can at least try to approach them in a good way, and perhaps that can work within our overall contentment. This might be one way to approach them:
When we face desires, the first thing to realize is that every single desire in us is not a pure desire, but rather stained with sin. Even the desire to preach God’s word has a selfish inclination running through it. Yet when we examine our desires we can see many of them are not good or bad on their own. If we desire more education, for example, knowledge in and of itself is a gift from God. So after recognizing our desires and evaluating their appropriateness, we can separate out our own sinful impulses. What is wrong about our desire for this thing? And do we in fact possess any impulse to using this to glorify God, or is it only for ourselves? Obviously if it is a good or neutral thing but we really have no inclination to use it for God, we should reconsider before pursuing it.
Next, we must consider the desire in the light of the reality that we will never be satisfied. If this desire is fulfilled, we still will not have enough. Does that change how much we want it? If once we have achieved this thing we still find the same discontent bubbling up inside, will the thing we achieve still be a worthwhile thing?
Lastly, passivity and contentment are not the same thing. I’m not sure how much ambition is acceptable, but the solution to wrong ambition is not passivity. Keep this in mind, and we’ll move on to exploring ambition.
Next, let’s examine ambition.
Ambition can be defined as trying to fulfill your life on your own, but I think it’s a very limited definition if you define it only in that way. You can have “a strong desire to achieve something” while still knowing your ultimate fulfillment comes from God. But there is still a problem.
Often when we have ambition we look at what we’re good at and what we really enjoy doing. We’re incredible hockey players, or skilled artists, or wonderful musicians… or we have a real touch for soothing little babies or something and would love to have a family. And our ambition becomes doing it ‘professionally.’ Using what we’re good at in order to survive, rather than using a skill we have very little passion for in order to survive.
But is that what God calls us to do?
On one hand, we have the parable of the talents, where servants are given talents in order to use, and one is punished for not using it. We often cling to the idea that we’re given our incredible artistic skill, or entrancing musical ability, for a reason. It would be wrong not to use it. And it probably would be wrong to look at one of our gifts and pretend not to have it.
However. We know that in order to live off our painting or singing or athletic ability we must be very good. We need to devote time and energy, and often money, to getting to be very good. And even if we are very good, we may not achieve what we desire. And we are not blind to the fact that our time and energy and money can very easily achieve other worthwhile things for God if only we just became accountants. So should we chase our ambition, or try to reorient our desire?
A few people do have the assurance in their hearts that painting is what they have been put on this earth to do, and this assurance gives them the confidence to make the sacrifices. But most of us are not sure. We look at the poor as we buy expensive paint brushes and wonder if we should be donating to charity instead. Or if we should be earning a higher income so our families don’t experience so many financial problems. Or if we really should be living off the kindness of others as we pursue our dreams.
What are we justified in sacrificing when we choose one path of life over another?
It is true that the word ‘ambition’ is often paired with the word ‘selfish’ in Scripture—see James 3:16, Philippians 2:3, and 2 Corinthians 12:20. This does not mean ambition is always selfish, but it surely indicates selfishness frequently accompanies ambition. And we all have seen people treat others horribly in their drive to what they want. More than that, we know ambition often stems from our comparison with others, instead of focusing on God, and the selfish ambition the Bible refers to is often competition between people to raise themselves over each other. We fail to recognize our measurement is not ‘beating out’ other people, but rather figuring out what matters to God. So any desire we have to achieve must not stem from a desire to be superior to other people (or a fear of falling behind them).
There is actually at least one time ambition is used positively (in the English translations, at least). It’s in Romans 15, where Paul says, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.” And of course ambition to spread the gospel cannot be viewed negatively. But if that is the only kind of ambition that is ‘okay,’ then it is really only pastors and evangelists who should have any drive for anything at all. Or perhaps ordinary people who share the gospel in their spare time should view that as their ‘real’ work. But again, this seems too limiting.
One reason why vocations such as minister, evangelist, missionary, etc. start to look so attractive is because they simplify this question so much. You’re doing your work for God. Of course any sacrifice is worth it. However, Protestants have historically emphasized the worth of the work of ordinary believers—we are all working for God. We don’t need everyone doing only one job, but rather we need many different types of people for both the church and the world to function. In addition, someone can desire to be a pastor out of selfish ambition just as easily as someone might desire to be a painter. But it is much harder to justify your sacrifices for painting than for preaching. Christianity hasn’t really developed a framework for choosing vocations other than the spiritual vocations.
If Protestantism is serious about the worth of ordinary vocations, it would be helpful to devote more time to develop this sort of framework.
Now, we saw above that striving for something is not necessarily contradicting contentment, and most of us would agree that we can have ambition for a wider range of things than only spreading the gospel. When God put man in creation, he did intend for man to do more than just preach. Man was to work in creation, and enjoy creation as well. So less practical ambitions do appear to fit into Christianity better when you keep this in mind.
To sum up ambition, I’d argue that while it is easy to cast ambition negatively it is not always negative. More work needs to be done on what gives value to certain ambitions and not others, and this goes a long way to explaining why, when an ambition seems hard to justify, we fall back on ‘be content.’ But rather than just falling back on ‘be content,’ we need to seriously judge all the ways humans are meant to live in creation and use creation.
Putting Ambition and Contentment Together
Contentment does not require passivity. Contentment does not require living life without a real-life, non-spiritual goal. But contentment is the required response in the face of suffering, in the face of disappointment when we don’t reach our goals, and in the face of our continual dissatisfaction.
Ambition is a negative thing when it is centered on self-fulfilment and becoming greater than others around us. It is not always negative. A good ambition should fit in with our central goal to bring glory to God, but this does not automatically mean we must all only aim for spiritual goals. However, more exploration should be done on the worth of earthly goals, and how to choose which earthly goals to pursue—especially as each one involves sacrificing other things.
All of these considerations I’ve gone through above will not give us an easy formulaic answer every time. I wish it could. But perhaps it narrows the perimeter of the problems, and removes a few of the pitfalls that are easy to fall into.
I hope each one of you does manage to chart that narrow path between ambition and contentment as you go through life.
Two Questions for Further Consideration:
These are two questions I was not able to answer, which either someone else can study more, or I will revisit if I come to new insight 🙂
1.) How contentment can fit with our modern opportunities to change things for the better—how are they compatible?
2.) How does one know when an ambition is worth pursuing and sacrificing for?
*(Though I must admit it is still very intimidating to not be dependent on anybody, and to win the respect of outsiders. These are hard enough things to achieve, and I am with all of you struggling to stand on your own two feet.)