I’m going to try a different type of article today, and perhaps a few more times in the upcoming year. I’m going to explore the tension between two valuable concepts, and see if there’s a way to reduce the tension a little. There are two opposite messages our culture tells us, and which Christianity repeats without much additional judgement being applied to these messages. First, we’re told to be grateful for everything we have, since no one gets everything they want anyway. Christianity attaches Paul’s words to ‘be content’ to this idea. Second, we’re told to run after our dreams, and try everything to achieve them. Christianity then attaches the idea of ‘using our talents’ to this concept. But the trouble comes in when you need to decide which one outweighs the other. When are you justified in abandoning one blessing to reach for another?
Actually, the fundamental question is this: 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?
In practice, we answer this question in all sorts of contradictory ways. If someone longs to get married, we don’t usually insist that they must be content to be single, but rather encourage them to keep trying to meet someone. But if someone is bored with their job, we talk about how no job is perfect and even if someone has their dream job they still have very boring things they have to do. Now, there are people who would approach these situations with different advice, but the point still remains—we don’t consistently value ambition over contentment, or contentment over ambition. But what criteria should we use to apply one of these concepts in one situation, but not another? This not a question I’ve ever seen a detailed answer to yet.
When we identify something we want, what practical ways should we approach our desire?
Let’s explore a few ways of answering this question.
First, the goal of our lives, as Christians have declared over and over again, is to glorify God. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says.
But how does this answer our question? We can reply in two ways: first, that it is glorifying to God to work for something and achieve it, or second, that God has already given us more than we’ve ever asked for, and that to ask for a different life is not glorifying to him. So let’s agree on the central concept that whatever way we take must be glorifying to God, but understand that from a human perspective we can be utterly confused as to what precisely is most glorifying.*
Second, some desires are easily identified as good or bad, but the vast majority are not, at least not at first glance. Both marriage and singleness are approved of in the Bible, so both choices can be glorifying to God. And if someone wants to become a policeman instead of an electrician, there would be no grounds to argue one job is more good or evil than the other.
In other words, the most knee-jerk responses to the question of contentment vs. ambition do not provide much direction. This is frustrating. However, like in most life situations, there is not an easily applied formula to use, but there are certainly principles that help us navigate the foggy paths of life.
Another way to answer this question is to look at each of these concepts—contentment and ambition—and evaluate their value. I will do that in Part 2. This post is already lengthening quickly!
I’d like to end this post by pointing out the right balance between ambition and contentment matters to me personally. I’m sure it is directly practical to many others as well. As the New Year approaches, you start to wonder what you should direct your energy and talents towards. And to be honest, I struggle with ambition. So much of what culture tells me I should be doing with my life—earning lots of money! changing the world by campaigning for something or starting an organization! proving women’s value by becoming powerful and prominent!—I struggle to summon up much enthusiasm for.
However, I struggle with contentment too. Lack of ambition does not equal contentment, because you do want your life to be meaningful. You think if only you could change a few things in your life, you would be happy, because your life would be directed to something bigger than just satisfying yourself. But lack of contentment is not a good thing—it is undeniable that we are commanded to be content.
Beyond that, when I examine my desires for what I would have enthusiasm to pursue, it is something either outside my control, or something that is rather unwise to pursue. This little summary makes ambition sound rather negative, and I am sure it is not in every case. So I look forward to tomorrow when I will explore contentment and ambition more deeply! UPDATE: Part 2 is here.
*This is not to deny that as one grows in their spiritual maturity, they gain a better understanding of what is glorifying to God. Spiritual maturity helps enormously in life choices. However, I just mean to say this is not a trump card that makes everything clear in every situation. It is deeply frustrating to be told you should know what to do when you actually don’t. Especially when no further advice is provided on what you should supposedly already know.