‘Any ambition to become a bishop now?’
…is the latest question being asked of female clergy across the land, now that the Church of England’s General Synod has voted to remove the barriers to them doing so. I doubt many have said yes.
Doesn’t conjour up the most pleasant image, does it? I think of slimy megachurch ministers, mining for converts to gain power and status. I think of prosperity preachers, promising health and wealth to naive followers who part with their money to line their pastor’s pockets.
We talk about ambition as if it’s pretty much equated with selfishness. You can’t be a ‘career Christian’, it would be missing the point of Christianity. You can’t make a plan for your own life, because God’s plan is better. You can’t say what you’ll be doing tomorrow, because it might not be God’s will. There’s a whole other blog post to write about women and ambition, but suffice to say that women in the church take a double whammy of pressure to avoid appearing ambitious, because of it’s apparent incompatibility with selflessly serving others.
That’s a bit of a problem though for us in our 20s, just out of university or beginning training and careers.
This real-world-grown-up-life stuff all seems a bit pointless without ambition. Why am I bothering to apply for jobs, if I don’t have plans to get anywhere? Why do I sit down as often as I get chance and write blog posts, if I don’t really want people to read them? Why do I get up in the morning at all, if I’m not striving to make progress in some way?
Torn between a world that tells me to be the very best I can be, to do myself justice and aim high with my career goals – and a faith that seems to tell me I have to downplay my own ambitions in order to imitate Christ’s humility.
As ever, I’m sure there must be a third way, a path between the extremes that seem to make Christianity seem irrelevant or impossible in every day life.
What if ambition and selfishness don’t have to go hand in hand? What if ambition doesn’t need to mean greed? What if I can strive to be the very best I can be, in all I am and all I do, while still seeking God’s glory instead of my own?
What if it’s biblical to be an ambitious Christian?
We’re called to fulfil our potential, to make the most of all the gifts God has given us. We’re called to aim high and think big. Just search for the words ‘strive’, ‘train’ and ‘work’ in a concordance, there’s no denying it.
Whether we dream of managing a company, writing a book, raising 5 kids, or leading a church, we don’t need to be ashamed of our desires. So often we squash them, because it feels arrogant to imagine we could do those things we long to do. It seems to be self-promoting, or self-advancing to put ourselves forward for the things we’d really love to do and achieve. We have this idea sometimes that doing things for the glory of God means being martyrs and doing something we really hate!
And yet, Paul is says that ‘whoever desires to be an overseer desires a noble task’.
Not that they should squash that desire and be more humble. Not that they should step aside and let someone more worthy take the role. Not that they should really find something they hate doing to make sure it glorifies God.
They desire a noble task. Yes, there are warnings for those who step up to responsibility in the church. Yes, there are clear guidelines about the sort of people who should be taking on certain roles. But nowhere does Paul tell people not to desire leadership or responsibility, nowhere does Paul tell us to tread down our dreams.
So how are we to be positively ambitious Christians, rather than ambitiously selfish or needless martyrs? Here’s a few ideas:
1. Desire God first, and everything else second.
Psalm 37:4 says ‘Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ I’ve struggled with that verse sometimes because there doesn’t seem to be a guarantee in the Bible or in life that Christians get everything they want; the opposite often seems to be true. But as we choose to delight ourselves in God first, he shapes our desires to more closely resemble his desires, and those ambitions he’s given us can come to fruition.
2. Be ambitious for who we are before what we do.
God is more concerned about our character than our skills or achievements. As someone whose achievements generally far outweigh my character, I find that immensely frustrating. But I can’t believe God would have it any other way. It doesn’t matter how clever or talented or fortunate we end up being, if we’re selfish, cynical and hypocritical with it. I want to strive to be the best I can be, but I want most of my effort and energy to go in to becoming more compassionate, having more integrity, seeing the best in people, serving other people before myself. I should want to grow who I am before what I can do.
3. Hold plans loosely.
‘Here I am, send me’ is one of the boldest prayers we can pray. Part of being ambitious under God is the recognition that our skills and our time are up for grabs in God’s plans. It doesn’t mean we don’t make plans or aim towards goals, but it means we do it prayerfully, humbly, and open to the idea that God might change our path.
4. Be brilliant at what you do, for the glory of God not you.
I had a chat with my brilliant vicar recently about inequality. She reminded me that there is nothing fair about the fact that I didn’t have to work as hard at school as some kids did to get the same results. It’s not fair that the particular things some of us are good at are valued more by society than the things that others are good at. It’s not fair that some skills and talents lead to well-paid jobs and others are barely recognised, even though they’re vital and worthwhile. We can take no credit for what we love doing, or are good at doing, we can’t glorify ourselves. But we can do it well, work at it, make the very most of every ounce of potential we have and use it for God’s purposes and God’s glory.
Ambition is nothing to be ashamed of. False humility says I’m good at nothing, and shouldn’t try to be. God does not ask us to squash our desires and our skills. But he does ask us to be all we can be for him and his kingdom.