Rev. James Hageman
"Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
So there we were, in a room full of mostly young Christians. We were listening to a presenter talk about ambition and the pressure to succeed in our world. He said youth today live in an age of self-promotion. They brand themselves on Facebook and Twitter and on their college admission applications, all in the name of securing for themselves the best lives possible. They are ambitious, and their ambition is for things and success, and ultimately, for self-meaning and self-validation.
Our speaker told us to realize that our identity is found not in things and success, but in Jesus. He died for us and shed His blood for our sins, including materialism and self-idolatry. We are baptized into Christ and inherit eternal life through Him. The speaker said we will find peace, not in our ambition, but in God’s word. With this revelation comes the end of the pressures of our material world, the end of the pretense of acting like something we are not. The engine of uncertainty and insecurity is shut down, and we rest in the grace of God.
I liked this presentation. The speaker accurately depicted the world’s sinful condition and identified how young adults are trapped in it. He offered as a remedy the security and certainty of Christ and the eternal life His sacrifice guarantees. All this was thoughtful, true, and comforting.
But is there a conflict between ambition and faith in Christ? My wife and I have three ambitious, driven kids. They openly and aggressively pursue the best life, the best jobs, and the best educations. But they also know they find their identities and self-worth, not in their own accomplishments, but in the forgiveness of sins and in Christ alone.
I believe that there is no conflict here and that there is room for ambition in the life of a Christian. Ambition can be directed toward our own ends, but it can be used for God’s ends, too.
Scripture tells us that God has put us in our situations in life (our vocations) to do our best with the gifts He has given us. Open your Small Catechism and read the “Table of Duties.” You’ll find scripture that instructs us on how to handle ourselves in our various positions in life. These verses are a guide, not for how to get ahead in the workplace or classroom, but how to use our lives for service to God and our neighbor. Part of the final instruction is “The commandments . . . are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9).
This love shows itself in practical ways. If I play the flute in the band, I should strive to be the best flute player I can be—the band will sound better for it. If I play baseball, I should work hard to hit well—the team will win more games. If I run for office, I should be interested, articulate, intelligent and honest—my constituency will benefit from it. In these places we Christians serve our neighbors, be they a listening audience, the fans in the stands, or the citizens of our community. This kind of ambition is not sinful, but God-pleasing, and even imperative to life as a Christian.
A warning, though. Every vocation has its temptations, and every human ambition has them, too. In that Table of Duties, under “Youth,” the apostle Peter writes, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time” (I Peter 5:6). He would not have warned the young to humble themselves if arrogance were not a threat. We all want to excuse and justify ourselves, and to serve ourselves rather than our neighbors. When the fastest runner thinks the race is all about her, when the winner thinks it’s all his doing, things have gone too far. We are all too ready to accept credit for what is not ours to claim. Humility can be tough for the gifted and talented, but even they must confess their sinful motives to their heavenly Father.
The good news is that Christ is for all of us. You may succeed or fail in the world’s eyes. But the key is to know that since you are washed, justified and anctified, in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11), your identity and worth come from Him. Everything else proceeds from this. And so we live, our selfishness from the Old Adam put to death by our baptism and the forgiveness of sins and the New Man daring to excel and be the best, for the good of those around us.
Be ambitious! Use your talents and remember who gave them to you. Find what you love and where your talents lie, and give it all you’ve got. You have nothing to lose, for Christ has given you everything.
Rev. James Hageman is the pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Glendive, Montana, and Grace Lutheran Church in Fallon, Montana. His two sons, Eric and Josef, greatly assisted in editing this article. His wife, Stephanie, and daughter, Jenna, also contributed, and lent moral support and humor. Pastor Hageman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.