“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13,14 NIV).
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23,24 NIV).
The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success – Ambition is Expected
The problem with “ambition” is that it is a dirty word among Christians. It is intrinsically bad, or sinful, or wrong in the eyes of many people. It sounds selfish. It sounds worldly. But it is not. There. I said it. The cat is out of the bag. I am an ambitious person. And I believe that God wants me to be.
Apparently Paul was fairly ambitious as well. His famous statement that he forgets the past and strives towards the future is quoted by many Christians and self-help gurus alike. Ambition is a normal part of our human existence. What makes our ambition “spiritual” has more to do with the rest of Paul’s quote. He says that his ambition is to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 NIV). Now we’re talking…
Of course this verse also stirs up some controversy among Christians but that is easily resolved. A light reading of Paul’s famous words might make you think that he has to “press on” and “strive” toward the goal of salvation. But that would go against everything else Paul says in each and everyone of his letters and teachings. No. Our salvation is a gift and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1) but that doesn’t mean that there is no “prize” and that therefore all ambition is squashed and there is no significant work to be done. Far from it….
What, then, is that “prize” that Paul is striving for with all of his might? First of all, let’s be clear that Paul must “win” the prize. He is using sports language here. His effort will have a reward but if he doesn’t make every effort to achieve it, he may be saved but he would lose his “prize” or reward. Secondly, it is a prize that is rooted in his purpose. It is the prize “for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” What does that mean? Simply this. It is the prize that comes from fulfilling your spiritual purpose.
We have been called “heavenward in Christ Jesus.” We are on the way. The destination is certain but the journey has purpose. If it were not so, why doesn’t God just allow us to die and go to heaven right away and skip the heartache, difficulty, temptation and persecution that awaits us in this life. No. There is a journey and a purpose and a significance to our life that must come first and to the degree that we fulfill that purpose, to that degree we will “win” the prize, receive the reward, reap the harvest of our spiritual ambition.
You see, that’s the problem. You can universalize the first part of the verse to say that ambition is good and that it is even in the Bible (which is generally true) but without the second part of the verse, you miss the deep truths about spiritual ambition. Spiritual ambition is expected.
Ambition is related to goals but goes much further. Ambition is the attitude that empowers goals. It is the motor that motivates us to pay the price to accomplish our goals. Ambition is a vision, an emotion connected to that vision and a hunger to fulfill that vision. Those are deep issues. The problem is, of course, sin. Are those ambitions rooted in a need for security that only God can provide? Is it an ambition rooted in a weak self-esteem that desires fame and celebrity status when only a God-esteem in Christ can satisfy that deepest human longing? Is it an ambition for wealth and fortune when only God can be our provider? These are all secondary ambitions but they can often dominate our lives if we do not have the spiritual insight and maturity to deny them and seek the only ambition that God desires from us. The spiritual ambition to fulfill our purpose as our primary way to please God.
I was listening to Jim Rohn this morning. He was talking about his discussion with his mentor when he was only twenty-five years old. His mentor told him, “You should set a goal to become a millionaire.” Obviously, Jim was pleased. He loved the idea. But his mentor wasn’t done yet. He said, “You should set a goal to become a millionaire, not because of the money but because of the type of person you will become in the process.” That was an eye-opener. And very true. But there’s a catch.
Yes, it is true that what you do (and what you don’t do) in your life will affect who you become. My brother was a policeman most of his life and his rigid approach to the law affected his relationships (especially with me) though he was unaware of it. If you become a salesman, or a housewife, or a politician or a pastor, all of it will affect who you become, how you think, what values and principles you believe in.
Some values and principles you have from your childhood and you maintain them throughout your career but others are forged in the battle for the hearts and minds of all people in the context of living life. Opportunities to compromise or downright violate what we believe come to us regularly. Life shapes us. Our careers shape us. Our relationships shape us. But mostly our decisions shape us. Our purpose, whether chosen or thrust upon us by circumstance, shapes who and what we become. This is all self-evident.
Now, perhaps you aren’t so inclined to set a goal of becoming a millionaire but you may decide that you want to become a leader in your chosen field. Another worthy enterprise. Maybe you want to start your own business. Perhaps you want to become a manager or even the CEO of the company you’re working for right now. Worthy goals. But it is who you become in the process that will either make or break you. So any talk of ambition itself being wrong is not helpful. Ambition is a given since we must have purpose, goals and a vision for our lives. The question is whether or not it is a “spiritual ambition.”
“Now, wait a minute,” you say. “Can’t I have both spiritual ambitions for my personal and church life and normal ambitions for my career or business life?” Well, yes and no. You can but it may not please God. So if pleasing God is your highest ambition, then you will have to do some thinking about how to make your entire life and all of your ambitions pleasing to Him. And that is something that is not often taught in churches. Not only is it expected that you have one purpose, one vision for your life that integrates both your redemptive and your creational life, it is essential in order to accomplish that integrated self-actualization in Christ that is what the Bible calls sanctification.
Remember the phrase – “The glory of God is in man fully alive (in Christ)” by St. Irenaeus (I added the words “in Christ” to make it clear what he was trying to say). Becoming “fully alive” in Christ is the goal. Everything is spiritual. There aren’t two sides to your life. It is all one and it is all “in Christ.”
As a Christian, you now believe that your “wonderful life” that God desires for you can only be found “in Christ” and that, therefore, you know that if you make pleasing God your overarching ambition in life, you will find joy and peace and happiness even in the midst of tragedy, difficulty and even failure. That is a life worth living.
There is nothing wrong with setting a goal to become a millionaire so long as it fits within your overarching ambition to please God and fulfill His purpose for your life. The assumption is that becoming a millionaire is essential to your purpose (it may not be), since resources are always needed even in the Kingdom of God. If you do not become “fully alive in Christ” on the road to becoming a millionaire, then something is wrong but, for a person who is clear about his stewardship role and his kingdom purpose, there is nothing wrong with that ambition. It becomes a spiritual ambition when it is truly in service for the Kingdom of God and comes from an overriding ambition to please Him in everything you do.
One final thought about our purpose. That is a big topic for another day but one thing can be said about it. The overall vision is to participate in the great rescue operation of the hearts and minds of the people in this world that you, yourself, come into contact with and can influence whatever it is that you do. How you do that is as unique and varied as are the people themselves. In this process we become fully alive.
So the first thing to do is become committed to our spiritual ambition to do everything in life under the auspices of God’s good pleasure. Then we need to become clear about what gifts, abilities and passions we have and start to master them, become better at them, develop the skills, the knowledge, the experience we need to use them wisely and well. Passion is about us. Mastery is about our gifts and abilities. Purpose is when we use our passion and mastery for the benefit of others. It is a great adventure and a wonderful life. Enjoy it.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, I want to become everything you meant for me to be. I want to accomplish that “prize” of being Christlike, to share his purpose, passion and plan but with my own twist, my own gifts and abilities. I know that that is the path to becoming “fully alive in Christ.” Keep me from temptation and help me to master my passion and transform it into purpose. Thank you, Lord. Amen.