by Kristen Lim
This article is a continuation of the Growing Pains series, a look at various topics that young Christians encounter.
My late paternal grandfather was a Korean immigrant who came to the United States to provide more opportunities for his children. He worked odd jobs, making just enough to put food on the table and pay for rent. He wasn’t a leader at his church or a part of any official ministry due to his poor health. He never became a homeowner, got his name in the newspaper, obtained awards, or had a mass following. He didn’t enjoy long vacations traveling around the world, dining in fine restaurants, or had the latest technological gadgets. On purely earthly standards, you would come to the conclusion that his life didn’t achieve greatness, and thus was unfulfilling. But how about on God’s standards?
Young Christians need to be mindful that there is a spiritual war going on, and living in this world means being bombarded with unbiblical ideologies, perspectives, and values. We all need to be continually renewing our minds with God’s word (Romans 12:2), since the Bible is the lens through which we can clearly evaluate the world and our lives. Let’s discover what God has to say about two factors that lead to fulfillment: greatness and ambition.
There is nothing new under the sun. Humans have always been on the quest to achieve greatness, investing time and resources to make sure they’re the best, the top dog. Even Jesus’ disciples argued about who was the greatest amongst them. In Luke 9:48, when prompted to give an answer of who was the greatest, Jesus answers “…the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.” You can imagine the disciples’ jaws dropping from that response. It’s noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t denounce their desire to be great; rather, their definition of greatness was the problem. True greatness is not found in eloquence of speech, abundance of knowledge, achieving many degrees, building a platform, or to be well known by others. Those things are not necessarily bad things, but they do not define true greatness.
Since God is the Creator and author of life, He is the one who determines the definition of greatness. Can we all give a collective amen that Jesus is the epitome of greatness? He is greatness incarnate and exemplified, so we learn from his example. In John 13, we see Jesus and His disciples getting ready to begin the last Passover supper before His crucifixion. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God,…” (John 13:3). From just reading that verse, what would you assume the next verse to be? Naturally, we would think the flow of thought would lead to something grandiose and majestic. Let’s read on in John 13:4. “[Jesus] got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded…” (John 13:4-5). At first glance, it doesn’t seem logical that the God of the universe would choose to wash dirty feet, but this is exactly what our Savior and Lord did.
Not only did Jesus condescend to do a slave’s job of washing filthy feet, but He laid down His life in order to give sinners the hope of salvation through His substitutionary life, death, and resurrection. This is true greatness. “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28). Jesus died for us not only to save us from our just sentence of God’s wrath, but so that in the newness of life we would be like Jesus in how we live. In John 13:15, Jesus says, “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” So, a truly great person in the eyes of God is someone who mirrors Jesus, characterized by sacrifice, looking out for the interests of others in self-forgetful service (Phil 2:4).
Just as we are called to pursue biblical greatness, God desires for us to have godly ambition. Ambition can almost seem like a taboo word among Christians. We erroneously equate ambition with pride, but ambition in and of itself is not necessarily a sin. Ambition can be either selfish or godly. In Dave Harvey’s book Rescuing Ambition, he describes the difference between the two. Simply put, “selfish ambition is a motivating desire to do things for selfish glory. Godly ambition is a motivating desire to do things for God’s glory.”
In James 3:16, we can see the destructive nature of selfish ambition. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” A heart that is focused on “me, myself, and I” will not be submitting to God’s will or desire God’s glory, since no one can serve two masters. A sure sign of selfish ambition is if you are sinning (or willing to) in order to achieve certain desires, or sinning in the event of desires being unmet. Or, if you wallow in envy and are not able to rejoice when God chooses to allow other people to achieve success or obtain a desire that you sought after.
A common question to ask a young person is “what do you want to be when you grow up?” which focuses just on the vocation itself. But how often do you hear the question framed in this way: “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Godly ambition starts with who you are, your character, rather than what you do. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he spends the first half to remind the church of the gospel, that God has saved them by grace through faith in Jesus. They have been brought near to God, and have peace through the blood of Christ. With that foundation laid, he proceeds to exhort them to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love” (Eph. 4:2-3). Note that Paul doesn’t say that in response to the gospel they all need to become pastors, overseas missionaries, soapbox preachers, or do “big things for God.” Those things aren’t bad, and certainly God calls people into those roles, but what matters most is cultivating a heart that wants to love like Jesus.
A sure sign of godly ambition is attributing glory to God for the blessings, gifts, and success you may experience, because you know that He is the source of power for everything you do. Can you resonate with Paul when he proclaims in Romans 11:36, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Can you echo the words of the psalmist in Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not us, but to Your name give glory because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth.”
Paul succinctly sums it up by saying, “Therefore we also have as our ambition whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9). Our ambition will remain the same for all eternity, to please our Heavenly Father. So whether you’re a mom with three kids all under the age of 5, or working in the office under an unreasonable manager, or a student studying for finals, or changing your career direction, your aim is to please God by being faithful in your specific roles and responsibilities at hand and proclaim Jesus in words and actions.
Though my grandfather didn’t have much material wealth or fame, he had the greatest treasure of eternal life, in knowing Jesus Christ. He found the secret jewel of contentment in having a thriving relationship with Jesus, and that made him wealthy in joy. He displayed true greatness by sacrificially serving his family and passing down the love of God to them. He was ambitious for God to be glorified and pleased with his life, not to make much of himself. Not many knew his name, but many will be pointed to God because of his life, as those who have been impacted by him continue on the work of making disciples of Christ. He enjoyed a fulfilled life because God had redeemed him to pursue true greatness and ambitiously seek first the kingdom of God. May our church be unified in that same pursuit, for God’s glory.