In the spring of 2022, The Center focused on the topic of ambition for 3 consecutive weeks. We spent time learning what it means to inform, change, and act with proper ambition — see the resources at the bottom to read more.
People are filled with many, often conflicting, ambitions. Howard and Brantley discuss 3 insights about ambition from Christian leaders, show how Jesus reframes the ambitions of Paul, Peter, and the woman at the well, and offer hope for how we can do the same.
“The goal of life is not accomplishment. It’s formation into the image of Jesus.” – Jon Tyson
Brantley: For the past couple of weeks we have been covering the topic of ambition, and our first question today is this: Why spend so much time talking about ambition?
Howard: We need to spend time talking about ambition because we have so many of them. In our groups this week we asked what people think about a person when they are introduced to them as being ambitious. The results were about 50/50 — half thought it was a positive thing, half thought it was a negative thing.
Ambition itself is good, but the object of our ambition is what matters. So we’ve talked about what the object of our ambition should be and how to inform it in our article Informing Ambition. God is the one who is capable and willing to change our ambition — especially if we ask Him to change it toward what God desires for us.
The second thing is what ambition is about acting. We are thinking, feeling, and doing creatures. Some of us tend to get stuck in our thinking or emotions. While others of us need to act first, mess it up, and learn from the mistake.
Every goal we have in our lives is going from something to something — to get down the road it really helps to know where you are going. What are you moving from? And, what are you moving towards?
All this requires we cover the knowledge of what ambition is, how to inform it, and what to do about it.
Brantley: Even before we get into the main part of the podcast, just that one simple framework of moving from something vs moving away from something has been transformative in my life when I think about ambition. Rather than thinking about moving away from something, thinking about moving toward something. It’s a really simple shift, but it’s powerful.
Howard: Yes! Don’t run away from things, run towards them.
The Goal Of Life
Brantley: Starting with the goal of life, Jon Tyson says, “The goal of life is not accomplishment. It’s formation into the image of Jesus.” This is a really powerful setup for us as business people because we are constantly thinking about goals, annual goals, quarterly goals, weekly goals, daily goals, etc. We have lots of goals. For the Christian, accomplishment is not the goal. Jesus is the goal.
Howard: For those who follow Jesus, it’s ok to have goals. Philip and Paul moved all around in the New Testament with very big goals; so it’s not wrong to have goals and ambition, but you must look at each of them and ask how this goal will help you know Jesus. For each of your current goals, ask yourself whether they are helping you know Christ more.
The whole Bible is telling us that the goal of life is not accomplishment. In Philippians 1:21, Paul literally said, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” And, in 2 Corinthians 3:18 he said, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” It is crazy that we have a God who allows us to become like Him.
Brantley: Another thing that is helpful to think about is how in business we set some big goals, goals that are not likely to be attained; so we fail to meet them. And, this is a small picture of Christianity. God has a massive goal for us, to become like Him. We constantly fail to meet this goal. So Jesus stands in our place, and accomplishes the goal for us; so we do not have to live a life trying to accomplish the impossible. This totally frees us up.
The second point in this podcast is our reality as Christians, and Jon Tyson has another insightful quote, “Christians with torn ambition are a disaster in the world.” Howard, what does that mean?
Howard: Every single one of us struggles with torn ambition in some way. When I’m not sure if my current ambitions are for money or helping others, we are not helpful to anyone. We get confused, mixing up the eternal with the here and now.
Brantley: How much of the misalignment between mission and ambition impacts Christians potential to become a disaster in the world?
Howard: All our work must be to the glory of God alone and Presbyterians know this well because it’s the first question in their catechism. However, we flip it around. We think, “Oh, I like making money; so I’m going to use that to glorify God.” This gets it backward.
The question to ask is this: What is God calling me to do? If it comes with some money, awesome. If it does not come with money, you are ok — He’s got you.
Brantley: Here is a quote from Augustine, “I aspired to money, honors, marriage, and you God laughed at me.” I can understand what Augustine is talking about here when he mentions money, but why does he mention marriage?
Howard: This quote is from Augustine’s book The Confessions, and in it he chronicles his life and all the things he chased after before turning to Jesus. Marriage is a good thing, but here, there is no object except the goal of marriage. Augustine is not talking about how he desires a person. He just desires marriage. It’s kind of like an 18 year old with a checklist — here is what I want from my person.
Brantley: The other connective tissue here for me is that when you think about this quote from Augustine in relation to our first quote from Jon Tyson about being transformed into the image of Jesus, is that nobody said this process is going to be easy. Sometimes the hardest part is the pain of realizing where our expectations are messed up. Over time, Jesus makes us change our mindset about things, and sometimes this process can make us feel like God is laughing at us. Especially when it’s something good, such as getting married.
3 Case Studies
Brantley: Our third point is about how we do change because God does change us. He changes our hearts, our minds, and our actions. God uses lots of means — community, scripture, prayer, etc. — to do that. So let’s walk through some case studies and see how we can continue to grow in knowing Jesus.
Let’s start with Paul.
Howard: Paul met Jesus face to face on the road to Damascus, but prior to that point Paul was at the top of his respective society. He was a Roman citizen; so he had cultural and political power. He had the highest religious training he could have. So he was at the top of both worlds, Roman and Jewish. And, sometimes, as Christians our motive is to be on top. We want it all, but Paul actually had it all, and he gave it up to follow Jesus. And, each of us has to ask ourselves if our motive is just to be on top.
Paul was killing people, persecuting people, and convicting them all because they were following The Way of Jesus, but on his way to Damascus he met Jesus face to face. Jesus asked Paul why he was persecuting Him, and notice how Jesus does not give Paul a long lecture about how Paul was messing things up. This has really convicted me about how we confront others in the workplace. We are keen to tell people how their actions harm us, but instead of doing this Jesus just recommissioned Paul.
As we go through these cases this is what we will see: the minute we are converted, like Paul, we are given a new job.
Brantley: Yes, and in a sense, Paul is given a new ambition. What was his ambition before his conversion?
Howard: It seems like it was to protect what he had — his way of life. Paul certainly was not open to learning about Jesus before his conversion. He wanted to keep things the way they were.
Brantley: The crazy thing is that as soon as Paul’s ambition changed, the world noticed it.
Howard: Yes, immediately, and Paul’s most famous line on ambition is Romans 15:20, "I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation.” However the summary is this: to live is Christ; to die is gain. Paul knew he was better off dead, yet God had him alive for a reason — to share the gospel with others.
Brantley: Another case study is Peter. Peter was a fisherman and follower of Jesus. In some moments we observe Peter being a careless coward.
Howard: When Jesus asked Peter to follow Him, Peter followed him immediately. Peter’s net filled up with fish and he left the fish to follow Jesus. This is a good biblical example against the health and wealth gospel — God gave Peter the biggest catch of fish he ever had and instead of profiting off it, Peter left the fish to follow Jesus. After dropping the nets to follow Jesus, Jesus commissioned Peter to be a fisher of men. This is Peter’s calling.
However, Peter’s story — like many of ours — is full of ups and downs. Peter said he would never betray Jesus and then he betrayed Jesus, but Jesus came to restore him. Jesus never gave Peter a lecture about how he knew Peter was going to betray him. Instead, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?’ and says, “Feed my sheep.” What Jesus is saying to Peter is this: I am restoring you; now go and love others.
Brantley: When you compare the story of Peter and Paul, the process of Peter’s ambition changing is a lot like ours. Peter is constantly messing up and slowly changing over time. Not that Paul did not mess up, but in the biblical story it appears that Paul’s change of ambition was rather abrupt when compared to Peter’s change of ambition. This is comforting because we are constantly challenged to realign our ambition and it can be difficult to realize your ambition is incorrect. And, the good news is how Jesus loves and restores Peter as he continues to learn.
The woman at the well in John 4 is another good case study.
Howard: Yes, with the woman at the well we have a scared lady who is afraid to come out in the middle of the day — she’s hiding in plain sight because of the shame of having 5 husbands. The woman is looking for dignity, not water. Jesus immediately gives her dignity by talking to her. In fact, in Jewish law at this time, Jesus would have been considered not fit to worship the next day for talking to a Samaritan woman. While talking to her, Jesus also tells her about the living water.
Once again, we see someone go from a wrong ambition — in this case to hide — to being restored by Jesus. She goes from hiding to telling everyone who she really was. She even left the water jar — her goal shifted to telling others about this man, Jesus, who told her everything she ever did and still loved her.
Brantley: We are now going to talk a little about how our ambitions have changed over time. For myself, a lot has changed over the past 2 years. I’ve had 2 children, switched jobs, and changed churches. A lot of the changes that have taken place are the result of me clarifying my core purpose in life — to love God and love neighbor. From a goal perspective it was really helpful to clarify the purpose down to something that simple so that the areas of our lives that were in tension could be reevaluated.
Howard: That’s why Paul’s story resonates with me. Like Paul, I had great pride about being at the top of my church, the board of my kid’s school, and the boss at my work. I literally had the thought of, “God, I’m in charge of everything in my life right now, and I don’t know if that’s good.” Even in my service to God, a lot of it was for me — to be on top. Eventually, God helped me see that by surrendering things, it helps me know Him better.
Brantley: As we turn to trust Christ, our ambitions at work change. This can be principal matters, such as the mission and vision of an organization. It can also be things as simple as how we talk to coworkers. We can help a coworker focus less on the past of where they have struggled to think about what they can move forward to.
From → To
Brantley: Let’s go through some of these “from to” scenarios. The first is moving from working for self to working for God.
Howard: Our life is not for ourselves and our job is not for ourselves. Take the day and pray for it. Pray that God would take control over all the things we have today. If you are all stirred up about your 10:30 meeting, surrender it to the Lord and ask for Him to go before you.
How do you surrender your day?
Brantley: Sometimes I need to rest from work in order to surrender it. On the weekend, I shut it all down and sometimes this can be to the detriment of others when I don’t do any check in. Other times, I try to step away from being hyper-aware of checking my email, and not letting the notifications run my day. When I get home, I put my phone away as soon as I come into through the door, and I don’t pick it up until 8pm. Instead of being consumed by what’s around me, I’m trying to focus on loving the people around me.
Howard: Yes, be where you are. Surrendering the need to always be checking our devices for the love of others is something we all need to do.
Brantley: The next “from to” is moving from enriching oneself to enriching others. In the golden rule this principle is laid out well: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Howard: Yes, if we want something good for ourselves, we should want that for others. If you ask people what they want for themselves at work, they will say stuff like fair wages and ownership. We want dignity, recognition, and appreciation at work. All those things are good and we should give them to others as well.
Brantley: This is a small shift, but it has massive implications for our day to day at work. For example, this could mean giving someone else a salary raise before yourself — even if you are underpaid. There are a ton of small examples like this that feel so hard at times. Even if it is clearly the best and right thing to do, it can be difficult.
Howard: This is why The Center exists, to help people make these decisions every day. We need others to help us do this.
Before it was cool, a Chick-Fil-A in California started paying their workers $17 an hour and even 20+ years ago Bob’s Red Mill literally gave away their company to their employees. A major problem in work is that people do not give to their workers what they want for themselves.
Maybe it’s not wages. Maybe it’s flexibility in the schedule. Lots of people are seeking flexibility right now. They want to go to their child's baseball games and get their work done. Personally, I had to let my employees know that I was for them even when it sounded like I made the work more important. We need to get these 4 things done by Friday, but I also want you to go to your kids baseball game.
Brantley: It’s all about being flexible. Help your people do what they need to do at work by clarifying the task at hand, while at the same time giving them freedom to flourish. A lot of the time, 50% of the work does not need to get done immediately and as leaders we need to clarify what that is.
Howard: For hard charging leaders like me, we have to make sure that when we say something with demonstrative authority, remind them of what they need to get done for themselves. You have to tell them, even if you’ve already told them.
Brantley: That’s right and our last “from to” is from building my kingdom to building God’s kingdom.
Howard: All over the place, Jesus says to “go and do likewise.” He commissions us to build His kingdom by loving and serving others. In the first refrain of the Lord’s prayer we are surrendering our kingdom to His. Build God’s kingdom as if He is going to come back tomorrow.
Brantley: And, there are many ways that we can be a part of the kingdom side of things. You can have a kingdom minded purpose. You can have one on one sessions with someone who is struggling and mentor someone. You can invite coworkers to go places with you and actually have real relationships with them. There are lots of ways, and when you begin to think in terms of the kingdom, even the small things are opportunities. For me, my willingness to be interrupted needs to be for the kingdom. It’s about loving the other people, not just locking in and getting stuff done.
Howard: Isn’t that what it’s all about? By stepping alongside others who are struggling, being interrupted in the middle of our work, and loving others, we are slowly pointing others to The Way of Jesus.