Day dawns. Cogs in my mind start churning as I regain consciousness. Ideas of what ought, should and must be accomplished today stream in; my humming thought life loud against the silence of an early morning.
I pack my calendar like a classic Type A person.
I get out of bed for the same reason most people do: to get to a certain place at a certain time to do a certain thing. Perhaps unlike many, I also book-end my already busy work days with other things like catch-ups, to-dos, and nascent passion projects. As a colleague once quipped to me, “9 to 5 pays the bills, but 5 to 9 are when your dreams come true.”
I pack my calendar like a classic Type A person. In (caveat: pop) psychology, a Type A person is someone who is ambitious and intrinsically motivated. They often go beyond what is required of them and have high hopes for what they can accomplish in life. This might sound wholly positive, but there are real downsides to these tendencies too: I go through seasons of burn out; I tend to overestimate how much I can get done in a day, which leads to many apologetic changes of RSVPs; I also tend to be overly attached to my to-do list, getting grumpy when I am unable to get to the bottom of it.
There are also some pitfalls from a Christian perspective. Here are three truths we are at risk of discarding when we’re at the extreme end of a ‘can-do’ attitude, and a pathway forward for Christians looking to exercise their ambition.
1. Following Jesus is Fundamentally Freeing.
It’s easy to base a good day on what we did or did not do for God. We forget we’re only having this conversation because of what God first did for us! When we were dead in our sins, hostile toward God and incapable of pleasing him, God showed us love by giving us life in Christ (Eph 2:4-5). Our relationship with God is not dependent on what we have done or will do. It’s secure and sure because of Jesus’ sacrifice. Period.
Christ’s death frees us from otherwise crippling fears. We’re free from seeking an unattainable righteousness that comes from our own works. We’re free from despair over the limitations of our capabilities. We’re free from the fear of not getting enough done—from wondering whether we’ve done enough to earn God’s love.
Christ’s death frees us from otherwise crippling fears.
And we’re free to work—not to earn love but as a response to love. God has prepared good works in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10), richly supplying us “with everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). His yoke is easy, his burden light (Matt 11:30), and he calls us to obey “the perfect law that gives freedom” (Jas 1:25, NIV).
We follow a God who, through forgiving our sins, firstly frees us from having to earn his love based on our deeds, and secondly supplies us with the grace to freely serve him.
2. Loving People is No Waste of Time.
I always want to maximise my time and check off to-dos. However, I am challenged by Jesus’ definition of a well-lived life: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). With this instruction, Jesus makes love central in a Christian’s life and ministry. Paul echoes this, essentially calling his gifts and ministry worthless if he did not exercise them in love (1 Cor 13:1-3).
As Christians, we should similarly be driven to be marked by love—not by other seemingly good qualities, like high attendance numbers or a low churn rate; not by knowledge or intellect; not by eloquence or cultural relevance. And the nature of the love we should show is the same one shown to us by Christ: sacrificial love that puts the interest of others above ourselves (Eph 5:2).
Our desire for efficiency, meeting targets and smashing personal goals must be subject to God’s priority for us to love.
Loving people always looks inefficient. Sometimes, it might even look ineffective. Within the church, we are called to be long-suffering; to “bear with one another” (Col 3:13). Outside the church, the work of speaking the truth in love is often long and laborious, involving pleading and persuading “on Christ’s behalf [for people to be] reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). The other-centred nature of Christian life and ministry means we cannot seek to control outcomes: We are called to love people unconditionally, but we must necessarily leave it to them to make their own decisions for Christ. We labour while trusting in God’s time and will.
As Christians, our desire for efficiency, meeting targets and smashing personal goals must be subject to God’s priority for us to love, fulfilment of which often looks painstakingly slow and unexciting, and may at times be unrequited.
3. Finitude is a Gift from God.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, being ultra-motivated helps me to appreciate my finitude as a gift from God. Limitations are God’s way of reminding us of our rightful place in the world. I am not God. Neither am I his appointed Saviour. Rather, we are “jars of clay” created “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). We are meant to live as created beings—created for good works, yes, but created nonetheless. When I do not achieve my goals, fail to deliver on time, or fall sick, I am more encouraged to embrace my creatureliness as a gift from God.
Knowing these truths frees me. It makes it okay to push through busy periods, and okay to take a time out. It means I can serve God by working hard, but also by resting and caring for my body. God is still in control when I am not. He is still working all things out even when I am beaten down or burned out.
Exercising Godly Ambition
In light of the above, how should Christians exercise their ambition? Firstly, we need to break down what it means to have ambition. If we define ambition as “a strong desire to do or achieve something”, then this desire could be proper and should well be nurtured. Defined in this way, Jesus himself was ambitious, setting “his face to go to Jerusalem”, not letting anything or anyone distract him from his mission of going to the cross (Lk 9:51). So, having a strong desire to achieve something in your life is not necessarily sinful or problematic.
However, it does become problematic if we choose to exercise this ambition selfishly, which is what the Bible forbids (Phil 2:3). What is selfish ambition? It is what it says on the tin: a desire for the glory of self at the expense of others, which often ends in strife and disunity (Jas 3:16; Gal 5:20). Contrasting selfish ambition with Jesus’ above, we see that Jesus’ ambition was driven for the benefit of our interests over his own. He did not come to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45). He did not exercise ambition to self-actualise or self-aggrandise. Rather, his efforts were for our benefit, that we might be reconciled back to God (1 Peter 3:18).
Godly ambition will look like a desire to love others, driven by freedom in Christ and trust in God.
Tying the threads of the three truths together, godly ambition will look like this: hard work borne out of a desire to love others, driven by freedom in Christ and trust in God. In a funny irony, this type of ambition might also actually end up looking very “unambitious” in the eyes of the world, being quiet, service-minded, and self-effacing (1 Thess 4:11).
If God has placed ambition in our hearts, capabilities to exercise them, and the opportunities through which they can be exercised, we ought to put these to use. It is not wrong to act on ambition. We just need to act in light of the gospel of grace, which enables us to celebrate our limitations, empowers us to work, and offers forgiveness when we mess up. Our role as Christians is to prayerfully, attentively, diligently and astutely steward our gifts, abilities and opportunities, trusting Him to use us, with the peace of knowing that our labour for the Lord is never in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
As a Type A person, I have intrinsic motivation to dream big and achieve my goals. However, I don’t have to bet on ticking these off in order to have a fulfilling day (and life). My God has saved me. He has called me out of the darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). I will “make it my goal to please Him” (2 Cor 5:9), loving and serving those around me, even if this means I have to set aside my own to-do list for today.