“Working here is a calling.”

Lee is caught between her own hopes and her boss’s expectations. Unsure what to say next, she sits amidst the silence in her boss’s office. 

She wants to stand her ground and argue her case. She’s a professional who’s brought a lot of industry knowledge and experience to the team. She is dedicated, hard-working, and passionate about the cause her organization stands for.

This shouldn’t be so hard.

“I’m really grateful to work here. It’s just that, based on my performance, I would like to ask about a raise. Or at the very least, I’d like to have a conversation about my progression… I have certain ambitions.”

“Careful, Lee. Ambition doesn’t come from God.”

And that’s the end of the conversation. Grabbing her purse, Lee walks out of her boss’ office, shoulders slumped and head bowed. In just one conversation, it feels like her dreams are completely dashed. Lee feels defeated. But most of all, she feels confused.

Why was she being treated like she had done something wrong when God put those ambitions in her heart?

We need to talk about the ‘A’ word. That’s right, I’m talking about ambition.

I’ve heard many stories like Lee’s. Unfortunately, they’re not uncommon in Christian culture. Whether you work for a Christian not-for-profit, earn a high income in a corporate job, or work around the clock for a start-up, having lofty career ambitions can be a touchy subject in church circles.

This caveat is often well-intentioned. Jesus makes it clear that we cannot serve both God and “mammon” in Matthew 6. We cannot serve both God and money, status, career, fill in the blank.

But Jesus also warns against wasting our potential.

In Matthew 25:14-30, we find the often-cited parable of the talents in which Jesus delivers a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of under-utilizing our gifts. There are all sorts of barriers that prevent us from converting our ambition into reality, and I’d suggest that an unhealthy culture around ambition is one of them.

A former pastor of mine once defined this sentiment as the “poverty spirit.” I’ve witnessed this unhelpful narrative first-hand amongst Christian friends and colleagues, particularly in the church in the UK, where I have lived for the last 10 years. The poverty spirit sounds like We don’t need to hustle because God will get the job done for us or Good for you on your promotion, but don’t get too big for your boots. Control lies at the root of their words, causing blooms that smell like self-deprecation and mediocrity. This is the nature of the “tall poppy syndrome”. Don’t grow too tall, or we’ll chop you down.

In America, where I’m originally from, we have the opposite problem where much is done to excess. We bow down to consumerism and materialism, building our individual empires in God’s name. Since when did pursuing the “American dream” become something holy?

Herein lies the tension around ambition. Much of Christian culture perpetuates the narrative that serving God and chasing after the dreams in our hearts are mutually exclusive. But I contend that this is where we, the church, have got it wrong about ambition. Let me explain.

As human beings, we’ve been given agency, meaning that you and I have the freedom to be fully ourselves with the ability to run after the goals, dreams, and desires that God’s put inside our hearts. To do otherwise would mean to self-abandon. To self-abandon would mean to stop being who we’ve been created to be.

God is the author of our wildest ambitions. He plants dreams in our hearts for us to nurture and to grow, and to discover how we can work them for the Kingdom. This is what it looks like to see His Kingdom come – God’s plans fulfilled through the heads, hearts, and hands of women and men.

Our construct of God’s Kingdom is too narrow. The Kingdom of God cannot fit neatly inside four walls. It is so much more than a Sunday morning worship set or mid-week Bible study.

The Kingdom of God looks like a banker in a fashionable suit taking the elevator to her office on the fifteenth floor. It looks like a stay-at-home Dad playing Legos with his toddler on a Monday morning. It looks like a pre-med college student cramming the night before an exam. It looks like a man working another late-night shift behind the bar while he practices his lines for an upcoming audition.

There’s nothing sinful about having ambition. In the same way, there is nothing inherently wrong with anger or fear. What matters is what we do with it.

What matters is our motivation. What matters is our heart. What matters is our why.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Ambition begins to be a problem when it sounds like:

Where your dream job is god…

Where your big paycheck is god…

Where your promotion is god…

Where your relationship status is…

There your heart will be also.

Even as I write this, I feel my heart beat a bit faster and my palms begin to sweat.

I know what it’s like to be told to be admonished for being “too ambitious”. I’ve been made to feel like I was wrong for having lofty goals and dreaming big dreams, until I remember that, for me, the desire behind my dreams is not to make them god, but to help me serve God.

There was a part of me that felt like maybe I needed to give up on my dreams (getting a PhD and writing a book about the Church and mental health) because they did not look like our traditional understanding of God’s Kingdom. I’ve felt the temptation to self-abandon, to stop being the woman that I know I was created to be.

But what has set me free is the knowledge that my value is derived from my being, not my doing. Yet, our ambitions can be a gift from God if they help us live into who we are.

Dear friend, I do not know what circumstances life has been throwing your way. Maybe you’re struggling to pick between two job offers, unsure about which road to venture down. Maybe you’re facing the tough decision about whether to go back to school. Maybe you have a dream to start your own business. Whatever your next step looks like, I encourage you to prayerfully consider three things as you wonder what’s next.

One, know your why. What is the motivation behind the dream in your heart? This will anchor you throughout the highs and lows. 

Two, consult the council of wise family and friends who you trust. Often, other people can help highlight to us our ‘why’ and help us differentiate between a fleeting desire and a long-standing goal. 

Three, keep inviting God into the process– and remember, it might take longer than you’d like. Keep asking him to check your heart as you take these next steps and pursue your goals. Ask the hard questions, “Are my motives pure? How am I serving you in this? How am I pointing others to Jesus by living out this dream of mine?”

With discernment, you can write the book. Climb the corporate ladder. Start the business. Enroll in that college course. Open that restaurant. Collect those passport stamps.

But know your why. Know who you are. Run after the dream our Father has set aflame in your soul.

And let it burn.