The Paradox of Humble Ambition

The Paradox of Humble Ambition

True humility directs our desires forward to Christ. All our ambitions are directed towards him. All our plans are in service of his kingdom, and his glory. We expect great things from, and attempt great things for, Jesus Christ, whose name is higher than any other name (Heb. 1:4). If humility is guardrail, gasoline, and governor, then Christ is the goal. We aspire to be only unworthy servants, thrilled with the privilege to simply enter into the joy of our master (Lk. 17:10; Matt. 25:23).

I love humility, which is why I advocate so loudly for ambition.

Not the narcissistic variety you see in sports, politics, and Hollywood, though. If  you observe a man whose ego balloons into the stratosphere, pray for them. They are naked and not ashamed.

Then look down, and double check your own distance from the ground. After all, it takes one to know one.

No, that’s not the kind of ambition I’m talking about. I’m talking about godly ambition. The kind that gains velocity because it’s hedged in by humility. For a leader to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God,”[1] in William Carey-like fashion, God must be the enthralling object of our aspiration. True humility does not smother ambition in the name of modesty. Rather, true humility snuffs out love of self with the superior affection for a greater glory — specifically, God’s glory.

True Humility Guides Desire

Laziness often masquerades as meekness, but true humility guides — and even fuels — desire.

We are meant to see ourselves as “[God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). But we often get this backward in our churches. “Humility” provides cover for all kinds of sloth, ambivalence, and self-protection. If ambition is a vice, then indolence is a virtue, and the less-aspiring-one ends up more highly praised. “My, look at what a fine Christian specimen he is. He’s so modest that he reaches for nothing, aspires to nothing, and risks nothing!”

Blessed are the meek. . . . for they shall, what, sit on their hands?

Those who assume an anti-aspirational “modesty” that does not desire great things for God often use humility as a pretext. This is not the kind of humility God wants. The one who buries their talent to protect themselves from risk may find the Master condemning rather than celebrating their decision (see Matt 25:26).

Seeing Through Audacity

Another angle. Sometimes we encourage low aspirations not because we love humility but because we fear ambition. We prioritize eradicating inflated self-expectations above pastoring people toward a more glorious goal. I say, give me the young man who comes up after I preach, telling me he longs to do it better than me! I can smile and say, “You set the bar too low,” knowing God is fully competent to crush his pride. My job is to see beyond the blip of his immaturity and put a superior affection on his radar. I want to engage his longing for significance until he hears the gospel “ping!”, sets his significance aside and fixes a course for God’s greater glory.

If we will look beyond the audacity of young people, we may discover the future of the church.

Paradoxically, the same is true of their ambivalence.

Seeing Through Ambivalence

The first time I met the man who would succeed me in the church where I pastored for almost 3 decades, he was an unbeliever. Moreover, he was asleep in the front row. . . . while I was preaching. But God whacked him good with a conversion that eventually transformed his entire personality. He went from being bored by God’s Bride to wanting to “spend and be spent” in the service of her care. That church is still planting churches under his leadership.

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