Most people have different kinds of ambition, and usually these have to do with the self – “my comfort, my wealth, my status, my power”.
“Attempt great things for God.” William Carey’s rallying cry has motivated many Christians who had given themselves in God’s mission. However, it works well only in a consecrated believer who seeks to live the crucified Christian life. Otherwise it can do damage in one who uses it as a superficial slogan. He will end up confusing God’s will with self-centred ambition.
The late John Stott, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, differentiates between what he calls “godly ambition” and “secular Ambition”. Most people have different kinds of ambition, and usually these have to do with the self – “my comfort, my wealth, my status, my power”. These self-centred ambitions can be modest or grandiose. However, godly ambitions, according to Stott, can never be modest. If we realise who it is we are serving, how can we hold back our godly ambitions to see His name honoured and His kingdom grow?
Yet, Stott was aware of the pitfalls of harbouring godly ambitions and turning them into action. In what is the first scholarly biography of Stott (Godly Ambition, 2012), historian Alister Chapman explores this in some detail. Stott was a gifted Bible scholar and teacher, pastor, writer and mobiliser. He had big dreams for his country (England) and his church (the Church of England). He attempted many strategic moves to make his godly Dreams come true, though he encountered various problems and Disappointments. His ambitions then became global as he saw the potential of the churches in the non-Western world.
He became the thought leader of the Lausanne movement and became world-famous. He became a key global leader of the evangelicals and was included in TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in 2005. Stott was “extraordinarily driven”.
He followed his own advice that Christians should “develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work – not to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but Rather through everything they do to bring glory to God”. Still, he was aware of the pitfalls of such ambition.
Stott worked seriously at being humble. Latin American theologian René Padilla recalls a trip he shared with Stott. They arrived at their destination amid heavy rain and the streets were muddy. Tired, they took off their muddy shoes and went to sleep. The next morning, Padilla was awakened by the sound of brushing and found Stott brushing his shoes. Padilla expressed his surprise and embarrassment. Stott replied, “My dear René, Jesus taught us to wash each other’s feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.”
The Lord Jesus once sent 72 disciples to the harvest field. They returned to Him joyfully for they had much success in their mission. They reported to Him: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Lk 10:17) The emphasis in such a statement may be either “to us” or “in your name”. Is it not possible that one who attempts great things for God may fall into the temptation of pride if he is not careful? He may start believing himself to be the cause of his success and take the glory more for himself.
In His reply, Jesus said: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you” – He omitted “in my name” (Lk 10:20). Could it be that He warns against the danger of ambition in ministry gone awry? The heart of faithful ministry is obedience to God’s will and the love for God that seeks nothing but the glory of God. Anything else, entrepreneurship included, if it becomes the dominant motive and method of all that we do, is dangerous for the soul. We must attempt great things for God but we must ensure that it is not out of selfish ambition or for the glory of self or one’s organisation.
Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon was Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000 to 2012. Currently retired, he now keeps busy with an active itinerant ministry speaking and teaching in Singapore and overseas.