by Aaron Menikoff: Ambition is intoxicating. A few years ago I came close—a couple times—to having a book picked up by a premier, academic publisher. I’m not sure what bothered me more: the fact that both publishers ultimately turned me down, or the fact that I cared so much.
Even now, I hate thinking about this. What a petty concern! I know an Afghan brother laboring to help the underground church in Kabul. I’m praying for a sister battling cancer. My personal tremor doesn’t register on the Richter scale. But I can’t change the fact that rejection hurts. Ambition is intoxicating. Unfulfilled ambitions seem devastating.
I tried to baptize my discontent, to make it seem godly. After all, being published by a high-profile press would have meant greater respect. Greater respect would have meant a wider platform. A wider platform would have meant a larger audience. A larger audience would have meant more gospel impact, and so on. Nice try. The fact of the matter is I cared more about my fame than God’s.
Renowned author David Foster Wallace didn’t try to hide his ambition. An interviewer once told him, “Respect means a lot to you.”
“Show me somebody who doesn’t like to be respected,” Wallace responded, “I don’t think I’m more hungry for respect than the average person.” Maybe he’s right. But by God’s grace, Christians ought to be different. We must hunger for God’s glory, not ours. I know my own heart, and for a season I wanted to be successful more than faithful.
Looking back, God was kind to kill the book deal. He taught me the importance of longing for faithfulness—a precious piece of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
CAN YOU RELATE?
Wallace and I aren’t alone here. There’s a reason so many books are filled with frustrated characters. Michael Henchard of The Mayor of Casterbridge lost his money and his office. Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman longed to be more than he was. Even the virtuous Lucy of Narnia convinced herself life would be better if she had the looks of her older sister, Susan.
Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever battled for wealth, prominence, or beauty—worldly metrics of success—only to come up short? How many kids, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer, “I want to be faithful”? I fear not many.
There’s such a thing as godly ambition. Dave Harvey warns us not to kill that God-given desire to achieve. He calls it “the instinctual motivation to aspire to things, to make something happen, to have an impact, to count for something in life.” Christians ought not squelch the craving to accomplish something big. Harvey is spot-on: “Humility, rightly understood, shouldn’t be a fabric softener on our aspirations.”
The last thing I want to do is de-motivate you from the kind of visionary action that marks a true believer. After all, there’s such a thing as false humility. It says with a sly grin, “Look at me now. I’m not trying to do anything great because I don’t want the attention. Don’t you wish you were as humble as I am?”
Instead of hiding your talents, take a page out of Jim Eliot’s life: “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” There’s plenty of room in the Christian life for godly ambition.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to say you’re attempting great things for God when you’re really attempting great things for yourself. Before you know it, a hunger for personal fame elbows out a zeal for God’s glory.
How can you know if your ambition is godly or sinful? Our motives will never be pure this side of heaven. Indwelling sin makes sure of that. Nonetheless, we can and must pursue faithfulness, leaving the results to God.
WHAT IS FAITHFULNESS?
Fundamentally, the faithful are simply those “full of faith.” The Greek behind “faithful” in the New Testament usually refers to trust in the crucified, risen, and reigning King Jesus. In fact, God’s people have always put their confidence in the Lord. When Paul said Abraham “believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations,” he meant Abraham was faithful—clinging to the promises of God despite evidence to the contrary. Simply put, the faithful rely on God; they believe his Word.
However, faithfulness has another, related meaning. Those full of faith are reliable and trustworthy. The faithful have a proven track record of obedience to God.
The esteemed members of Hebrews 11 exemplified faithfulness in a variety of ways, not least by refusing to recant under fire (Heb. 11:26–38). When Paul explained how he “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7), he described faithfulness to the Lord. In the Parable of the Tenants, the one who wisely stewards his master’s property is called a “faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). Likewise, the Christian who wisely stewards the gospel is called faithful, too.
Faithfulness shows up in a ton of different, practical, and beautiful ways:
Making time to meditate on Scripture in the midst of a busy schedule (Ps. 1:2)
Getting up early and working hard all day to provide for your family (1 Tim. 5:8)
Commending Christ in an office that makes fun of him (Matt. 10:33)
Showing up at the widow’s doorstep to mend her fence (James 1:27)
Teaching the Bible every week to a small crowd (2 Tim. 4:2)
Holding fast to the gospel when those around you are watering it down (Gal. 1:8)
Gently correcting your kids when inside you want to scream (Eph. 6:4)
Getting to the service early so you have a chance to encourage the saints (Heb. 10:25)
Submitting to your husband when you think he’s wrong (Eph. 5:22)
Leading your wife humbly and sacrificially (Eph. 5:25)
Giving money and time to a neighbor in need (Luke 10:37)
These are just some of the marks of a Spirit-filled life of faithfulness. The world cares about plaques and popularity, real estate and revenue, glamour and glitz. God cares about faithfulness—the steadfast commitment to honor the Lord in a thousand simple ways.
How can you be sure God cares about this? Because Jesus Christ, God incarnate, gave up heaven for a life of faithful obedience culminating in a cross. Faithfulness is nothing more—or less—than Christlikeness.
MY HEART TURNED
There’s nothing wrong with being disappointed, but when the publisher gave me bad news the sting was sharper than it should have been. I clearly cared more about being noticed than being helpful. It didn’t happen overnight, but somewhere along the way my heart turned. I took my eyes off of the faithfulness of my Savior and put them on myself.
At least I’m in good company. Solomon prayed and received wisdom from God. With this wisdom he settled disputes, managed a kingdom, and oversaw the construction of the very house of God. Solomon asked for wisdom that he might rule justly. God, as he often does, gave him so much more: “King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom” (1 Kgs. 10:23–24). He had it all: wisdom, wealth, and prestige.
But somewhere along the way, his heart turned. Solomon started believing his own press. Though he once elevated the name of the LORD above his own fame (see 1 Kgs. 10:1), he eventually neglected God’s Word, disobeyed God’s commands, and allowed the kingdom to reflect his glory and not God’s. By accumulating wealth and weapons and wives—all in defiance of God (Deut. 17:14–20)—Solomon proved he loved success more than faithfulness.
THANKFUL FOR FAILURE
Solomon lost his kingdom; I just lost my pride. Looking back, I’m thankful my book was rejected. God splashed a cold glass of water on my face, reminding me he’s important, and I’m not. In the big scheme of things, it was a tiny trial. But it was my trial, and God used it to pry my fingers off a brittle ego.
More than that, God pressed into my soul what every Christian ought to know. In his divine economy, the metrics of success aren’t the amount of followers, likes, retweets, or mentions you get on social media. It’s not the number of letters behind your name, books on your shelf, or how fast you can run a mile (at my age, not very fast at all). Christians, above all others, ought to understand this. Our value isn’t found in what we do, but the perfect love of a Savior condemned in our place. And the fruit of the Spirit isn’t success; it’s faithfulness.
“WHAT ONE CHASES”
Wallace, that great American writer, committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. He struggled with depression for years and couldn’t find a way out. He achieved worldly success early on in life (everyone wanted to publish his books) but it wasn’t enough to appease his ambition. In the interview where he admitted he wanted respect, he also confessed he didn’t know where to find it. “A lot of my problem,” he said, “is I don’t really have a brass ring, and I’m kind of open to suggestions about what one chases.”
Wallace, like Solomon, had the world in the palm of his hand, but it couldn’t chase away the despair in his head. Worldly ambition, the carnal desire for success, is a bus with just two stops. One stop is failure—you get out knowing you didn’t achieve what you wanted. The other stop is success, but it doesn’t satisfy—you debark only to look for another brass ring that won’t leave you fulfilled. Either way you look at it, worldly ambition is a bus to nowhere.
What you chase matters. Christians are called to chase after Christ. To love him, to long for him, to pursue him with everything we have. What does this chase look like? Faithfulness: the steadfast commitment to honor the Lord in the nitty-gritty details of everyday life.
HOW CAN YOU GROW IN FAITHFULNESS?
Now more than ever the church needs models of faithfulness. We are bombarded by airbrushed images of success. They belittle faithfulness and commend acclaim. How can we grow in our pursuit of faithfulness?
Believe the gospel. Only those who have put their faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ can be found faithful. Have you done this? Submit your life to Christ. Trust in him for your salvation. Believe he died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead for your justification. Without faith, faithfulness is impossible.
Rethink success. It’s one thing to say success is a life of obedience to Christ, a life of faithfulness. But consider how you react when you don’t get what you want. Perhaps your heart hasn’t caught up to your head’s definition of success. If you think success is a big family, a stable career, or a large church then you’ve wrongly accepted the world’s metric. It’s time to rethink success.
If you are in ministry, listen to Mark Dever’s message, “Endurance Needed: Strength for a Slow Reformation and the Dangerous Allure of Speed.” It’s a sweet reminder that worldly ambition poisons the pastorate.
Get to work. Faithfulness is a gift of the Spirit, but it’s also hard work. Look over that list above. Checking off those boxes is not the pathway to heaven; we’re justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But if God has given us new life, if he has changed our hearts, then we’ll roll up our sleeves and obey his commands.
Leave the results to God. Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6–7). The call to faithfulness is not a call to laziness, but it is a call to rest. We are finite. We may write the best book we could possibly write, and never find a publisher. We may work as hard as we possibly can, and never be promoted. We may share the gospel a thousand times, and never see a convert. It’s our job to be faithful. The rest is up to God.