Rescuing Ambition for Ministry

Do you desire to be involved in ministry? Does your passion burn for serving God? I am writing primarily to those who long for vocational ministry, but the principles apply to anyone seeking to serve God in any way.

Paul’s first epistle to Timothy gives sobering instructions concerning the proper way for a man who possesses ambition for ministry to find his desire fulfilled. In 1 Timothy 3:1 he states that if a man is “reaching for” oversight (Gk. episkopos), that is, the responsibility of leadership in the local church, then he is desiring a good thing. But what of this desire, this ambition to lead?

Ambition can be constructive or destructive, driven by pride or driven by a passion for the glory of God. In his new book, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), Pastor Dave Harvey seeks to show that ambition is not evil in itself, but has to be redeemed, or rescued by Christ. He believes ambitions for greatness are natural because we were made to experience glory—just not our own. Comparing our inner ambition for glory to storm chasers, he says,

Maybe you don’t chase tornadoes, but we’re all born glory chasers. Glory moments stir us…We experience something totally vicarious, some strange exercise in identification. And make no mistake, it goes deep. It calls to something we value. To do something that matters. To seek something greater than our own puny existence (p. 21-22).

The temptation for those who desire ministry is to let their natural ambition for glory become selfish, turned inward. What should be fuel for the glory of God becomes selfish ambition for our own glory. Ministry becomes a means for getting praise, flattery, gifts, and ultimately worship. The root cause of this is sin.

Sin does the same thing to us that it did to Adam and Eve. It distorts the truth of God and undermines our essential dependence on him. It seduces us to crave things that deface God’s holiness and assault his glory. Ultimately, sin moves self to the center of our desires and dreams. Rather than promoting God’s order and glory, we become relentless self-promoters. It’s a condition that shrinks the soul (p. 37).

Sometimes those who desire ministry see those already in ministry, and the respect and influence that typically accompanies faithful execution of the task, and assume that the way to obtain influence and respect is to seek influence and respect. These mistaken observers, however, miss two points. First, the way to glory is not to seek glory. The way to glory is to seek humiliation and servanthood. “Humility comes before honor,” says Proverbs 15:33. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” says James 4:10. Many aspiring leaders misunderstand the path to leadership. Second, those faithful leaders that have obtained influence and respect did not do so by seeking it. They, too, pursued a path of service and humility that led to influence and respect.

Selfish ambition, on the other hand, is self-glorifying, and any time glory is drawn from anything other then God, it has the opposite effect of worship—it shrinks the soul. Harvey quotes Jonathan Edwards:

The ruin that the Fall brought upon the soul of man consists very much in losing the nobler and more benevolent principles of his nature, and failing wholly under the power and government of self-love. Before, and as God created him, he was exalted and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish. Immediately after the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness (Charity and Its Fruits, 226-7).

Ambition and humility are not mutually exclusive. A minister with a proper humility will also be possessed of a holy ambition. G.K. Chesterton distinguished between a proper humility, which he called “the old humility,” and a “new” false humility that dampened ambition. He appealed to a return to the old humility.

The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

Humility, then, should harness, not hinder ambition. Harvey expounds on rescued, or redeemed, ambition.

Formerly our aspirations were the soul-shrinking agents of self-exaltation. But because of Jesus, everything has changed. Having God’s approval changes why we obey, aspire, and apply. Now aspiration fuels delight. We can pursue great things for God, and it will enhance our joy in God. We no longer live ambitious for approval, but we act ambitious because we have approval. Here’s the difference: One disillusions us, the other inspires us. One is temporary, the other permanent. One drives us, the other delights us. (p. 59)

So what should a person who desires ministry do with his ambition? He should certainly not squash it, castrate it or kill it. Rather, he should redirect that ambition to bring about the greatest glory to God possible, recognizing that this happens through humble, selfless service that strives for the ideal of William Carey’s famous maxim: “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.”

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One thought on “Rescuing Ambition for Ministry

  1. Mark,

    I haven’t had a chance to read Harvey’s book yet. Thanks so much for your comments and interaction on it. These serve as precious and timely reminders to me right now. I am looking forward to reading this book as his “When Sinners Say ‘I Do'” has been key in my life helping me understand more clearly how to apply the Gospel to my marriage.

    Blessings to you. I am really appreciating your blog. I am praying for you as well as I know you have major surgery coming up soon.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Joe Fleener

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