When my (Nora’s) husband, Travis, would sit up in bed late at night and talk to me about his ambitions, I would snuggle down in the bed and try to listen sincerely. For two years in Arizona, we had been trying to recover from unemployment; more so, we were trying to get off a track that seemed to lead us around in circles. When he would talk about angel investors or futures trading and pester me for startup Internet business ideas, I couldn’t understand how he could still aim so high. While Travis was ambitious, I felt very disappointed. I felt like I couldn’t be ambitious anymore because we had been disappointed over and over again. The biggest ambition I could muster was for a new piece of furniture.
On my way to work one morning, I called my grandmother. All my woes spilled out with a cascade of tears. She listened quietly, and then she told me one of her stories.
She got married at twenty-five—later in life than most in that post-WWII culture—to my grandfather, a man with mixed ambitions. He was a trained concert pianist, yet he was told to leave those dreams behind and pursue something more practical, so he became an economist instead. He was still ambitious, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and writing articles in his field; but in one area he wasn’t as ambitious: my grandmother’s career. When they married, my grandmother was in night school to become a doctor. He told her that she could continue her studies, if she wanted, but that she had to choose between being a mother or a doctor. Though my grandmother wanted to be a doctor, she chose motherhood and became a certified physician assistant instead.
Talking to her that day, my grandmother reminded me that dreams always come with a cost. She reminded me that I wasn’t the first or the last one to wrestle with my ambitions, and the twisted trails of disappointments on which they might take you.
The Ambition Gap
A prominent business leader, Sheryl Sandberg, says there is an “ambition gap” between men and women. She says women have negative feelings about ambition because success and likability are positively correlated to men, but negatively correlated to women: “As a man gets more powerful and successful, he is better liked. As a woman gets more powerful and successful, she is less liked.”
Sandberg says we need to “lean in” and yet it’s not easy in the face of reality. I wasn’t shying away from success and ambition, but I was weary of how hard work can be. As a young woman, I had lots of ambitions and big dreams. What had happened?
So I dug in to do some research. I read more of my husband’s books about work and I studied the Bible. I talked to lots of people and I surfed the Internet. That’s when I realized it’s true—I did have an ambition gap. But it was a bigger problem than not having the desire to be a top corporate executive. It was also way bigger than not liking to be known as an ambitious woman.
I discovered I had a major gap between my concept of ambition and what the Bible says about it. Ambition isn’t just for men, it isn’t just for business—it’s an essential component of being human. Sometimes in church circles, we talk more about contentment (which is a good thing) but it can minimize the importance of ambition—that somehow it is more spiritual for Christians to be passive. This misunderstanding had slowed me down to the point where I wasn’t moving ahead at all.
I learned that ambition is really a desire to grow. I realized that in order for me to obey God’s call to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), I needed to stop shutting down ambition just because I was afraid to be disappointed. The Hebrew word pārâ in that verse means “to bear fruit, to grow, to increase.” This is the essence of ambition—it’s the desire to step forward, to take risks, and expand our lives, instead of shrinking back.
For my grandmother, she wouldn’t permit disappointments to be the end of her ambitions. When my grandfather decided to move the family to Lagos in the early 1960s to work as an economist in the newly independent nation of Nigeria, she found ways to use her medical skills. She volunteered at a local hospital, holding infants whose heads were flat from being left on their backs and never being held. She fed them and she bathed them. Years later, she hasn’t stopped telling that story; and the impact she made there reflects her fortitude and resolve to find purposeful outlets for her ambitions. When she couldn’t pursue the dream of being a doctor, it didn’t hold her back from caring for others in whatever way she could. At its core, this is an expanded definition of ambition. It is pushing forward to be fruitful wherever you are.
This means that any discussion of ambition has to recognize that we hold more than one dream at a time. The challenge is how to prioritize the various ambitions that you have. This is a current discussion among business leaders. They see that the Millennial generation—having lived through the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the Great Recession—have expanded their definition of ambition to include other, more personal values. A recent survey of Millennials contradicts Sandberg’s assessment of women’s ambition:
Sixty-one percent (61%) see themselves as ambitious compared to 63 percent of the men. These young ambitious women are seeking ways for their professional aspirations to co-exist with their personal values. Might they actually be twice as ambitious?
Having twice as many ambitions all competing for prominence is not the solution we are suggesting. We have to go back to the idea of Christian ambition. Jesus says in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” This is an audacious promise and British theologian John Stott helps us to make some sense of how to organize our ambitions:
Ambitions for self may be quite modest (enough to eat, to drink, and to wear as in the Sermon) or they may be grandiose (a bigger house, faster car, a higher salary, a wider reputation, more power). But whether modest or immodest, these are ambitions for myself—my comfort, my wealth, my status, my power.
Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world? No. Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honour, and accorded his true place, which is the supreme place. We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere.
When this is genuinely our dominant ambition, then not only will all these things . . . be yours as well (i.e., our material needs will be provided), but there will be no harm in having secondary ambitions, since these will be subservient to our primary ambition and not in competition with it. Indeed it is then that secondary ambitions become healthy. Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work—not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God. (emphasis added)
Most conversations about ambition aren’t grounded in God’s glory, which means we are elevating a secondary ambition to the primary place and arguing about that. Is your job or your family most important? For believers, both are important, but both are ultimately trumped by the renown of God’s name and the praise of His glory. Therefore those other ambitions must slide to second place and find their mutual contours in the redemptive purposes of the gospel.
Women should be ambitious for everything we see in Scripture—our jobs, callings, and our special roles as life-bearers. Even feminist Betty Friedan came to recognize the importance of this aspect of femininity some twenty years after launching the American women’s movement:
Some militants repudiated all the parts of the personhood of women that have been and are still expressed in family, home and love. In trying to ape men’s lives, they have truncated themselves away from grounding experiences. If young women lock themselves into the roles of ambitious men, I’m not sure it’s a good bargain. It can be terribly imprisoning and life denying.
To paraphrase John Stott’s quote, Christian women should be eager to develop their gifts (husband, children, spiritual gifts) widen their opportunities (professionally and personally), extend their influence (in the church and community), and be given promotion in their work (whether paid or not), so that in everything they do they can bring glory to God. The challenge is how to juggle these secondary ambitions when they seem to be in competition with each other.
There’s a particular woman in the Bible who seemed to do an extraordinary job developing her primary ambition to magnify God’s name through the secondary ambitions of her work and her marriage. Like her husband, Aquila, Priscilla was a tentmaker. According to The Bible Background Commentary, by this period the term tentmaker also applied to leatherworking in general. It was an artisan class profession, one that could be very profitable.
Priscilla and Aquila both have Latin names, but we know nothing of Priscilla’s origins. Perhaps she, like her husband, was from Pontus, a town on the southern coast of the Black Sea (now modern Turkey). What we do know is that they had been living in Rome until they were forced to leave by an edict of the emperor Claudius, which expelled all Jews from the city in AD 49. We also know that they moved to Corinth afterward and that’s where they met the apostle Paul, who was also a tentmaker.
Their mutual labors supported all three of them and permitted them extended hours for conversation while doing their work. For months they worked and ministered together in Corinth. As was his custom, Paul went first with the gospel to the synagogue in Corinth. But when his message was rejected, he evangelized the Gentiles in Corinth and built the church that met in Priscilla’s home.
At some point in their friendship, Paul says Priscilla and Aquila “risked their own necks for my life” (Rom. 16:4). This risk is not specified, but it may have occurred when Priscilla and Aquila traveled with Paul to Ephesus. Acts 19 tells us that Paul was violently opposed by Demetrius the silversmith in Ephesus, whose livelihood making silver shrines for the goddess Artemis was threatened by Paul’s message.
While in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila met a powerful orator whose message was well-crafted but incomplete. Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria, the capital of Egypt and the home of the largest library of the ancient world. He was likely part of the Jewish aristocracy and well trained in the art of rhetoric. When Priscilla and Aquila discerned his lack of knowledge, they quietly interceded:
A Jew named Apollos, a native Alexandrian, an eloquent man who was powerful in the use of the Scriptures, arrived in Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught the things about Jesus accurately, although he knew only John’s baptism. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. After Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him home and explained the way of God to him more accurately. (Acts 18:24–26)
It’s encouraging to see how the marriage partnership of Priscilla and Aquila was lived out in their shared vocation and ministry. From these accounts, we can see that Priscilla was shaped by her primary ambition to glorify God. This led to prosperity in her work, making her wealthy enough to be a patron of the church, have a home large enough to host the young church in Ephesus, and to be able to travel with Paul. Her passion for the accuracy of the gospel message was combined with gracious wisdom, so that she knew to invite Apollos to her home and privately show him what was missing from his message. She did not embarrass him in public nor seek to make a greater name for herself by being in competition with him for influence.
A Gift, a Privilege, and an Offering
Priscilla’s ambitious example is not a dusty relic from the past. Nora and I know many women today who have similarly ambitious goals. We know women who work hard just to feed their children; and we know women who have risen in the ranks of corporations, where they lead with great skill. They are believers who work hard to represent a facet of God’s character to the watching world—women whose labors are diverse in their contributions to the world around them, no matter how small or great. We have a friend whose children suffer from a rare disease and she created a foundation to raise money for research. This is unpaid work but it is vital.
We also have several friends who work for human rights organizations like the International Justice Mission, Shared Hope International, and the Jubilee Campaign because of their Godward passion for justice. We have friends who work for relief organizations like Food for the Hungry, World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, and Opportunity International because they take seriously the James 1:27 command to “look after widows and orphans in their distress.” Whether paid or unpaid, these women are working hard to achieve ambitious goals for the glory of God.
Equally as important, Priscilla did not suffer from the modern “sacred/secular” divide. The whole of her life was integrated for the benefit of the gospel. Her work was a significant aspect of her mission to help the church and the Lord blessed her in it. Like Priscilla the tentmaker, modern women can be busy in fields that seem unrelated to ministry and find that God will work through their secondary ambitions to bring praise to His name. Secondary ambitions are a vital part of life.
Whether you are thinking about ambition in the workplace or at home, in whatever you have to do, Elisabeth Elliot’s often repeated quote still rings true: “This job has been given to me to do. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.”
Excerpted from The Measure of Success by Carolyn McCulley. Copyright 2014 B&H Publishing Group