One of the most ambitious people I’ve met used to drive a pink pickup truck covered in flowers, with the words MISS TEA PARTY painted across its flanks. Surely it was the most feminine Ford F-150 to have graced the highways of Henrico County, Virginia.

Kim Newlen was a South Carolina native who had a penchant for adding the word sweet in front of everyone’s name. In 1995, the stay-at-home mother was itching to reach other women with Christian witness and friendship. She began hosting women in her Virginia home, and eventually her ministry, Sweet Monday, expanded to homes and college campuses in every state. Always hospitable, Newlen broke the Guinness World Record for World’s Largest Tea Party in 2005, hosting more than 7,000 people on the campus of the University of Richmond, where many of the attendees wore pink.

Who knows how many tea-drinkers that day knew that Newlen was walking the campus battling one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. The year prior, at 47, Newlen had undergone a lumpectomy, radiation, a full mastectomy, then full chemotherapy, then full radiation—“every complication that can occur with cancer short of death,” she said. “I thought what I would do was just pull the covers over my head and wait until everything was over.” Instead, “the exact opposite happened. No one could have been more surprised than me . . . that I would have gotten bolder as I got balder, but I did.”

After Newlen had endured every skirmish in her battle against cancer, she realized that one of her greatest needs amid endless hospital visits was a dose of normalcy, the ability to go about routines of beauty and personal care. Working with a Manhattan-based fashion designer, Newlen created and patented a postsurgical garment for women who have to wear drains that remove fluid following surgery. Today, the Look Better Than You Feel™ garment is used in hospitals throughout Virginia, offering women dignity during a life experience that brings anything but.

“I’ve always wanted to be a woman who didn’t live with regret,” said Newlen in 2012. “Life is so short, I didn’t want to look back and say, I wish I had, I wish I had.”

Ambition is refusing to say, “I wish I had.”

‘Make a Name for Ourselves’

Since the word first appeared in the 14th century, ambition has gotten a universally bad rap. Related to the word amble, it used to conjure someone going from town to town to get votes or support. Ambition is almost always associated with puffing up the self. Wherever ambition is, ego, praise, and pride seem to lie close at hand.

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History and popular culture give us many examples of the wreckage of ambition. Ambition is Lady Macbeth whispering to her husband to commit murder. Ambition is the thousands of executives and analysts who promised that certain financial institutions were “too big to fail,” then watched the global economy crash in 2008. Ambition is Napoleon at Waterloo. Ambition is Tonya Harding.

Christianity traditionally has less than friendly things to say about ambition. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo called “worldly ambition” the enemy of the well-lived life. Thomas Aquinas warned of “the immoderate or inordinate desire for honor.” And the Protestant Reformers weren’t much friendlier; in the words of John Calvin: “Ambition deludes men so much that by its sweetness it not only intoxicates but drives them mad—and doubtless, ambition not only does injury to men, but exalts itself even against God.”

When viewed in the light of Christ, such warnings make sense. We follow a despised and rejected Savior with “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). Jesus of Nazareth—the only human rightly entitled to all honor and majesty and praise—relinquished his claim to them, instead taking on the nature of a servant (Phil. 2:7). God incarnate in Christ was not too powerful or holy to give up claims to prestige while on earth. So why would we, sinful, frail creatures that we are, have any right not to do the same?

From the biblical perspective, under the power of sin, ambition is defined as humans striving to be like God apart from the power of God. Apart from God, ambition only ends badly—if not in financial or legal ruin, then in the warping of the soul ever toward the self.

From the earliest pages of Scripture, we learn of the damage incurred when humans try to be like God without submitting to God. In Genesis 11, early human communities set out to “make a name for ourselves,” scheming to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens.” The Tower of Babel is a cautionary tale of what happens when we erect a career, a reputation, or a “platform” without first submitting our efforts to God. When we try to build our own “towers,” we bring to ourselves and others confusion, chaos, and a loss of security, often the very thing we seek as we set about our tower-building plans.

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In fact, the problem with the Tower of Babel was that its builders’ ambitions were too small. As Andy Crouch notes in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, “The bravado of Babel conceals an undercurrent of fear; this seemingly ambitious building project is actually the result of diminished human ambition and a growing human sense of vulnerability.”

You read that right: The story of Babel provides a lesson about the danger of having too little ambition. Babel’s citizens weren’t dreaming big enough; they could see only their insecurity and fear that they “shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” From an eternal perspective, their ambitions were not too big but too small. The fears that usually drive us to ambition—fear of losing power, of losing face, of losing life—often come true when we fail to submit our fears to God.

But in fact, ambition was always a part of what God intended for his image bearers.

Our Ambitious Savior

Here is how educator and writer Carolyn Custis James describes it:

God . . . didn’t create a flat earth. God’s world has mountains that awaken in us the need to climb, to test our limits and find out firsthand what it’s like to stand atop a snowy peak. He created a world that is packed with endless treasure, raw material, and unexplored frontiers designed to stir up in us the artist, the scientist, the explorer-adventurer, the athlete, the mathematician, the botanist, the entrepreneur, and much more.

Mountains cry out to be climbed. Dirt says to us, “Dig.” The oceans invite us to go on a deep-sea treasure hunt. The heavens declare not only the glory of God; they also declare that we were made to test their bounds and marvel at their beauty.

This is true for every sphere of human culture: God made us, male and female, to explore the world he created, and to have dominion over it for his glory and others’ benefit. God’s original creation was good yet latent with potential. It was pristine yet incomplete. Missing were the curiosity and industry of humans, the only part of the creation bearing the image of God. Ambition wasn’t something that crept in after the Fall. It was—is—an aspect of bearing the image of God, of filling his world with beauty and industry and delight.

Ambition leaves a sour taste on the tongue of many a Christian. And rightly so: In the eight years I have worked at a magazine that covers the global church, I can say that much of the bad news we report about leaders and communities centers on ambition gone bad. The fallen pastor, the collapsing church, the insolvent ministry—outsize ambition and a hefty dose of hubris are always intertwined in a larger tangle of sin that capsizes the best intentions.

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Oriented toward God, ambition is the setting of the will to accomplish the desire of the heart.

But consider that the most ambitious person who ever walked the earth is Jesus. Christ lived with a crystal-clear will and one orienting desire: “to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). There was nothing passive or happenstance about Jesus’ life and ministry. He had a pure and powerful inward zeal: to preach salvation, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to be a stumbling block to the haughty, and to take up the cross to accomplish his most important work of atoning for the sins of the world.

This is the type of ambition that we are to have, no matter our stage of life or sphere of influence. Oriented toward God, ambition is the setting of the will to accomplish the desire of the heart. It is the motor that keeps us pressing for hints of the kingdom of God in our offices and schools and city halls and homes. Ambition is the choice to continue pursuing God’s will when our energies and passions are sapped.

Consider Paul’s language after encountering Christ on the road to Damascus. In his letter to the church in Rome, he writes, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel” to those who have never heard of Christ (Rom. 15:20–21, ESV). We know that, prior to his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was ambitious (“zealous”) to maintain the traditions of his Jewish forebears, and persecuted the early church out of that zeal. His ambition was such that he was probably a bit annoying to be around. But note that, in converting Paul, God didn’t take away his ambition. Rather, he redirected it to build up the church and make great his name.

And so it is with our own ambition, as we allow our wills to be aligned with the will of God.

Less than two years after CT created a short film about her, Kim Newlen succumbed to cancer, dying peacefully in 2014. She was remembered as a loving wife, mother, evangelist, and entrepreneur—someone who took the pain of an unforgiving disease and created from it tremendous good. Faced with death, Newlen made the most of her limitations, ensuring that she wouldn’t say, “I wish I had.”

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Creaturely Limits

Not many of us will endure the suffering that Newlen did, thank goodness. But one way or another, all of us will face the limits of embodiment. Our ambitions—even the ones that are from God—will crash upon the shores of our finitude. We will want to take the job offer at just the moment when a family member falls ill. We will want to start a family at the moment when we’re assigned to a missions post in a country with poor medical care. And those of us for whom ambition comes naturally will have to say no to many good things because they are not where God is leading.

However, our limitations need not kill our ambition or lull us to passively accept whatever happens in life. Rather, our limitations can clarify the tasks we are to pursue with our limited time on earth and limited reserves of energy. With Christ as our model, our limitations are the very foundation upon which true ambition rests.

In the book Wonder Women, Kate Harris, the former executive director of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture, notes that God himself took on constraints in the person of Christ. The Incarnation is one of the most radical dimensions of Christianity because it attests to a God who stoops down to the world of limitations. The ruler of the universe, in Christ, binds himself to a particular time and place, to specific people and circumstances, and ultimately, to the weariness and vulnerability of human flesh. “[God] chose to work through the same ordinary human constraints we all face—he did not see these as impediments but rather as the purpose,” writes Harris.

In Christ, God chose the greatest of human limitations and wrought from that the highest of enterprises: to rescue humanity from the power of sin and death, and to win for all who believe new and unending life in him.

This means that Jesus knows our every limitation, weakness, and even temptation to worldly ambition from the inside out (Heb. 4:15). It also means he can use our limitations to accomplish his purposes. My theology would hesitate to say that God “gave” Kim Newlen cancer. But it’s clear God used it to plant in her a self-giving love that blooms to this day. If he can use the cross to accomplish his purpose for her on earth, he can certainly use our limitations to do the same.

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The ambition God invites us to is a cross-shaped ambition: to embrace our inability to “have it all” so that he may be our all. Likewise, the contentment to which God invites us is a cross-shaped contentment: to choose to say “thy will be done,” to accept our constraints, because it is often through human weakness that God most clearly displays his power and glory.

Until God is our all in all, may we be bold enough to keep turning our ambitions in the light to see what holy refractions bounce back. To be honest before God about what we want and why we want it, then to step back and see what he will do. To allow even our disappointments and unrealized desires become the seedbed of deeper trust in the Lord of the universe and of our lives. And whatever we do, may we work at it with all our hearts (Col. 3:23), knowing that it is God, not man, whom we serve.

Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of CT. The excerpt is adapted from her new book, A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World (Howard / Simon & Schuster).

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