Why Christians should be ambitious

If I can be blunt, the Australian middle class (and therefore Anglicans), who are often shaped more by our class origins than the bible, tend to be suspicious about ambition. It’s a documented reality that we are much more likely to be professionals in the security of large organizations than entrepreneurs and small business people.

There is a story behind this.

One of the often-forgotten features of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries was the massive contribution it made to the rehabilitation of work. In the third century AD, the bishop Cyprian attempted to unite the church by claiming a unique status for bishops. This is where we get the distinction between ‘clergy’ (from the word kleros, which alludes to the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament) and ‘laity’ (from the word laikos, which means ‘people’ but with overtones of ‘the common folk).

By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas was arguing that the highest goal of the human life was to imitate God in the vita contemplativa (the ‘contemplative life’, by which he meant clergy and monks) while the less holy lived the vita activa (the ‘active life’ – labouring, selling and buying, raising children and so on).

In contrast, Martin Luther, one of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation, protested against this de-valuing of work, writing:

What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it in heaven for our lord God. We should accustom ourselves to thinking of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on the account of the work and position, but the faith from which they flow.

In this, Luther echoed the apostle Paul, who exhorted the church: ‘Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory’ (1 Cor 10:31). For Luther, the gospel called people in different stations in life, and they were free to serve God by staying within such stations, serving their God-given neighbors instead of seeking so-called sacred lives in the monastic orders.

There was, however, a downside to putting things this way. By emphasising that no station in life was better than any other, and using the language of ‘calling’, Martin Luther discouraged Christians from pursuing social mobility. Scholars still debate whether this was deliberate or accidental – certainly, Calvin and later Reformers were much clearer in their emphasis on changing social station through hard work (from which comes the notion of the ‘Protestant work ethic’).

In contrast with Luther’s theology of vocation, the Bible actively celebrates professional growth and advancement:

Prov 31:16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
Prov 10:4 Lazy hands make for poverty,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
Prov 22:29 Do you see someone skilled in their work?
They will serve before kings;
they will not serve before officials of low rank.

The authors of Proverbs delight in the reality that those who develop their capacity will often rise and their rising will grant them greater opportunities and influence.

From time to time I meet people who seem to take pride in their low status in the organizations in which they serve on the basis that somehow it shows an integrity in not playing politics or sucking up to the boss. It may be true that their advancement has been limited by a failure to ‘play the game’. However, I suspect that it is also sometimes true that they have failed to be ambitious in their work.

The biblical authors have no time for such bitterness. In their view, great work deserves great praise:

Prov 31:31 Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

But one thing that we have not yet touched upon is the purpose of ambition. Christians ought to be clear that ambition is not to be oriented towards personal enrichment. The Scriptures are full of warnings against those who would labour to set aside great wealth for themselves or their families. Proverbs again teaches us to pray, ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread’ (Prov 30:8) and Jesus warns us against taking comfort in material gain in a vivid parable (Luke 12:14-26).

Rather, we ought to be ambitious for the increased opportunity to do good. This may mean by taking responsibility for a larger piece of God’s creation. It may mean being able to effective greater change in culture, politics or society. It may mean being able to give more to the poor, or to benevolent and philanthropic projects.

This reminds me of the story of John Wesley, the British revivalist who was born into grinding poverty but attained a substantial income. The following excerpt comes from an article in Christianity Today:

While at Oxford, an incident changed [Wesley’s] perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward”? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?

Perhaps as a result of this incident, in 1731 Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.

Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.

This practice, begun at Oxford, continued throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds sterling, he lived simply, and he quickly gave away his surplus money. One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds. Because he had no family to care for, he had no need for savings. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had 100 pounds at any one time.

Wesley limited his expenditures by not purchasing the kinds of things thought essential for a man in his station of life. In 1776 the English tax commissioners inspected his return and wrote him the following: “[We] cannot doubt but you have plate for which you have hitherto neglected to make an entry.” They were saying a man of his prominence certainly must have some silver plate in his house and were accusing him of failing to pay excise tax on it. Wesley wrote back: “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.”

You should read the rest of the article. It’s an absolute cracker. It may change your world.

So, friends, be ambitious. Strive to succeed in your work, be it paid or voluntary. And do what is right with all your might, to the glory of God, and for the common good.


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