I grew up with a grueling ambition to be the absolute best—to be perfect—the only way I knew to receive affirmation. Even now as a believer with my hope set in Christ, I sometimes wonder if I am enough to be worthwhile, usually based on comparison. Will I be enough if I can speak Chinese fluently, or write a book, or be an exceptional homeschooler, or be admired for my listening and counseling abilities?
And my kids? Do they need to be well-rounded down to the last neurotic detail? If I opt out of the childhood rat race, am I depriving them of opportunities for maximum success?
Please, my soul begs, when am I enough so that I can be at peace?
Never, as long as my ambition is centered on me rather than God.
Too often we absorb cultural assumptions as fact—as something barely examined, like breathing or gravity—and we rarely think to question them. We happily believe that our education and career are for our own exaltation; if our life path does not serve the end goal of “being all we can be,” then it is a waste of talent and training, and whoever or whatever got in the way should be discarded. A sacrificial mindset focused on God’s desires is either absent from our thinking, or witheringly denounced as subjugation.
I desperately do not want my children to walk the same harsh and deadly road of selfish ambition that I once walked. I felt the effects of plain and simple burnout for years, and I see clearly now that much of what I strove for—worshipped, really—betrayed me, as false gods are certain to do.
My utmost desire for my children is that they love the Lord and walk in his ways all the days of their lives. That is the sum of success. The only true life is one lived all for the glory of God. Anything else, no matter how glowing, is a mirage.
What are the best questions?
Many of us Christians blessed with resources have the opportunity to ask the very good question of whether our children can become strong and competent in their spheres of influence, without their ambition turning toward serving their own ends.
But what if my child has a disability? Or, God forbid, has a short lifespan? What if my child’s skill set or intelligence does not incline them toward college or a white-collar job? What if my child is not a leader in the traditional sense, or is content with what the world deems menial labor? Will he or she be a success still?
And for those billions of people living in a very different culture from mine: What if success means having enough food to eat? Having a sturdy home? Having a skill that allows for an honorable job? What if becoming great in the world’s eyes is not on the radar?
What is success in God’s eyes? Can we Christians envision and live out a holy ambition? Can our discipleship and education of our children empower them to do the same?
The founder and perfecter of our faith
How did God in the flesh live on this earth? He worked a trade with his father and learned from his Heavenly Father. His short period of public ministry drew a following, but it seemed to dissolve at his death. He alienated most of the religious and political leaders, even within Judaism. At his crucifixion he was readily forsaken by almost everyone.
But that is neither the full story nor the end of the story. Jesus died as the exact fulfillment of God’s plan from before the beginning of time, to save his people from their sins, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). His ransomed followers will come from every tribe and tongue and nation.
His death was not even the end of his work. He rose again, defeating death, and foreshadowing our own resurrection to eternal life with God. Christ, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” and is now “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
His death and resurrection were the greatest success the world has ever known. There is no greater glory than that which Christ earned.
We children of God who died with Christ will be raised and glorified with him. We will share his precious inheritance as his brothers and sisters. We receive not only ultimate glory but the heady, nourishing love of our Heavenly Father that we all crave and for which we find various substitutes until we are found by him.
If Christ’s death accomplished this for him and for us, should we not sprint forward to die to self along with him? He died that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). It sounds like madness to the flesh, but with an eternal perspective, it is the most rational route to ultimate success.
Servanthood and glory
Philippians 2:3-11 is the best explanation we could ask for:
 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Selfish ambition goes hand in hand with conceit and only caring about our own interests. We are instead called to observe and emulate Jesus, to look to others and their needs as more important than ourselves, and to become servants in humble obedience to God.
Jesus was obedient to the point of death, and though we too may die for the Lord, we will certainly not die the atoning death he died, experiencing the horrors of God’s wrath and separation from God. But because of his obedience in degradation, Jesus is now exalted above all, worshipped rightfully as God. It was worth it.
We are wise to follow Jesus and seek after heavenly treasure that cannot be stolen or destroyed by decay. The things we chase in selfish ambition—exalted positions, wealth, envied experiences, physical beauty—will burn in God’s judgment.
In God’s estimation of success, the day laborer who reads haltingly and has no degrees, and gives freely to those in need out of love for Christ, is a success. The paraplegic who cannot work or walk, and lives daily with faith in Christ that secures joy and hope, is a success. And the millions of people who struggle every day to procure life’s necessities without any fanfare, and who bow down before Christ, are successes.
Servanthood is the route to true glory.
If holy ambition is about servanthood, about treasuring Christ above all else in our work, then how do we do it and model it?
We work hard, by God’s grace, to fulfill a holy calling with humility, for God’s glory.
Certainly we work hard. We are not given the option of laziness just because God is sovereign. And we know that all our work depends on God’s grace to have any meaning or fruitfulness. Our work must be marked by humility and self-forgetfulness, because our eyes are so fixed on Christ. We must pursue things pleasing and desirable to God with the steadfast goal of God’s glory.
By “work,” I mean the full range of constructive things we do here on earth. There is no division between the “sacred” and “secular”. In other words, being a missionary or pastor is no more holy or pleasing to God in and of itself than being a physicist or barber. All of these callings (assuming they are ethical) can and should serve God’s ends in the world.
We must remember that work is rooted in creation. God gave Adam and Eve the grand job to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” over it (Genesis 1:28). In God’s perfect plan, work was to be delightful and fulfilling, and magnify his love and loveliness throughout creation. The back-breaking toil it has become is due to the fall of humankind: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). We long for God’s restoration of all things when work will once again be pure pleasure; until then we endure the hardships but aim for our work to reflect its original purpose.
Rest, too, is rooted in creation. God rested on the seventh day and he commands us to do the same. Jesus reinforces this command, with his burden-breaking, joy-restoring corrective to legalism: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Rest is not laziness or copping out, and it is not optional. It is a gift, meant for our restoration and our continued dependence on God. Ambition that shuns rest will not succeed in the long run. Take care not to believe the strange lie that becoming a workaholic in the name of doing more for God is impressive to him.
That the next generation might know
If God has called you to marriage and given you children, your foremost ministry is to your family. The Bible teaches illustratively about the unique importance of marriage and its reflection of Christ's relationship with the church. The inherent dependence of our children, coupled with the Bible's repeated exhortations to "teach them diligently" (Deuteronomy 6:7) about the ways of the Lord and to "tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done…that the next generation might know…so that they should set their hope in God." (Psalm 78:4-7)—these make it very clear that God will hold us accountable for the discipleship of our children. It is the most significant work we will ever do.
Our ambition must prioritize this. I am not talking about letting the world revolve around your kids, which teaches them a worldview of entitlement and self-absorption. The point is to invest in them so that their world revolves around the Lord.
How do we raise our children to believe and follow this?
We disciple them in the truth. We teach them the whole counsel of Scripture. We teach them that true success is modeled and enacted by the once-dead and now-risen Jesus. We impress in their minds the counter-cultural idea that servanthood is the path to glory, and that pleasing God is more desirable than pleasing themselves or the world.
Modeling servanthood is key. If our children see and participate with us in loving, serving, and learning from the “least of these,” their hearts catch the idea that this is what we do; this is special and a great privilege. This is what God loves and this is what I love. This is true life. And you will not have many greater joys than witnessing your kids selflessly care for someone else, glowing from the joy of it.
How do we live as individuals and families? Do we tell our children that most of all we want to please God, and then throw a fit when we do not get the job promotion, or mourn despondently that our body does not look like it did in our youth? Do we tell them that our treasure is in heaven, but hoard our money and drool after the endless torrent of bigger and better stuff? Do we yearn (and pray) most of all for holiness and joy and justice, or to win what we want and finally be on top? Do we gather with the body of Christ faithfully even when it costs us something, or do we make church and fellowship a lukewarm priority?
We must also have educational and career expectations for them that line up with these truths. Do we drill it into their heads that education is about getting the best grades and the most recognition, to get into the best college with the most recognition, to get the best job with the most recognition? Do we do the same thing subtly, by being over the moon about academic achievement and hardly involved in their spiritual development? What messages do we send, explicitly and implicitly, to communicate that our most cherished hope for them is an upward-climbing career?
Instead, can we encourage and support them in diligently flourishing in their studies and later in their families and careers, so that they can minister God’s love and truth in their life’s work? Can we grow our philosophy on the trellis of knowing that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,” and that “it is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2). Can we place success within the helpful boundary of knowing that all of it is worth nothing if we magnify ourselves instead of Christ?
How will people respond?
This vignette about John G. Paton never fails to snap me back to the real point of life. He and his wife, upon their departure to be missionaries to an unreached island, were warned by an elder that they would be eaten by cannibals. Paton responded:
"Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms."
I’m thankful it is very unlikely for most of us to be eaten by cannibals. Still, following Christ means giving up things that even fellow Christians do not understand.
Some people are frightened by giving up the security of worldly gain, and want to silence others who say this is what Christ calls us to. Some have come up with the idea that worldly influence, at any cost, is the means to do the most good in the world. But imagined “good” does not justify unholy living, and wealth is more seductive than any of us imagine (recall the parable of the sower and the seeds sown among thorns). Many people simply think that worldly treasure is the only treasure, and you are a fool to give it up for something unseen.
Giving up your opportunities to “live to the fullest” is seen as a betrayal of yourself; a betrayal of the god within and all he or she could accomplish. If you give up any worldly advantage to raise your children and serve your family, as a man or woman, you are a dupe. As a woman, you are even worse: a traitor, because you have willingly submitted to serving someone other than yourself.
It is good to be prepared for these reactions, and fortify ourselves with truth so as not to turn back when the path is lonely.
God with us
If God gives us opportunities, such as intelligence, skills, and education, we use them for his kingdom, without shame. His gifts are not signs of superiority or occasions for guilt. Do it all for God’s glory. But be on your guard. Earthly success is not an enemy, but we know that the true enemy will happily use success to destroy us by diverting our attention and affection to something other than the Lord.
There is no easy and clear-sailing flow chart for living out holy ambition. But God will not leave us bewildered; he will answer us when we ask him to make us holy and to live for his glory. He may not (probably won’t) give us a neon sign telling us how to make every choice, but he himself will be with us.