A Theology of Ambition

In some evangelical circles, piety is equated with passivity. The holiest person is the one who sits the stillest, waits the longest, and does the least. Somewhere along the way, godliness became equated with doing very little, with sitting on one’s hands, with praying for hours while sitting for the same. This version of the Christian life leaves much to be desired.

Christians have always struggled with the tendency to pit prayer and meditation on Scripture against action. Those who do so always lose. If we emphasize prayer to the detriment of action, we overspiritualize life and become passive. If we emphasize action to the detriment of prayer, we live as practical atheists. Neither option is sound, and both will lead to a damaged way of life. Far better to couple prayer with action, to bathe action in prayer, and so to live in a combination of trust and dependence. Though this idea seems pretty basic, it has lost its place in certain Christian circles. I’m not sure of the exact origins of this tendency (and it is probably is old as the earth itself), but in terms of a codified way of Christian living, I would guess that its presence in much Christian thought traces back to pietism and its experientialist dimensions. There is of course much good in such strains of Christianity, but there can also be a tendency to misread the Bible along hermeneutical lines and to think that God speaks and communicates to Christians today just as He did in Old Testament times. The result of such thinking is that godly people fail to act until they receive an impression, a sign, a voice, a call that is from God Himself. Praying to God and living patiently is biblical, but it is my contention that our way of discovering and living out the will of God is quite different today than it was in Old Testament times. We have the Spirit, yes, but the preponderance of New Testament teaching (and much of the Old) teaches us to act in wisdom out of a backdrop of prayer, counsel, and courage.

As I noted above, Christians tend to break up into two camps. It is my opinion that there is an abundance of literature out there that teaches believers to depend on God and go often to Him in prayer, so I’m not focusing on that side of things in this brief series. Instead, I am targeting those who overspiritualize their lives and who end up living passively instead of actively. The specific casualty of such living that I want to target is the death of ambition that such a philosophy of life brings. Many Christians who fall in the “pray and don’t act until absolutely certain” camp live without a strong sense of personal ambition and in fact tend to view those with ambition and vigor as ungodly and dangerous. As we will see, there is some truth to this concern. However, there is also falsehood, for the Bible itself commends a certain kind of godly ambition that involves praying to God, trusting God, and acting for His glory and the good of one’s life, family, church and even society. In the coming days, we’ll seek to construct a very basic theology of ambition in order to reclaim a sense of Christian agency that is inextricably related to the foundational command to Adam and Eve to take dominion of the earth. As we will see, it is well nigh impossible to take dominion of the earth, let alone one’s finances, or marriage, or work, without some sense of ambition. A theology of ambition, then, allows us not to chase a spiritual goose through the Bible, but to understand in a fundamental way how it is we are to live as Christians on God’s earth.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Theology of Ambition

  1. BC

    Owen,

    I’m not sure that I like the term ‘ambition’ in this context. You seem to be arguing against sloth and for the work ethic. You might also want to consider the idea of work as prayer (cf. the Benedictine ‘orare est laborare’).

    BC

  2. msvoboda

    bc,

    I think you missed his point. He is talking about all the Saul’s out there who use prayer and ‘giving a sacrifice to God’ as an excuse to not act rather than use prayer to prepare oneself to act!

    I enjoyed the post greatly!

    Live the Word
    Matt

  3. msvoboda

    I know you probably don’t like Erwin McManus a whole lot, but he has a great book on this topic called “Chasing Daylight.”

  4. Michael

    Owen…

    Thanks for this post. I agree with you and I do think an overemphasis on personal piety has led to this paralysis of action. Pietism, in its worst forms, is self-absorbed spiritualism that places emphasis on the individual and is quite dangerous. Scripture has quite a lot to say about how our walk with God plays out socially! Michael

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