By Ben Ward
As Brett sat down in my office, I knew we’d be carrying on the same conversation from the past year of discipleship. Right on cue, he looked at me and asked, "How do I know where God wants me to go, or what he wants me to do?"
This question haunts many young, committed Christians who want to honor God with their lives. Brett wondered how his classmates could claim the call of God to a specific location, people group, pastoral position, or career, while he had never experienced such a strong indication. He thought, “Are they lying? Is God hiding? How can he be so clear with them, but not with me?”
I've had roughly 13,000 conversations with students about career and vocation in my eight years at a local seminary. One thing this experience has taught me is that we tend to assume others have it figured out. The truth is, we are all on a journey. Proverbs 16:9 puts it this way, "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps."
In my experience, the idea of a “holy ambition” is the best guide in making decisions about career and calling. It balances the dynamic leadership of the Holy Spirit with the revealed will of God in Scripture. A holy ambition provides both clarity and freedom as we submit our call to the narrative of Scripture.
What is a Holy Ambition?
In his book, A Holy Ambition, John Piper coined the term in describing Paul's words in his letter to the Romans. Paul writes, "And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’ (Romans 15:20-21). Piper commentates, "[Paul] wanted to preach the gospel in Asia and Greece where people didn’t know about Jesus. He really, really, really wanted to do this. We call that kind of desire an ‘ambition’. And we call it ‘holy ambition’ when it is something God wants you to do” (17).
Piper then asks, “Where does a holy ambition come from?” It’s interesting that Paul had a direct command from Jesus in Acts 9, yet instead uses Isaiah 52:15 to express his holy ambition. Why would he do that? Piper writes, "And for our sake he speaks this way. He doesn’t just refer to his experience on the Damascus road, which we will never have. He refers to God’s written word that we do have. And he roots his ambition there" (18).
So, how can we define the term? A holy ambition is a subjective desire that we confirm through God’s word (the Bible) and affirm through God’s people (the church).
The Purpose of A Holy Ambition
In my experience, the journey of discovering your holy ambition disciples us in numerous ways. One of the greatest benefits is the humility it cultivates. We can easily make an ambitious plan to leverage our lives for the kingdom—without really consulting the God who rules and empowers that kingdom. Seeking a holy ambition through the lens of Scripture demands submission to God's plan, not ours.
Here are three other benefits that flow from a holy ambition:
Piper notes that Paul's ambition controlled him. He desired to go to Rome to visit and fellowship with the church there, but his ambition hindered him. It gave clarity to his priorities.
In my own life, Isaiah 61:1-7 is the text God has used to build my holy ambition. It informs my understanding of my spiritual gifts, to preach, teach, and counsel individuals who are broken, hurt, and harassed (1-4). It also guides my work to see the broken empowered to bring hope to their neighborhoods, networks, and communities (61:5-7). The living word of God brings practical clarity to my ambitions.
A common phrase in the realm of Christian career counseling goes like this: "Calling is where your great passion meets the world's great need." What's wrong with this formula? It’s devoid of something central in Scripture. The focus for the kingdom of God in the world isn’t just individualized ministry—it’s rooted in the local church.
Ephesians 4:11-12 speaks very clearly that the ministry of individual Christians is to build up the body of Christ into full maturity. We quote the Lord's prayer, "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven," yet forget the new community of God has a name— the church, the ekklessia, the gathering of the body of Christ. As we explore our holy ambition through the Bible's narrative, our pursuits will be narrowed to include commitment and service to a local expression of Christ’s bride.
In Romans 8, Paul says that the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are children of God. He captures our hearts and fuels our desires as his Spirit affirms our belonging to him. Why then do we make decisions about work on the basis of money, skill, or status? For the Christian, these are far less sufficient forms of affirmation.
Determining our career and calling on the basis of a holy ambition doesn’t mean looking to an objective formula on the one hand, or a subjective experience on the other. Instead, it invites both the word of God and the people of God to speak affirmation (and if needed, refutation) into the decision-making journey. It gives a place to both the subjective and objective.
How about you? Do you have a holy ambition stirring? In Part Two of this series we will explore a step-by-step process for discovering your holy ambition.