As I anticipate the summer ahead, a familiar thought fights for my attention: maybe this will be the summer I finally get it together.
Maybe this summer I will finally work out consistently. Maybe I’ll become a runner and be stronger than I ever imagined. I can see myself—tan and lean, powering up the hills, my breath as steady and silent as if I were sitting in a lawn chair on the back patio, reading a newspaper, and sipping lemonade.
Or maybe I’ll read books like a machine—head to the library with an empty bag, return home with it bulging, and then plow through the books so quickly I’ll be back at the library the next week, hungry for more. I’ll be a miniature Lincoln or a modern-day Milton, filling my brain with layer upon layer of knowledge until I finally hit the optimum level, and “Zing!” I’ll transform into a self-made genius.
Maybe this summer will be my debut into the world—a shining star of success built by determination and hard work (and a little bit of natural genius, of course).
These ambitions aren’t new for me.
I remember feeling the same ecstatic urges for greatness as a child, feeling inspired to do hard things—harder things than anyone has ever done; or good things—better than anyone has ever done.
Now, as I approach my twenty-second summer, and I feel the same ambitions rushing in, I’ve finally recognized the underlying motivation for these grandiose aspirations:
I love to be successful.
But more than that, I love to be more successful than someone else.
It’s painful to admit this fact, especially in writing, but I often find that arrogance fuels my ambition to do great things. I want to do well because I want to be the best… or at least one of the best.
The Biblical Antidote to Ambition
Refreshingly, the Bible doesn’t think the way I do.
Psalm 90, written by Moses, (arguably one of the most righteous men of all time) offers an antidote to my dreams of greatness. With divine clarity, the psalm moves past the veneer of success—the medals, trophies, and awards—to recognize the ultimate futility of life. Even the successful life.
Verse ten reads, “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
Moses argues that life boils down to two central realities: labor and sorrow. The very brevity of life makes each aspect more poignant; what’s the point of success if it doesn’t last?
Years later, Solomon reaches a similar conclusion in Ecclesiastes 2. After listing his various attempts at finding meaning in pleasure, wealth, work, and wisdom, Solomon concludes:
“For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity,” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).
Though Solomon achieved great success in each of the areas he explored, he reached the same conclusion as Moses did: Life is composed mostly of grief and pain; success doesn’t make it any better.
God’s Work Changes Everything
If Moses and Solomon ended here, life would seem dismal indeed. But neither Solomon nor Moses leaves us in despair, nor do they discourage work or even success. Instead, they plunge deeper still into reality, seeking the proper motivation for ambition in the very heart of God.
“Let Your work appear to Your servants and Your glory to their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90:16-17).
Moses understands that when God’s work enters the scene, it changes everything.
My failure and my success are both constantly eclipsed by God’s perfect work. His work not only exists—that would be enough to give us something to rejoice about—but it exists “upon us” (Psalm 90:17). Given as a covering, it clothes us with the glory we cannot provide for ourselves no matter how hard we strive or how successful we become, and this glory lasts forever (see Ecclesiastes 3:14).
Suddenly, we have a perfect reason to work. Our work ultimately doesn’t earn joy. Instead, our work expresses the joy we already have in what God’s work has accomplished. We work to say, “Thank you.” We do our best to celebrate His best.How to Approach Ambition as a Christian This Summer Click To Tweet
And every step of the way His work fuels ours. The overwhelming success of His work gives us a reason to rejoice that will last a lifetime (see Psalm 90:14).
So, this summer as you plan to do great things—maybe powering up hills on a mission to become a runner or plowing through books at the library—remember this: work doesn’t exist as a tool to compare your success with someone else’s or to grasp at meaning through ambition.
That’s not what work is for. To work is to rejoice. To work is to worship.