Can Ambition Be Good?
Ambition is a complicated word for many Christian women. On one hand, mainstream culture champions female ambition, telling women that with enough education, planning, and grit, women can do and be all that they want, without giving anything up along the way. In many church subcultures, on the other hand, women with professional ambitions are encouraged to sacrifice their desires, learn contentment, and instead focus on others.
These mixed messages can result in a deep ambivalence for many Christian women about their own natural ambitions. As Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and author of the book Liturgy of the Ordinary, told me recently about her own work, “I don’t want to feel like being an ambitious wife is a burden.”
Is ambition good? And if so, what does Christlike ambition look like?
Someone who has helped me answer these questions powerfully is a woman named Kim Newlen, who I met while working on a project at Christianity Today called This Is Our City. In the 1990s, Kim was a stay-at-home mother with a passion to reach other women with hospitality. She began hosting women in her home for tea and conversation. Eventually her ministry, Sweet Monday, had chapters in every state. In 2005, Kim broke the Guinness World Record for World’s Largest Tea Party, hosting 7,000 people in her hometown of Richmond, VA.
Then, at age 47, Kim was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. “I thought what I would do was just pull the covers over my head and wait until everything was over,” Kim said. But the opposite happened: in Kim’s words, “I got bolder as I got balder.” Amid her cancer treatments, Kim used her natural creativity and servant heart to work with a fashion designer to create a post-surgical garment for other women to wear while undergoing their own cancer treatments.
“I’ve always wanted to be a woman who didn’t live with regret,” said Kim. “Life is so short, I didn’t want to look back and say, I wish I had, I wish I had.”
True ambition is refusing to say, “I wish I had.”
God created all of us, male and female, to explore and enrich the world he created, to know it, care for it, and have dominion over it for his glory and others’ benefit. Human ambition wasn’t something that crept into the world after the Fall. Ambition is an aspect of bearing the image of God, of filling his world with beauty and creativity and delight. Like all dimensions of life, ambition has been affected by the Fall, and our ambitions can easily become a setting for idolatry and selfishness. That’s why Paul warns us in Philippians to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (2:3).
But, when our ambitions are rightly oriented toward God and are being sanctified by him, they can keep us pressing for shalom, that rich Hebrew word meaning “comprehensive flourishing.” Kingdom ambition keeps us working with diligence, excellence, and care to see hints of shalom appearing among our neighbors, in our towns and offices and schools and homes.
To follow Christ faithfully, all women need some ambition. This is why I will be speaking about ambition at The Collaborative's lunch event on Wednesday, April 25 at the Citrus Club. I believe many Christian women are given false choices in their identity formation around ambition. Various, conflicting messages tell us that we can be either self-sacrificing and others oriented or ambitious. But many saints of history who set the world on fire for God dismantle that false dichotomy. We can be self-giving and self-driven, content with our circumstances yet deeply discontent when those circumstances are filled with suffering or injustice. Rather than dismissing ambition outright, Christian communities need to ask what ends our ambitions service, and amplify those ambitions when they serve good, holy ends and purposes.