Trading Ambition for Stewardship
“Let nothing be done from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” –Philippians 2:3 NIV
I read recently, and I wish I could remember where, that an elementary school classroom is often a place where self-promoting ambition is proudly on display. When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, the author said that they will often proudly say “The President” or “a famous athlete” or another position known for its notoriety. While I think that plenty of children also want to be firefighters and teachers and members of other non-famous professions, I get the overall point. We’re often encouraged to seek to “be somebody” when we get older, and that is usually defined by how well known we are, how much prestige society attaches to our title, or how much money we make.
Once we get into adulthood, the desire to “be somebody” will lead us to seek self-advancement—more education, a higher salary, better position, etc. None of those things is bad in itself; we just have to change our attitude about them. Ambition can describe a general desire to work and achieve, but it often represents our desire for self-advancement and furthering our position and reputation and perhaps our salary. Again, none of those things is problematic in themselves, but our motivations have to transcend simple self advancement. We have to change our mentality from one of ambition to one of stewardship.
In the parable of the talents, Jesus makes the point that at the end of the day, we all will be held accountable as stewards of everything we have been given. (Matthew 25:14-30) Everyone has been given a certain number of talents, which can be thought of as our spiritual gifts, natural intellect, educational background, financial resources, time and any other capabilities we may have. The primary characteristic of a steward is that they are making decisions in light of what will bring the most return for the Master, not just themselves. They’re working for His purposes and attempting to further His plans, not their own. A steward doesn’t own anything, it’s just in their charge.
To trade ambition for stewardship means to transition from an attitude of self-advancement to one of Kingdom advancement. As stewards, we become servants of God and servants of others. Promotions will come as we handle our responsibility well, the Master considers us faithful, and He gives us more to steward for Him. But to be promoted by Him, we have to be working for Him. Personal ambition can take us far, but it won’t be as fruitful as if we choose an attitude of stewardship instead. To be a good steward, I don’t think about what is going to best advance me, but rather how I can do the most with what I have to glorify God, grow the Church, and serve those around me.
The practical implications of trading ambition for stewardship will gradually grow larger and larger as we identify ways to use our talents, time and treasure for God and others, and spend ourselves doing so. Even if we have a secular occupation, we might start thinking of ways that we can use our professional skills to serve in church and in the community. We might rethink buying that more expensive car and hold onto the one we have a little bit longer so that we have more to give financially. Or, we might realize how much we can cut back on in our budget to support the work of the ministry. We might also consider venturing out of our comfort zone and open our home in hospitality.
I should note that those in ministry are by no means immune to selfish ambition. The desire for a bigger congregation, higher salary, more publications, greater notoriety, a larger speaking fee, insistence on the use of titles, along with other things can often be traced back to pride, even in ministers. No one is immune. And again, nothing is wrong with being promoted–with reaching a wider audience or gaining a strong reputation, or making more money–when it comes at God’s behest and is a result of faithful obedience rather than our own personal angling.
Whatever our occupation, when we consider our lives to be for our own benefit, we’ll tend to focus on using what we have to please ourselves. Stewardship changes our focus so that we become more like rivers, moving water along, instead of lakes, holding onto what we receive.