For more small group studies on workplace issues, go to the Small Groups Studies Page.
One Hour Session on Ambition
Note to the Leader
This study is intended to engage Christians who work in a discussion about ambition. It brings together the practical reality of life at work and the spiritual guidance of the Bible. The study begins with an optional, provocative video. It is not intended as a statement of what’s right, but as a vivid discussion starter. Participants then read a passage of the Bible and talk about its perspective on ambition. Then they explore how to apply what they’ve discussed to their own work.
The study does not require any reading or preparation in advance. The study is intended to take about an hour, including reading the passages out loud. If your group has more time, of if you’d like to continue the discussion next time, three additional Bible passages and a case study are provided for further exploration.
[Optional] Begin with a prayer, according to your group’s custom.
- What comes to your mind when you hear the word “ambition”?
- [Optional] Watch this video clip: “Ambition vs Discontentment - What is the difference?” (The link takes you to 37 sec from the start. From there to the end is 7 minutes). Note: this video is intentionally provocative! It only expresses the opinion of the presenter. What’s your opinion?
- Does God want us to be ambitious? If no, why not? If yes, ambitious for what?
A BIBLICAL VIEW OF AMBITION
Ambition vs. Selfish Ambition
Read together (Philippians 2:3-11):
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
- What words, images or characters do you see in the passage that relate to ambition at work?
- How does what you observe in the passage relate to what comes to mind when you hear the word “ambition”?
APPLYING IT TO YOUR WORK
The passage above from Philippians speaks against “selfish” motivation, but not against ambition itself. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility
value others above yourselves. ” If our ambition is to serve the interests of others--for example by excelling in our work, expanding our sphere of action, or gaining power to make things better—ambition may be a form of service to God. But if our work is motivated by selfishness or is done with indifference to others, we are not aligned with the mind of Jesus. A biblical perspective on ambition may result in a major paradigm shift for some people, both for those who think that all ambition is un-Christ-like and for those who think God doesn’t care much about how they go about their work.
Adapted from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary For further study on this passage see Do Your Work in a Worthy Manner (Philippians 1:27–2:11).
- What are you ambitious for?
- If your ambitions succeed, how will it benefit you? Who else will your success benefit, and how exactly? Can you ever be completely free of selfish ambitions?
- What practical steps can you take now to turn your ambitions more toward serving others?
- What do you need to ask Christ for?
[Optional] End with a prayer, according to your group’s custom.
This ends the one-hour study on ambition.
Additional Study Material on Ambition
For a longer session, or for follow-on sessions, choose from the material below.
Read together 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.
This passage views ambition for leadership (at least in the church) as a “noble task.” (The Greek word translated “bishop” is episkope, literally meaning “overseer.”) But this ambition must be paired with a lifelong commitment to Christ-like character formation.
For further study on this passage see Integrity and Relational Ability are Key Leadership Qualities (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
- The passage doesn’t say why aspiring to leadership is a noble task. What do you think is noble about ambition for leadership? Does this only apply to church leadership?
- Look at the specific character traits in the passage. Which of them are the most important in your workplace? What happens when a leader has or does not have them?
- Which leadership characteristics do you most wish to develop? How does following Christ help you grow towards them?
Read together the following excerpt from “Ambition” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianty:
Since Scripture is somewhat ambiguous on the subject of ambition, it is not surprising that many Christians are confused. Paul warned against unbridled appetites (Phil 3:19) and the danger of loving money (1 Tim 6:10). But there are also positive statements like the one approving those who set their hearts on being an elder—a godly ambition (1 Tim 3:1). While Paul counseled against being conformed to the mindset of the world (Romans 12:2 ) and rejoiced to see his enemies preach the gospel even though they wanted to make life more difficult for him (Phil 1:18), he was ambitious to have a harvest among the Romans (Romans 1:13) and to evangelize Spain. It has often been suggested that when Paul got converted, so was his ambition: ‘What Paul can teach us is that there is a gospel-centered way to speak about competitiveness, a way to be ambitious for the sake of Christ, a way to raise the desire for success above the level of self-interest or ideology’ (Kuck, p. 175).
From: Robert Banks & R. Paul Stevens, eds., The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, (InterVarsity Press, 1997, p. 34). For further study about Paul’s ambition as an apostle, see God’s Work in Us (Philippians 1:1–26)
- What kinds of “unbridled appetites” underlying ambition have you observed where you work? Have you been conformed to these mindsets at all?
- Is it really possible to be competitive “for the sake of Christ.” Doesn’t competition necessarily mean that someone wins and someone else loses? How could competition and ambition not ultimately end up benefiting yourself at the expense of others?
INVESTING IN OTHERS MATTERS
Read together James 4:1-10
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures….That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
A perspective from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on James 4:1-2:
In the workplace, one temptation is to use others as stepping stones to our own success. When we steal the credit for a subordinate’s or co-worker’s work, when we withhold information from a rival for promotion, when we shift the blame to someone not present to defend themselves, when we take advantage of someone in a difficult situation, we are guilty of selfish ambition. James is right that this is a chief source of quarrels.
Ironically, selfish ambition may impede success rather than promote it. The higher our position in an organization, the more we depend on others for success. It can be as simple as delegating work to subordinates, or as complex as coordinating an international project team. But if we have a reputation for stepping on other people to get ahead, how can we expect others to trust and follow our leadership?
The remedy lies in submitting to God, who created all people in his image (Gen. 1:27) and who sent his Son to die for all (2 Cor. 5:14). We submit to God whenever we put our ambition in the service of others ahead of ourselves. Do we want to rise to a position of authority and excellence? Good, then we should begin by helping other workers increase their authority and excellence. Does success motivate us? Good, then we should invest in the success of those around us. Ironically, investing in others’ success may also turn out to be the best thing we can do for ourselves. According to economists Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, investing in other people makes us happier than spending money on ourselves.
- How much of the fighting and quarreling in your workplace comes from people’s selfish ambition to “use others as stepping stones to our own success”? Describe an example.
- To what degree does success in your current work depend on the success of others around you?
- Do you have a reputation for helping others in your workplace be successful?
- What do you think of the claim that the best thing an ambitious Christian can do is to invest in the success of others around them?
CASE STUDY ON AMBITION
After graduating from Harvard business school, Diane Paddison served as global executive for two Fortune 500 companies and one Fortune 1000 company. Today she acts as an independent director for two corporations and four non-profits and writes for Christianity Today’s digital magazine “Today’s Christian Women.”
What if women are not being "held back," but rather women are choosing not to move forward?
If I see a woman making a mature and purposeful choice to "lean back" from work in order to prioritize other things, I celebrate her and praise God that she has the opportunity to make that choice.
The problem is that some women, and especially Christian women, aren't making that choice for themselves. Instead, they're letting guilt make it for them. We've come to see ambition as synonymous with greed, pride, and selfishness. If you offer a young mother-to-be a choice between her family and "selfish pride," she's almost definitely going to choose family. Have you ever heard anyone (male or female) complimented at church for their "ambition"?
Ambition shouldn't be a dirty word. It doesn't have to entail sacrificing family or other good things. It is possible to balance career ambitions with life's other priorities, like family and faith.
It's important to remember that God made you. He built every piece of you. It's not an accident that you have the intelligence and skills to excel in the professional world. These abilities were given to you by God to use for his service.
Not everyone feels a strong desire to advance at work, but if you do, it means that God made you that way. Ambition is a gift, not a curse. It must be stewarded. It must be focused with care. But it shouldn't be crushed or ignored.
Remember that God has a purpose for all of us. He has placed us in and works through our circumstances. If he is prompting you toward success, don't be afraid to follow the path he has drawn for you. And most importantly, don't forget that he is the reason for it.
- What is Paddison’s opinion of ambition? What do you think about it?
- Do you believe that God gives ambition as a gift?
- If a friend came to you for advice on balancing career ambitions with family and faith, what would you tell him or her?
- What do you think of your own ambitions in light of this?
Thanks to everyone who has invested in the Theology of Work Project! Thanks to your generosity, we were able to meet all our needs for 2017! We ask that you continue to keep us in your prayers and charitable giving in 2018 as we equip Christians to connect to God's purposes for work.