C.S. Lewis gave a graduation commencement speech to graduates at Kings College at the University of London. The students were graduating from a prestigious school with their whole lives in front of them, and Lewis talked to them about their ambitions. He knew many of them would land a great job and long to be in the inner circle of wherever they worked. Lewis called it “the inner ringer.” He warned them that their desire to be in the “inner ring” is like peeling back the layers of an onion. In the end there is nothing left. When you get to the place you thought would satisfy you, you realize there is another ring. There is always going to be another ring. Lewis said this: “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed, there will be nothing left… The quest for the inner ring will break you unless you break it.”
Lewis warned about the ambition that would never satisfy. All of us are familiar with this ambition as all of us have given ourselves to a pursuit that does not quench. The Scripture, however, gives us examples of holy ambition. The apostle Paul spoke about his ambition: “My aim is to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named (Romans 15:20).” He also wrote that if “anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work” (I Timothy 3:1).
So how can we test our ambition to be sure it is from the Lord and not a desire that will break us in the end? Here are three questions to ask yourself.
1. Whose name will be made great?
There is a difference between holy ambition and worldly ambition. The end-result of holy ambition is the Lord’s name made great. The end-result of worldly ambition is our name. When the role is offered or the goal is met, whose name is made great? We can and should attempt great things for God, but His name and fame must be the pinnacle goal or our goals will crush and leave us empty.
2. Why am I so driven?
Oswald Sanders wrote a whole chapter about ambition in his classic work, “Spiritual Leadership.” He wrote “It is motivation that determines ambition’s character. Our Lord never taught against the urge to high achievement, but He did expose and condemn unworthy motivation.” Sadly, it is hard to know our own hearts as “the heart is more deceitful than anything else and incurable – who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) So we are wise to ask the Lord to search our hearts, to point out the offensive motivations within (Psalm 139:23-24).
3. How is my ambition expressed?
Holy ambition is ambition that is for God and fueled by God. It is possible to “do things for God” in our own energy, power, and wisdom – devoid of a growing walk with Jesus and with the fruit of His Spirit absent in our lives. Doing something for God does not mean the ambition is holy. If the power we rely on is our own power, the ambition is not holy.
Unholy ambition must be broken, or it will break us.