Last year I discovered an ambition to return to school. Really, the ambition had been there for a long time, but the situation at Oak Hill was not previously conducive to me adding classes in my free time (I didn’t have any). That’s not to mention that my kids were also very young, so staying up late to watch lectures or write papers seemed like a bad idea when I knew I would be up 2-3 times each night already.
In Fall 2021, a lot of things were falling into place that allowed me to think about returning to academics in some form. Even still, many questions remained. Would I seek a degree or a certificate? Should I pursue an MDiv, ThM, MA, or something else? Do I find an accredited school, or instead favor a more flexible program that allows me to use work I was already doing to complete my coursework? How much money was I willing to spend, and what did I hope to get out of the investment at the end?
Ultimately, all those practical questions forced me to wrestle with an even deeper question: why did I want to go back to school in the first place? What was the source of my ambition?
To some, it might seem like a no-brainer – pastors should be seminary-trained, duh! However, I firmly believe that seminary training does not make a pastor. I believe that; our elders believe that, and our congregation never once asked me to pull out a diploma to prove my calling (thank God!). At the same time, I still see the value in a seminary education, or at least the type of continuing education that makes the pastor a life-long learner from those who have gone before him.
Now my purpose here is not to discuss the pros and cons of seminary. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate a process for examining ambition and to reveal some of what I discovered in my heart along the way. Hopefully this public processing will serve you in your evaluations of your own ambitions. To be clear, I did not have this framework laid out in a nice, neat order like it is here. However, these principles undergirded my decision-making process and shaped my ambitions in a Godward direction.
On Sunday, I urged our church to pursue ambition, success, and greatness according to the definition of Jesus. Ambition, success, and greatness are not things to avoid, but they will take a VERY different shape when we consider the ambition, success, and greatness of Jesus! In that sermon, I asked, “What is your greatest ambition?” and then I urged everyone to measure their ambition against that of Christ’s.
Here I want to take that a step further to provide five evaluative questions for testing ambition.
1) How will chasing this ambition help me become more like Christ?
In Mark 10:32-34, Jesus is walking out ahead of his disciples, resolutely moving toward Jerusalem, the place where he would accomplish the climactic work of the gospel. His ambition is set on dying in our place, for our sin, and rising again so that we could receive new life in him. All throughout in the New Testament, that new life is described as "being conformed into the image of Christ." We die to sin and live to Christ (2 Cor. 5:15). Our lives take on a cruciform shape.
The question for my schooling choice really was, “In what ways will chasing this ambition help me become more like Christ?” There were some schooling choices that I knew would tempt my heart more toward having a fat theological head than a gentle and lowly heart like that of Jesus. There were other schooling choices that would soften me and demonstrate my need to truly learn the ways of Christ. Those were the ones I needed to pursue.
2) How does this ambition acknowledge that Jesus in the position of Lord of my life?
Immediately after this prediction of his death and resurrection, two disciples named James and John ask Jesus for the most prominent positions in his kingdom. I will get to the heart of their request in a moment, but I want to acknowledge here that their request still acknowledges Jesus’ rightful place on the throne. They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35 ESV). Most of us, if we’re honest, want the central place on the throne, so we must give James and John partial credit on their ambitions. They knew Jesus’ kingdom was the place where he was ultimately glorified, even if they demanded him to cater to their requests.
This demonstrates an important fact about ambitions: they are often fickle and sneaky. The ugly cake of our fleshly desires can be iced over with Jesus-colored icing. Likewise, truly Kingdom-minded ambitions can be laced with selfish desire that must be eliminated.
Truly Kingdom-minded ambitions can be laced with selfish desire that must be eliminated.
In my own example, acknowledging Jesus as Lord meant that I kept an open hand about where or if schooling worked out. I prayed, sought counsel, discussed with Katy, and more, all the while truly seeking where the Lord would have me.
Even still, I had to recognize that my open-handed submission of my ambition to Christ could easily be tainted with sneaky selfish motives. To help with those motives, I had to ask a question like the next one:
3) Would I still pursue this ambition if no one else noticed me?
At the heart of James’ and John’s request was a desire for prominence, esteem, and notoriety. They wanted to wield power in the glorious kingdom of Christ. They did not want to be lowly. They wanted the esteem that would come from a close relationship to the most glorious king. However, the glory of Jesus was not a surface-level glory, but rather was visible in who he truly was and what he came to do.
This summer, our family vacationed in Portland Maine where we visited the Portland Head Lighthouse, which is the most photographed lighthouse in the world. It’s picturesque, quintessential Maine. It was built beginning in 1787 and construction was completed in 1790. As you might expect, it functioned to keep sailors from running ashore along the coast of Portland.
However, what is left out of most of the pictures is a smaller, less attractive lighthouse that sits just a mile off the coast. The Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse was constructed in 1903 to mark out the reefs around Ram Island, which is one of the most feared spots by local sailors. Together, the two lighthouses have guided countless ships to safety.
It’s ironic to me that you can capture the Ram Island Lighthouse in a photograph and not even notice it at first. My friend, Bill, had to point it out to me after I took the picture. However, it serves the exact same purpose.
Here's the question I want you to consider: which lighthouse one is greater? Portland Head, that everyone comes to see, or Rams Island, which keeps sailors safe in the most treacherous waters in Portland? We must be careful how we answer. The truth is, they are the same because they both fulfilled the same purpose. The greatness of either lighthouse is not marked by the number of times it is photographed, and its beauty is not found in its aesthetic appeal. Its value is found in the purpose for which it was created and the lives that it saves.
The question is, “Are you willing to be the obscure lighthouse? Are you willing to be the one that does not shine the way the world wants you to shine, but that still displays the light of Christ just the same.”
As I wrestled with this question in relation to my return to schooling, it was difficult to answer. Inherent to deciding where to pursue a degree and what degree to get is the way that degree is perceived by others. Yes, the degree represents hours of coursework and blood, sweat, and tears thinking about a particular subject. But name recognition is a real commodity in higher education.
Ultimately, I believe the answer the question of notoriety with a big, “yes,” partly because I did not choose the shiniest program, but also because I see the eternal value of the things I am learning.
At the same time, I must continually battle being “noticed,” particularly in the way I think about grades. I can get despondent when I don’t get an “A+” on every assignment, not because I think anyone in the world will judge me by my grades, but because an A+ demonstrates the recognition of my online instructor. Silly and foolish, I know., but true all the same. Each time this recognition monster rears its grotesque head, I must again reset my ambitions on Jesus and his kingdom, recognizing that my position in Christ is already secure, and that is all that matters.
It is easy to convince ourselves of the purity of our ambitions.
All of this brings up an important observation: it is easy to convince ourselves of the purity of our ambitions. It’s easy to think that because the work we are doing is still for Christ’s kingdom, then our ambitions must be pure. But motivations matter. We can test our ambitions before we get into them, but ongoing check-ups are still necessary.
4) Does this ambition appropriately combine strength and weakness for the sake of flourishing?
Jesus goes on to correct the ambitions of his disciples because they were indignant at James and John. Our indignation often reveals our idolatry, doesn’t it? We may not promote ourselves as others do. We may scoff at their “greatness,” while still desiring the same greatness in our own hearts.
Jesus reveals that the rulers of this world are domineering and abusive. The world pursues power without vulnerability or accountability. In our flesh, we all want to have total control to be able to use on ourselves, no questions asked.
"The world pursues power without vulnerability or accountability."
But Jesus is not like that, and neither should his followers be. He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. His followers must become a servant and slave of all, because that is Jesus’ definition of true greatness (see Mark 10:41-45).
The path of God’s redemption for fallen humanity is to find true life only through true death. We die with Christ so that we might live with him (see Romans 6:1-11). This is what Andy Crouch calls, “the paradox of human flourishing.” He writes, “Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak. Flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability, both capacity and frailty, even (at least in this broken world), both life and death.”*
In evaluating my choice regarding schooling, this paradox of human flourishing meant that I needed to reckon with 1) the particular strengths God has given me, and 2) the particular people he has called me to serve. For any foreseeable future, the Lord has called me to serve the people of Oak Hill Fellowship Church and the broader community of Southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. What do they need most? Where is God leading us as a church, and how might he want to equip me to get out ahead in that direction? How will this education shape me as a shepherd to a flock who will inevitably face hurts, trials, hardships, relational strains, and more?
5) Does this ambition advance the gospel?
Ultimately, our ambitions must advance the kingdom, which is to advance the gospel. The unique service of Christ was to give his life as a ransom for many. He bought us from our slavery to earth-bound, self-centered ambitions and freed us to live for God.
We cannot give our lives as a ransom for many, nor are we called to. Instead, we are to give our lives in serving others with the good news of his ransom. We serve their material and spiritual needs in such a way that helps them see their eternal need. We take the gospel of Christ’s ransom to all so that many might be saved.
As I apply this to my ambition to go back to school, this meant that I wanted a course of study where the gospel was being applied with clarity. I wanted a course of study that would help me serve the gospel up to others with maximum effectiveness. I was seeking applied theology that would have an almost immediate benefit to the congregation I currently serve.
So, what did I choose?
In the end, I chose to start a certificate program through CCEF that could potentially be applied to a master’s degree later if I so choose. I decided, based on the needs of our church and the strengths God has given me, to pursue biblical counseling as a course of study. I’m learning many truths that I can immediately implement to serve others who are in positions of vulnerability and weakness. Most of all, CCEF understands the dynamics of strength and weakness, ambition and servanthood, and includes those dynamics in the very fabric of their training.
Now, I want to pose the question to you, “What is your ambition?” Is it to start a new job or business? Are you thinking about having children, or about raising them to adulthood? Are you considering starting a new ministry endeavor, or even just continuing in the ministry commitments you have already made? How can these five questions help you test your ambition and shape your heart toward Christ?
*Crouch, Andy. Strong and Weak. Audible. Chapter 1, time marker 05:22ff.