Here are the first half of my notes on a seminar on work and ambition run at City Church last week.
Set yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it – Martin Luther King
Be careful what you set your hear upon — for it will surely be yours – James Baldwin
Work & Ambition
Introduction: Ambition – a dirty word?
- How ambitious are you and why?
- What do you think might be the difference between a godly and an ungodly ambition?
- What worries you about being ambitious?
A. A biblical framework for ambition
In its holiest form, ambition is simply the desire to use our gifts for God’s glory – Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition
1. Ambitious by design
God is ambitious. God works for his glory. c.f. Genesis 1, Revelation 4:11
Made in his image we too were made to be ambitious. Humanity were given work to do and were to be ambitious for God’s glory in fulfilling it. C.f. Genesis 1:26-27, 2:15
God loves good ambition – Harvey
2. Ambition corrupted
The problem is not therefore ambition but distorted ambition. In two ways:
a) Wrong ambition – Work as an idol.
Q. How do you think the fall has corrupted ambition?
Q. What attitudes do we bring with us into the work place when we are working for selfish ambition?
Through the fall a right ambition centred on God’s glory is replaced by a wrong ambition centred on self. Working for God is replaced by work as a god.
Wrong ambition is recognized in the answer to this question: who’s glory (reputation & renown) are you ambitious for? With wrong ambition work becomes a God-substitute in which rather than making God’s name great we want to make our own names great.
Case study: Genesis 11:1-9.
Q. What motivates the workers in Babel?
Q. How does God view ungodly ambition?
A good ambition becomes a selfish ambition when it’s our only ambition. It’s called idolatry – Dave Harvey
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. Tim Kreider, ‘The Busy Trap’, New York Times
b) No ambition — Preferring to be idle
Read Proverbs 6:6-11
Q. What does Proverbs have to say about idleness?
3. Ambition converted
In creation we were given good, godly ambitions for work, as a result of the fall that ambition becomes distorted but in the gospel we don’t lose our ambition but see it converted back to an ambition for God and his glory.
In our work ambition is less about the job you do than the way you do your job!
a) We say ‘no’ to selfish ambition
Read James 3:13-16
Q. What is the consequence of selfish ambitions?
b) We pursue a godly ambition
We might be tempted to think that all ambition is now wrong. But there are many examples in the Bible of hard work and godly enterprise.
Read Proverbs 31:10-21
Q. How does a godly ambition feature in the work of this noble woman?
c) A godly ambition is defined as an ambition for God’s glory
Ambitions for self may be quite modest….Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. – John Stott
i) Jesus was ambitious!
I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do – John 17:4
Christ’s humility did not restrain his enterprise, it defined it. – Dave Harvey
ii) Paul was ambitious
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation – Romans 15:20
iii) We are called to be ambitious
Read 1 Corinthians 10:31, Colossians 3:23-24,
Q. How does being a Christian change the focus of our ambitions?
In the next post: how do we pursue godly ambitions?
- Be realistic about your expected salary in this economic climate!
- If you’re doing a professional job expect your first few years to be tough. Growing up is hard! Trust God and man up!
- Don’t think of your first job as an extension of your degree; act maturely, work hard and earn respect for what you do
- Keep in close contact with your friends and even closer with your God.
- See your work as part of your service of Him, rather than a way of paying the bills so you can serve elsewhere.
- Read ‘Thank God it’s Monday by Mark Greene which is awesomely inspiring.
- Be prepared that you might find work hard, get challenged and feel rubbish! Your identity and worth more than ever needs to be rooted in Jesus and his grace.
- You don’t need to know what their plan is for the rest of life, or even their plan for next month; they do need to remember that Jesus is our shepherd and we are His.
- Go to sleep before midnight during the week. Trying to catch up with a cat nap in the loo’s at lunch, will not cut the mustard in the world of employment. Not that I ever did that…
- Pace yourself: you have to get up early, every day, for more than just a term. It is a shock to the system when you don’t have a month off every 13 weeks.
- Get into good habits & don’t despair: it does get easier to do.
- Read Maximum Joy by Julian hardyman
- Meditate regularly on Psalm 86:11 – ‘Unite my heart to fear your name.’ By guarding your heart closely in the ocean of secular culture you will be able to stand.
- Find a faithful church, plan to go, and initiate serving!
- Be regularly accountable in the deep places with a believer you trust
- Set up standing orders for giving so as not to be mastered by money
- Worship through work as if for God and not for men
- Ask your church if they can help you find a mentor. Someone 5 to 10 years older in the same kind of work
- Remember the fall and don’t be idealistic about work. The workplace is a still filled with sinners, just like you.
- Work out on what moral issues you will need to make a stand. Ask you mentor for advice on these areas.
- Be quick to tell others that you are a Christian but do it in a non-freaky way.
The single best book that I’ve come across for starting work is Working without wilting.
Matt Perman in his excellent blog What’s Best Next has a post on 7 motives in our work. Something to get you going again on a Monday morning!
Christian Concern highlights the conclusion of Oxford Professor Roger Trigg, founding President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion that Christians are in danger of facing ever growing persecution for their beliefs in British courts.
Matt Perman’s blog What’s Best Next is a must read for Christians in leadership.
He describes his blog as existing ‘to help equip Christians in good works, because that’s what productivity is really about.’ and through it Perman addresses a whole host of leadership issues from a gospel centred perspective.
Here is a recent post addressing the issue of procrastination;
A lot of productivity advice seems to focus on giving you tips to stay focused on and get motivated to do things you don’t want to do. I’m actually not into that sort of thing.
I think that if you are doing a lot of work where you have to “goad” yourself to get it done, you are probably in the wrong job. Plus, a lot of the detailed tactics for self-motivation don’t work long-term. It is far better to make procrastination a non-issue, which is what my first point gets at.
1. Love what you do
The best motivation is to love what you do. It’s far better to tackle the “problem” of motivation at the higher level so that you don’t even need to deal with the more detailed and specific motivational tactics.
The three components of motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you find yourself needing to be motivated, rather than identifying tactics like “reward yourself after you get done with a hard task,” take a look at whether you believe in the purpose of your tasks (and, before that, actually know the purpose!), whether the tasks are too hard (or too easy), and whether you have the freedom to do them in your own way.
The best type of motivation is to want to do the things you have to do — to be pulled toward them by a desire to do them and make a difference and serve others — rather than to be pushed towards them through carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments). Intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation every time. When you like your work, procrastination typically becomes a non-issue.
Now, at the same time, there will always be tasks now and then that we just find ourselves entirely dis-inclined to do. Maybe it’s even a task we ordinary love, but we are extremely tired that day and yet are on a deadline and need to get it done. Or maybe there are other factors interfering. In these cases, tactics can sometimes be useful. Here’s one I’ve found useful.
2. Take Breaks After Starting the Next Part of a Task, Rather Than In Between
When you take a break, don’t take your break at a natural stopping point. Instead, get to a natural stopping point, and then start into the next segment of the task. This gets you into it a bit and gets your wheels turning. Then take your break. While you are on your break, your mind will be inclined to get going again, since you’ve already started in to it. So it will be easier to come back from the break and avoid letting the break turn into an extended period of procrastination.
The title for this post comes from Tim Keller and is taken from a paper pointing out the terrible consequences both for ministers and for churches of working from a wrong foundation and wrong motivators. I’ve suggested on this blog before that ALL ministry is either a search for a secure identity or flows out of a secure identity. In this paper Keller highlights what becomes of a Pastor who is working for his own justification;
Ministers must be willing to admit that their ministry-success is often the real or main basis for their joy and sense of significance, much more so than the love and regard they have from the Father in Christ. It is what they look to in order to feel they can stand with confidence before God and others and even their own reflection in the mirror. In other words, we look to ministry success to be for us what only Christ can be. All ministers who know themselves will be fighting that all their lives. It is the reason for turf-consciousness, for jealously, for comparing yourself to other ministers, for the need to control the church, for the feeling that when your ministry is criticized you are criticized.
The danger for many in gospel work is simply that somewhere down the line the functioning motivators change. As a young minister maybe it really was all about God and not about us. Maybe it really did flow out of a joy from being a child of God. But then maybe just as a result of forgetfulness or maybe as a result of jealousy or maybe the results of either success or failure the gospel was subtely replaced by a different and destructive motivator, self-justification. And when it did it started to change everything and to undo minster and congregation. No wonder Keller says we will fight it all our lives but fight it we must.
A recent poll invited people to suggest their perfect job. The results probably won’t surprise anyone. In reverse order they were as follows;
5. Interior designer
4. Scuba diver
3. Ski Instructor
2. A hotel proprietor in a far off place
1. A bar owner in a far off place
Where on the list do you imagine caring for needy relatives would come?
In an excellent book If its not too much trouble: The Challenge of the Aged Parent Ann Benton offers a Christian perspective on caring for an elderly relative.
Just maybe she argues this is the perfect job for a Christian because it is in such a life of giving that we find ourselves most likely to imitate Christ. It is a huge challenge to offer full-on care for someone in need whether new-born baby or elderly relative. As Christians very few jobs call for such an understanding of what it means to work in God’s strength allowing God’s gospel to transform our thinking and empower our living. But perhaps the greatest challenge provides for the greatest opportunities.
In chapter 2 of the book Benton presents six gospel mindsets that can help us be better carers. They help us serve precisely because they each remind us of how God has served us in the Lord Jesus Christ. We can care because the God who has cared for us is at work transforming us into his likeness.
Whilst Ann Benton is focusing on caring for elderly relatives in the chapter each of the applications seem to work well when it comes to caring for babies and young children too.
1. Money cannot buy it
How easy it is for us to only value the things we can put a price on. We quickly translate the words ‘what is my work worth’ into ‘how much will you pay me?’ Caring for those we love offers no financial reward and thus robs many of any incentive. But for the Christian it presents a perfect opportunity to learn;
the principle of self-interest does not have to rule our lives…the lives of all of us are enriched by something which will not appear on any bank statement.
And so it is with the gospel. We have been freely served by our God.
Come, all you who are thirst come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! – Isaiah 55:1-3
Money cannot buy peace with God, forgiveness of sins, entry to heaven or everlasting life but God freely offers these things. He so loved the world.
2. It cannot be reciprocated
How much of life is an ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’ relationship. We feel an obligation to return the favour when others have been generous to us. We are disappointed when we have given much and feel taken for granted.
No wonder it is hard to keep on giving when caring for a needy person who cannot give back in return.
But the gospel of Jesus Christi is a non-reciprocal arrangement. We do nothing, Jesus has done everything; he gives, we receive.
When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. – Luke 14:14
3. It is lowly work
It is lowly work to clean and replace dentures, wipe a dribble from a chin, scrub at a stain on the carpet. Especially to those whose hands are more accustomed to tapping at a computer or turning the pages of a book.
Yet no task that we may be called on to perform for the sake of another can possibly compare to that of our Lord and master. If we call ourselves Christians then this perhaps is how we learn that
‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; Who, being in very nature God, Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.’ Phil. 2:6
4. It is hidden work
How many carers work with little or know recognition let alone reward. It can seem so utterly insignificant. How easy for resentment to build and for life to seem a wasted life.
But now the gospel challenges and changes that mindset.
Most of us will not make a name for ourselves; we will not be remembered on earth one generation on. But our secret deeds will have made a difference and our Father will have seen them and smiled.
When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – Matthew 6:4
5. It uses our gifts
Benton begins this point with a striking example.
‘I’m a teacher, not a nurse,’ I sometimes muttered to myself as I emptied urine out of a catheter bag.
But there is a much more significant gift which all Christians have received. That gift is the love of God the Father lavished on us through our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is this gift of love that we are to pass on.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. – 2 Cor. 1:3-4
6. It respects the image of God
In a culture where we discriminate against all sorts of people on the basis of education, ability, age, gender or colour the Christian gospel calls on us to view everyman with every dignity.
The motive for care and concern for elderly people is that each one is made in the image of God. And though time and wear and tear has made some of these folks unattractive or cantankerous, they still are worthy of respect because they remain God’s creation and bear his image.
Thank God I’m a Christian
It’s not that it’s impossible for non-Christians to care for the needy it’s just that we have so many more reasons to care and we have a divine power at work in us resourcing us for the task.
Of all the jobs you could chose would you ever chose the role of a carer. And yet as Benton concludes
What job is more suitable to those who follow the one who died for them?
A. Why do women return to work after children?
In the following list I’m not trying in any way to pass comment on the reasons women return to paid employment, merely to identify them.
1. Financial necessity
For many the option of choosing to stay at home is not open to them. Economic necessity means at least some part-time work to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. In parts of the world it would be beyond the wildest dreams of any family to survive on a single income.
2. Financial improvement
For others work is a choice but a choice in which economics plays a big part. It might be possible to live for a few years on one income but going back to work is about ensuring a better quality of life for a family. It’s about having enough not just to pay the bills but to enjoy a nice holiday, etc.
3. Missing the world of work (maybe even a grief over loss of independence)
Someone described stopping work to look after a baby as a form of grief; the loss of a life, of a world, in which so much energy, time and commitment had been given and so many rewards had been received. For some it feels as if a life has ended and it’s not too strong to think of those first few months at home as a grieving over a loss of independence.
There are friends at work you don’t see any more and then there is the enormous challenge of leaving something you’re good at to do something you don’t feel very good at.
The goal for some women is to re-enter the work-place and resume the career ‘as soon as’.
4. Escaping the isolation of caring for a baby
‘When I became a mother I found myself for the first time in my life without a language, without any way of translating the sounds I made into something other people would understand.’ Rachel Cusk writes in ‘A Life’s work’.
Someone else commented:
‘I went to a dinner party on Thursday. And I had nothing to say. I was out of it. I couldn’t talk about the only things that mattered to me.’
Raising children full-time at home when everyone else is out in the world of work can be an isolating experience.
5. The embarrassment of staying at home ie peer-pressure
It’s inevitable that people will start to ask ‘are you coming back to work’ even before the birth. In a culture (see below) that has created the expectation that mothers will work it can be a little awkward to tell people you’re not.
6. The cultural expectation is that women should have it all.
Good bosses desperately want to keep good employees and do their utmost to keep women in work.
The culture creates favourable terms to ensure women can work (and thus fosters the expectation)
The law protects a woman’s right to return to work after the birth of a child.
‘Policy makers urgently need to face up to the fact that the values underlying much social policy may not match the desires of women not the extent that they have assumed.’ Professor Geoff Dench
7. The battle to prove that you can have it all
Almost the definition of the modern woman is to have it all. Those who choose to give up work to raise children feel that they are not
B. Should Christian wives go back to work?
1. The bible’s model of a godly woman or ‘an alphabet of wifely excellence’
The wife of Proverbs 31 is a purposeful, energetic, wise, successful, strong, capable wife.
She cares for the family, she earns an income.
‘Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her, and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom she embodies, each in his own sphere of activity.’ Waltke
There is nothing unbiblical or sinful about a mother working alongside her duty to her family.
This woman works in a way that keeps the priority of being a wife and mother.
2. The priority for wives
teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
i) The primary Christian duty of wives and mothers, according to Paul, is that they should ‘love their husbands and children’.
Love, as defined by God’s love is measured in sacrifice and service.
ii) Busy at home – John Stott comments: ‘It would not be legitimate to base on this word either a stay-at-home stereotype for all women, or a prohibition of wives being also professional women. What is rather affirmed is that if a woman accepts the vocation of marriage, and has a husband and children, she will love and not neglect them.’
iii) Such a biblical understanding of womenhood should bring:
- Blessing to the home
- Fulfilment to the wife
- Honour to God
iv) Our culture of ‘liberation’ works to undermine God’s priorities and replace it with a secular agenda
- Feminism makes the mistake of equating equality of status with equality of role.
- Feminism encourages women to forsake their calling to care for husband and children in pursuit of self-fulfilment in a career outside the home.
3. What is the Biblical principle that should be at work in the decision?
“In what way can I best love those God has called me to love (especially my husband and children) as I love and serve Christ? By working outside the home or by working inside the home? By working part-time, full-time or not at all.”
Key conclusion: The answer to this question will be different for
i) different families
ii) in different situations and circumstances
iii) with different gifting and capacities
iv) and even for the same family in differing seasons of life.
Our natural inclination is to polarise the debate by reducing everything to a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ view on moms going back to work.
What we need to recognise is that in our churches there will be a spectrum of positions. A scale shall we say between 1 and 10 in which 1 is a decision to choose to work (there is no economic necessity no need other than a self-motivated decision to seek a career) and 10 a decision to choose to stay at home (again a situation in which the income of a wife plays no part) and then a 5 represents the woman who willingly or unwillingly has to look for paid work to pay the bills.
For the most part it won’t be obvious to us where any couple sits on this spectrum and that usually means that we are not in a position to judge the motives of those who work and those who don’t.
In the next post we’ll consider:
What are the dangers in women trying to hold together the world of work and home?
What part should husbands play in all this?
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