It must be one of the Apostle Paul’s low lights.
Generally speaking, Paul elevates our vision. He exhorts us to live differently than the culture in which we live, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, to set our minds on things above.
And then comes this little verse—largely ignored by most of us—that feels, well, small.
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and mind your own business and work with your hands….” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)
Could any ambition be less inspiring?
Ambition should be large, powerful, noble, or exciting. In High School, people applauded my ambition to study medicine and serve as a medical missionary. (God graciously spared me and some unsuspecting people group, for sure!) Then people encouraged my ambition to pastor a (large) church—to the glory of God, of course. Then people urged me to hold onto my ambition to write, to teach, to speak. “Aim for something big. Leave a mark. Make a difference.”
Would it have been acceptable, when people asked “What do you want to do with your life?” for me to reply “Lead a quiet life, mind my own business, and work with my hands”? Somehow, that feels like an abdication of responsible stewardship. Somehow, a quiet life seems self-serving. Who will change the world, if not me?
Thus, Paul’s statement—a brief, passing, low-ball statement—garners little attention and even less affection from us. But his conviction deserves our deeper consideration.
In just two other places in the New Testament, ambition is presented in positive terms. Paul declared that it was his ambition “to be pleasing to God” (2 Corinthians 5:9) and “to preach the gospel where Christ is not known” (Romans 15:20). Otherwise, ambition is usually linked with the word “selfish” and has a more harmful than helpful impact (see 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 1:17; 2:3; James 3:14, 16).
Most ambition—the kind that our culture advocates—flows from pride and feeds it. It takes from God what belongs to Him. It seizes control of processes that He should manage. It elevates us and undermines humility. And inasmuch as it quenches humility it stunts our deeper walk with Christ.
Yet, ambition remains deeply entrenched; perhaps because it promotes drive and excellence. But apparently Paul found Christ alone sufficiently compelling.
How does this shape our self-talk and our conversations with our children and grandchildren? Might grace transform our ambition, too?