What Makes Holy Ambition ‘Holy’?

God can graciously bless our missionary zeal when our motive is his fame and not our own.

We evangelicals tend to baptize mediocrity in the water of false humility.

By contrast, God calls us to a kind of Christ-exalting, cross-carrying striving for excellence and achievement for God’s glory and the good of others. This is holy ambition.

When we hear the phrase holy ambition, we quickly think of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). But another important lesson in defining godly striving comes to us from the life of David.

You Get an ‘A’ for Effort

“Remember, O Lord, in David’s favor, all the hardships he endured, how he swore to the LORD and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, ‘I will not enter my house or get into my bed, I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Psalm 132:1-5).

This psalm, sung by the ancient Jews as they ascended Zion in worship, poetically recalls the events 2 Samuel 7. David aspired to build Yahweh a house; Yahweh, in turn, promised to build the house of David—a promise culminating in the reign of Christ (vv. 1-16).

Evidently, David’s ambition was so fervent, it cost him sleep. And if you’re following along through the psalter, you’re struck by David’s restlessness—since in Psalm 127 we’re told that anxious toil into the wee hours is futile (v. 2), and in Psalm 131 true spirituality is keeping oneself from meditations too high and lofty (vv. 1-2). Our creaturely limitations, joyfully embraced, both free us for simple faithfulness and magnify God’s all-sufficiency.

But the most striking detail is that God denies David. The blood of his hands from his conquests rendered him an unfit architect for a holy temple; his son Solomon would be better suited (cf. 2 Samuel 7:13). Yet because of his zeal—the fruit of deep, saving faith—David is nevertheless honored.

He got points for trying.

This demands the question: why? If our ministerial efforts to “build” the spiritual house are futile without God superintending the project (Psalm 127:1), why does David—who was not called to build the temple—get an ‘A’ for effort?

The Aim of Holy Ambition

I believe one answer comes from the very next few stanzas of the psalm: “Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar. ‘Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!’” (Psalm 132:6-7).

The psalmist (not David, but a later writer) proclaims of this house of worship David had originally intended to build: “Let us worship at his footstool!” The temple magnetically attracted worship to Yahweh. It was the locus of his dwelling, his manifest presence among men up until the incarnation, and it gravitationally drew worshipers from throughout the land—from Ephrathah to Jaar—into the orbital plane of adoration.

David’s ambition was holy because it was motivated by a desire to see God adored. His driving impulse was for God to be magnified.

What sanctifies ambition? A yearning to see God glorified.

What To Do With Unrequited Missionary Ambition

An old pastor of mine once recounted the story of a women who, from the time she was young, firmly sensed that God had called her to be a missionary in China. All of her school years were preparation for her mission. But before she could deploy, her sister passed away unexpectedly, leaving her to care for her four children.

The would-be missionary was dismayed. It seemed she would never make it to China with four nieces and nephews to raise. Had she misheard God’s call?

In fact, she never did make it to the East. But all four children did become missionaries to the Land of the Red Dragon. An apparent obstacle resulted in a vastly multiplied impact. Here, as in the case of David, the Lord honored her unrequited desire to minister. Why? Because it had been the overflow of a heart zealous to see “all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:11).

David’s glory-hunger was not like that of Solomon, who spent more time building his own private pad than the house of the Lord (cf. 1 Kings 6-7). A desire to see God glorified is commendable and rewarded; a self-glorifying, celebrity-seeking inner drive leads to falls and moral failures of likewise Solomonic proportions. May we never confuse God’s glory with our own.

But when believers aspire to gutsy, God-glorifying good deeds, their ambitions warrant special apostolic blessing:

“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, emphasis added).

In other words, the Apostle Paul prays that God would fulfill believers’ goals—not as benchmarks of worldly success or notoriety, but as spiritual sacrifices exalting Christ.

Scripture teaches us to live with in our creaturely limitations, abide in Christ, and focus on faithfulness. And within this framework, when we develop a holy hunger to perform some feat of ministry to magnify God and not ourselves, God honors these desires.

Since, after all, they find their source in him.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 17, 2019.