Editor's note: In 2012, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg caught the world’s attention when she claimed women suffer from an “ambition gap.” As one of the most powerful professionals and working moms in the world, Sandberg’s words rattled many women —in the struggle to balance conflicting priorities and desires, was lack of ambition really the problem?
In this excerpt from Carolyn McCulley’s award-winning book, The Measure of Success, McCulley explores ambition from a biblical perspective, examining why women — and men — should focus their ambitions. Carolyn is a former keynote speaker at our Women's Initiative "Ambition" event a few years ago. Join us on Oct. 13th to continue the conversation at "Women, Work, & Calling."
We all want something. That’s the drive behind ambition... We were actually created to be this way. God has made us to be people who have desires.
Ambition isn’t just for men, it isn’t just for business — it’s an essential component of being human. Sometimes in church circles, we talk more about contentment (which is a good thing), but it can minimize the importance of ambition — that somehow it is more spiritual for Christians to be passive. This misunderstanding has slowed me down to the point where I wasn’t moving ahead at all.
I learned that ambition is really a desire to grow. I realized that in order for me to obey God’s call to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:28), I needed to stop shutting down ambition just because I was afraid to be disappointed. The Hebrew work pãrâ in that verse means ‘to bear fruit, to grow, to increase.’ This is the essence of ambition — it’s the desire to step forward, to take risks, and expand our lives, instead of shrinking back.
This means that any discussion of ambition has to recognize that we hold more than one dream at a time. The challenge is how to prioritize the various ambitions that you have. This is a current discussion among business leaders. They see that the Millennial generation — having lived through the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the Great Recession — have expanded their definition of ambition to include other, more personal values. A recent survey of Millennials contradicts [Sheryl] Sandberg’s assessment of women’s ambition:
Sixty-one percent (61%) see themselves as ambitious compared to 63 percent of the men. These young ambitious women are seeking ways for their professional aspirations to co-exist with their personal values. Might they actually be twice as ambitious?1
Having twice as many ambitions all competing for prominence is not the solution we are suggesting. We have to go back to the idea of Christian ambition. Jesus says in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” This is an audacious promise and British theologian John Stott helps us make sense of how to organize our ambition: Ambitions for self may be modest (enough to eat, to drink, and to wear as in the Sermon) or they may be grandiose (a bigger house, faster car, a higher salary, a wider reputation, more power). But whether modest or immodest, these are ambitions for myself — my comfort, my wealth, my status, my wealth, my power. Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world? No. Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honour, and accorded his true place, which is the supreme place, We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere. When this is genuinely our dominant ambition, then not only will all these things… be yours as well (i.e., our material needs will be provided), but there will be no harm in having secondary ambitions, since these will be subservient to our primary ambition and not in competition with it. It is then that secondary ambitions become healthy. Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work — not now to boost their own ego or build their own empires, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God. (emphasis added)2 Most conversations about ambition aren’t grounded in God’s glory, which means we are elevating a secondary ambition to the primary place and arguing about that. Is your job or your family most important? For believers, both are important, but both are ultimately trumped by the renown of God’s name and the praise of His glory. Therefore, those ambitions must slide to second place and find their mutual contours in the redemptive purpose of the gospel. Women should be ambitious for everything we see in Scripture — our jobs, callings, and our special role as life-bearers. Even feminist Betty Friedan came to recognize the importance of this aspect of femininity some twenty years after launching the American women’s movement:
Some militants repudiated all the parts of the personhood of women that have been and are still expressed in family, home and love. In trying to ape men’s lives, they have truncated themselves away from grounding experiences. If young women lock themselves into the roles of ambitious men, I’m not sure it can be a good bargain. It can be terribly imprisoning and life denying.3
To paraphrase John Stott’s quote, Christian women should be eager to develop their gifts (husband, children, spiritual gifts), widen their opportunities (professionally and personally), extend their influence (in the church and community), and be given promotion in their work (whether paid or note), so that in everything they do they can bring glory to God. The challenge is how to juggle these secondary ambitions when they seem to be in competition with each other…
Alister Chapman, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 155.
Nan Robertson, “Betty Friedan Ushers in a ‘Second Stage’” New York Times, October 19, 1982.
Carolyn McCulley is an award-winning producer/director/editor at Citygate Films, a nonfiction film company she founded in 2009. She is also the author of three books, including The Measure of Success, a silver finalist in the ECPA 2015 Christian Book Awards and which won an award of merit in Christianity Today’s 2015 Book Awards. She has written for a wide range of publications, including The Washington Post, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Boundless, True Woman, and Propel.