When I was in junior high, my friend Lauren started getting paid to get good grades. If she earned a C on a test, her parents would give her a $5 bill. If she earned a B, the rate would double. An A was worth a whopping $20—enough to buy the new Spice Girls album and a pair of earrings at Claire’s.
I remember this arrangement not only because it made Lauren’s parents infinitively cooler than mine but also because, by comparison, I didn’t seem to need rewards for good grades; getting an A was my reward. And this was true for many activities: piano, Girl Scouts, marching band, youth group. Whatever I was doing, I wanted to do it really well.
My grandparents had these little sayings that they would repeat when we visited them every month or so in Cincinnati: “That Kate—she’s sure going places!” they would say, and, “Kate’s a real go-getter.” I always felt Granny and Boompa’s pride, yet I also knew their love was unconditional. That combination was a great early gift to me.
That Dirty “A” Word: Ambition
Many girls today are told from an early age that they can grow up to do anything and be anything they want. They regularly outperform boys in US classrooms. Outside the church they have role models from J. K. Rowling to Carly Fiorina to Malala Yousafzai (the young Pakistani activist for women’s education). Inside the church, they have women preachers and writers and teachers. Now would be the time we’d expect women to take flight on the wings of their ambitions.
But they aren’t. At just the moment in history when we’d expect women to strive—for professional success, creative projects, or new ministry—many of us are holding back. It seems we have learned to be uncomfortable with our own talents and desires.
In her landmark 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg identified this as the “leadership ambition gap” between men and women. “‘She is very ambitious’ is not a compliment in our culture,” writes Sandberg. “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty.” Sandberg notes that such women get labeled “aggressive” or “intimidating.” Or, they downplay their own native skills; they battle a nagging sense that they are impostors or “just got lucky” for having a nice boss or applying at the right time.
If women generally have an ambivalent relationship with ambition, then Christian women have even more ambivalence. We don’t talk about ambition, and when we do, it’s framed as sinful—or, in my case, distracting. I will never forget how difficult it was to nod politely when a single woman, a ministry leader, warned me of investing in my career. She said she had spent her twenties and thirties pouring a lot of time and energy into her job. She thought that marriage and family would come along, but they hadn’t. She offered her story to warn me about what can happen when a Christian woman is too career-oriented.
In research for my book about women and work (Made to Reign, 2016), some women I interviewed expressed guilt for their professional aspirations. “When I work outside the home, I feel like my husband is doing me a favor,” one writer based in Austin said. She assured me that her husband does not think of this as a favor. “But I don’t want to feel like an ambitious wife is a burden.”
I don’t want to feel like a burden. Try to imagine a man saying this about his career, and it’s almost laughable. Try to imagine a woman saying this, and it seems like a mantra of femininity.
The good news for Christian women is that we can learn to embrace our ambition—and our faith provides the pathway for doing so.
Here is how Carolyn Custis James describes it in Half the Church:
God . . . didn’t create a flat earth. God’s world has mountains that awaken in us the need to climb, to test our limits and find out firsthand what it’s like to stand atop a snowy peak. He created a world that is packed with endless treasure, raw material, and unexplored frontiers designed to stir up in us the artist, the scientist, the explorer-adventurer, the athlete, the mathematician, the botanist, the entrepreneur, and much more.
In other words, God made all of us, male and female, to be not only holy but also ambitious. He created us to shape and explore the world he created, to steward and have dominion over it for his glory and others’ benefit.
God’s original creation was good yet latent with potential. It was pristine yet incomplete. What was missing was the work, curiosity, and drive of humans—the only part of the Creation bearing the image of God. Human ambition wasn’t something that crept in only after the Fall. It was—and is—an aspect of bearing the image of God, of filling his world with beauty, industry, and delight.
Consider that Jesus, the only person to bear God’s image perfectly, was the most ambitious person to walk the earth. There was nothing happenstance or passive about Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus got what he went after. He was “strong-willed,” even while his will was completely submitted to his Father. Ultimately what he went after was pouring his life out on the cross for the life of the world.
Of course, we Christians tend not to think of Jesus in these terms. Since the word ambition first appeared in the 14th century, it has mostly carried a negative connotation. Related to the word amble, it conjures someone going from town to town to strike up votes or praise. In the Latin sense, it means “eager or inordinate desire of honor or preferment.” A need for praise, for petting of the ego, for power over others.
And apart from God, ambition ends badly—if not in financial or legal ruin, then in the warping of the soul ever toward the self. From the biblical perspective, under the power of sin, ambition is humans striving to be like God, apart from the power of God.
But our ambitions can be reclaimed.
One way we Christian women can reclaim ambition is by beginning to simply talk about it. To name our God-given gifts and talents and ways we want to use them—and not necessarily even for “ministry” or other spiritual activities. For many of us, naming our ambition in this way will feel risky, perhaps even selfish. After all, we women hear regularly that we should be content—absent of desire and accepting of our limitations. Here is how Linda Beail, a political scientist at Point Loma Nazarene University, describes it in the book Results May Vary: Christian Women Reflect on Post-College Life:
I never heard people talk about how much they loved and admired their mothers for being so ambitious; when I heard family, friends, or even celebrities and politicians praising their wives and mothers, it was for being so caring, nurturing of others, and self-sacrificing. “Ambition” seemed cold and self-centered in comparison.
Sadly, this gives women false choices in identity formation. You can either be nurturing and self-sacrificing or ambitious. But Jesus—and many saints throughout history who set the world on fire for God—dismantles that false dichotomy. We can be self-giving and self-driven, content with our circumstances, yet deeply discontent when those circumstances are filled with suffering and injustice. Rather than dismissing ambition outright, we need to ask what ends our ambitions serve and then amplify those ambitions when they serve good, holy ends.
Another way we can reclaim ambition is by examining how we perceive and talk about ambitious women we work and worship with. When they make a firm decision, give someone a task, or speak first in a group, what adjectives come to mind? Do we expect women to hold back and let the men in a group lead? Why or why not?
This is not to give a pass to rude women, by the way. It is not to make ambition a virtue that overrides other virtues such as patience, kindness, and long-suffering. But we must remember that we often don’t operate on a level discipleship field. For example, we may easily overlook rude behavior in men by viewing their behavior as simply “direct” or “decisive,” but at the same time view women who are direct or decisive as “rude,” and thus sinful. In this sense, our discipleship tends to be gendered. Until our discipleship is more “gospeled” rather than gendered, we are wise to assume the best about the driven women in our lives.
Finally, we Christians can reclaim ambition by advocating for changes in workplace culture that help close the aforementioned “leadership gap.” Equal pay, paid maternity and/or family leave, mentorships, and female representation on boards and among top staff all signal to professional women, “We want your ambition. Your ambition helps us.” Such changes tell us we won’t be penalized for having multiple ambitions: to excel at work and to excel at home.
Of course, there will be times in our life with God when we will be invited to practice contentment. To lay aside our dreams and plans, to rest from getting things done, to trust in God’s provision. The Sabbath reminds us every week that our livelihood is found in God, not in our own efforts. But there will also be times in our life when we will be invited, in whatever we are doing, to “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23, NIV).
It is the Lord who gives us our best ambitions, and it is him to whom our best ambitions are directed. So put all your heart into it, knowing that it is he who will ultimately also redeem them—and us—in the process.
Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of Christianity Today magazine. She is writing a book about women and work (Howard, 2016).