In the past week, I’ve seen two pieces of vague, inspirational advice printed on T-shirts or adorning a cell phone lock screen. It’s fascinating to me that these two claims to wisdom can coexist; yet in our culture, both are popular messages. Let’s take a look at these propositions.
The first: “Never let good enough be good enough.”
The second: “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.”
I feel reasonably confident that you’ve likely seen or heard messages like these thrown around; perhaps not with these words, but the premises expressed are remarkably prevalent in today’s thriving market for sound bite wisdom.
I find these claims remarkable simply because of how incompatible they appear to be. On the one hand, we are told to cling tightly to a burning ambition for greatness; we must never settle, but continue to fight tooth and nail for our happiness. On the other hand, we are instructed to let go of that desperate pursuit, and learn to find happiness right where we are. Somehow, countless people are walking through life holding both of these claims as guiding principles, and fail to experience the cognitive dissonance that these opposing ideas ought to create.
As I’ve considered these bits of so-called “wisdom,” I’ve also reflected on their compatibility with the Christian worldview. Are either of these maxims consistent with the wisdom of Biblical authors? Can a Christian gain anything by maintaining one of these ideologies? Can there be any harmony between these claims within a Biblical framework? At the core of the issue is a simple question: is zeal compatible with contentment? That’s the question I want to ask today. What is the proper balance between ambition and peace? Today we will look to the Scriptures for guidance in answering this question.
First, let’s consider the place of zeal and ambition in the Christian life. The Bible has a lot to say about these topics, both positive and negative. Here’s are a few examples (emphasis mine).
“I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts…” 1 Kings 19:9-10
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” Revelation 3:19
“They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge…” Romans 10:2
“And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel…” Romans 15:20
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…” Philippians 2:3
“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” James 3:16
Of course, if we are to fully understand what God has to tell us about these topics, we’ll need to do much more than pluck verses from their contexts and throw them together in a list. Please don’t think that this list provides us with the meaning behind what the Scriptures are saying about zeal and ambition; that is not its purpose. Instead, it provides us with a smattering of examples of where those words come up in the Bible. If you want to dig deeper, I’d encourage you to go read these verses in context and consider the particular message of each example.
For now, we can divide these uses of the terms “ambition” and “zeal” into two broad categories: the kind which is directed toward godliness and is endorsed by God, and the kind which is directed toward self-elevation and is condemned by God. In broadest terms, we are told to be zealous for God himself and for his Kingdom; after these things we should strive with great ambition. By contrast, we are warned of the sin involved in selfish ambition. To fight for one’s own good is to invite chaos and unrighteousness into the Body of Christ.
Having briefly surveyed the Scriptures as they address zeal and ambition, let us comb through the pages of the Bible for wisdom addressing contentment and satisfaction.
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Philippians 4:11
“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
“But godliness with contentment is great gain…” 1 Timothy 6:6
“Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” John 14:8
“Be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5
“Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan!” Joshua 7:7
Bearing in mind the same interpretive disclaimer as before, we can again observe two biblical attitudes toward contentment. In nearly every case, contentment is expressed as a positive thing: it is accepting what God has given us and resting in its sufficiency. This contentment is an expression of faith, as the man or woman of God declares that they trust Him to provide for them. He is enough.
There is an example, however, of contentment as a negative thing. After a hidden sin among the people of Israel leads to a military defeat in the Promised Land, Joshua prays in lamentation, and even expresses regret at entering the Promised Land to seize it from the Canaanites. Encountering the difficulties that come with obeying God’s commands, Joshua wishes for a moment that the people had been content with less than God had for them. In this case, it is not contentment with God alone, but rather, a contentment with life apart from God’s plan. Settling for something other than God’s plans and commandments is clearly in opposition to His will for your life, by very definition.
How, then, can a Christian reconcile these values? How are we to marry a zeal for the kingdom of God to a genuine contentment in every situation? Where do ambition and satisfaction meet? For the people of God, this point of balance is found in the revealed will of God. It depends on a Kingdom mindset, which desires to pursue with authentic vigor and wholehearted commitment whatever task God places before you.
To put it simply, the Christian strives zealously after whatever God calls him to; and he is content with whatever that calling may be. This is perhaps similar to the way in which Paul commands us to “earnestly desire” the greater spiritual gifts, but be genuinely content with the gifts we are given. We desire to do God’s kingdom work, but we will be satisfied with God alone. He is sufficient for us, and from our satisfaction in Him, we draw an earnest desire to serve Him with outward-focused ambition.
This is the only realm wherein the conflicting messages of “Never Settle” and “Be Happy With What You Have” can truly coexist. Before the throne of God, we are content to sit and even to suffer; but if it is God’s will, we desire to run to the ends of the earth in proclamation of the Gospel. In the end, then, the Christian worldview allows us to fill empty, vague attempts at inspiration with a far grander meaning. There is authentic depth to the Christian faith and the Christian walk which allows us to take captive every piece of human wisdom and weigh it by the measure of God’s kingdom.
Therefore, people of God, let us strive daily for the contentment Paul expressed in Philippians 4. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can do all things, and ought to fight passionately to do those things to which God calls us; yet let us never forget that we do with zeal– by the strength of Christ– only that which Christ has placed before us to do. Run with endurance the race that is set before us, never wishing that it was another race, and never relenting in our zeal for the one we have been given.