“What do you want to do?” people wanted to know as soon as I finished high school.
It was a problem, because I was already doing what I wanted to do. I was writing. I was teaching in my local church. I was using my extra time to plant my garden.
The culture around me—even the Christian culture—scolded that it wasn’t enough. I needed to do something bigger that would really pack a punch in the boxing ring of faith. Just look at Paul, Christians seemed to say. The apostle’s radical conversion was trailed by a glittering firework of sermons, letters, missionary trips, and miracles.
Ambition. That’s the spark I needed. If I was ever going to change the world for Christ, I needed to borrow from Paul’s fire and set things ablaze.
So it was a little halting when I discovered what Paul himself wrote about ambition in his letter to the Thessalonians:
“Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11-12).
In calling the Thessalonians to a quiet life, Paul was not calling for a passive life. He and his followers didn’t discuss theology over tea with their pinkies raised. Paul himself had been thrown in prison for causing a ruckus in the streets of Philippi. The Jews who opposed him said that Paul and his men had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), an idea that has led Christians like me to go looking for radical ambitions the day after graduation.
But before we start a GoFundMe and move overseas, we need to look more closely at Paul’s own quietly upside-down life.
Unwritten between chapters in the book of Acts lie the span of months and years. “They remained no little time with the disciples” in Iconium, and Paul spent “a year and six months” in Corinth with fellow tentmakers—perhaps stretching fabric and hammering stakes alongside them (Acts 14:28, 18:3, 11). And before his ministry began at all, immediately after his conversion, Paul withdrew to the Arabian wilderness for three years, likely preparing for his life’s work (Gal. 1:17).
Paul would be an unleashed force for Christ, furrowing Asia Minor and sowing gospel seeds in every corner—but that happened in small ways over the course of years. Remember that the prison doors broke open because Paul and Silas were singing a hymn. Churches around the world have been bolstered because Paul simply sat down with a quill and wrote a letter. In our aim to change the world for Christ, we have the tendency to “Go big, or go home,” when Paul himself began his ministry right where he was—at home in Jerusalem (Acts 9:28).
Brian is someone I know whose work is like Paul in that way. As an accountant, he works from home and has become a trustworthy resource for local pizza restaurants and pregnancy assistance centers. His work isn’t seen in the streets, but it does bring success and profit to the businesses in his hometown, and so his quiet work in one place, for a long period of time, is shaping that place with the gospel.
Ambition connotes the idea of ascending, which inevitably means rising above other people. And so life becomes a gunslinging duel. When personal ambition is praised as the highest virtue, even life in the church becomes more about my achievements than about serving in unglamorous, sacrificial ways.
In his book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, Michael Horton points out that ambition has not always been praised as a virtue, but was once a vice:
“Paul is clearly telling his readers that the opposite of being of ‘one mind’ is selfish ambition. Everyone has to be his own star in the show, breaking away from the consensus, blazing his own path.”
Horton continues, “People who are perfectly content—truly happy—being janitors or gardeners are encouraged to become dissatisfied and restless,” and my friend Faithe told me she’s felt that creeping dissatisfaction before.
She works at a church preschool, where she boils noodles for mac n’ cheese and puts crying kids down for naps. She loves her job, but sometimes she wonders about the worth of it. Isn’t there more important work happening outside the steamy preschool kitchen?
But Paul says to “mind your own affairs,” even if your affairs seem small. Mind them well, be faithful where you are, and instead of trying to build a Babel of ambition, aim for work that’s small enough to serve the little children.
The letter to the Thessalonians was a letter to a church, so the context isn’t individualistic, but set in a community of saints who are becoming more holy.
Earlier, Paul wrote:
“For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess. 4:7-8).
The Holy Spirit consecrates a believer, so the work He does—accounting or gardening or teaching children—can also become holy unto God. Francis Shaeffer wrote that, “There are no little people and no big people in the true spiritual sense, but only consecrated and unconsecrated people.”
I once knew a man who was filled with the Spirit and who built furniture. His name was Frank, and he constructed cabinets for the church office and tables for the church members’ homes. Frank wasn’t the pastor, and not even a deacon. He simply did what his knobby hands knew to do and provided a place for pastoral ministry to happen. Years after he died, the folks at First Baptist still enjoy the work of his hands, even if they don’t remember the worker— and that’s just the kind of work Paul is praising.
In fact, that quiet, gritty, longsuffering work is what Jesus himself undertook.
Jesus made himself nothing by taking the form of a servant, working carpentry with his hands, and humbling himself to the point of death on a cross (see Phil. 2:3-8). If anyone could have ascended the ladder of ambition, it was Jesus; yet his only aspiration was to do the Father’s will(John 4:34), which meant long ministry in one part of the world, with just a few followers.
Jesus’s ambition was to die.
This wasn’t the call I heard when I graduated high school, but people like Brian, Faithe, and Frank have taught me that taking up the ambition of Christ might be quiet and sacrificial. It may look like long afternoons of putting kids down for naps. It might be bookkeeping. It might mean working enough carpentry to get calloused hands.
Do you remember what Paul said about this way of life? It’s a testament to outsiders (1 Thess. 4:12). Through the Spirit’s consecration, that furniture might serve the local church for years to come; our clients may become flourishing, local, Christian businesses; and our preschool students might grow to become saints in the Kingdom of Jesus.
Whatever our work or the outcome of our work on earth, the end is the same for the faithful Christian, when Jesus will take our hands in his own, scarred ones and say:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
Bethany J. Melton writes true stories from her home on Edgewood Road, where she grew up reading books and climbing oak trees. She hopes to depict the places and people she’s known in a way that tells the truer story of Jesus’s redeeming grace. You can read more at her blog, https://bethanyjmelton.com.
She also offers coaching to other writers through the Inklings Writing Coaching Group which you can find here.
 Horton, Micahel. Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 90, 97
 Shaeffer, Francis. No Little People. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 35