Diligence and Ambition

By Isaac Guess

There’s always been work, and there’s always more work to do.  And in the beginning, this was wonderful and profitable.  Work was central to human identity and meaning.  As image bearers, Adam and Eve were tasked with mimicking God’s perfect work of creation by taking dominion over creation, dressing (working) it and keeping (guarding) it. Then, they were to multiply and filling the earth with image bearers who would also work and keep, developing the resources God had masterfully woven into creation for the flourishing of life to the glory of the Creator.  Labor with profit - what a design!

As with everything else, the fall into sin and subsequent curse had a disastrous impact on work.  In fact, work was a central focus of God’s curse upon Adam.  Fruitful, pleasing labor was replaced with frustrating toil, aching backs, barren fields, and a whole host of other problems.  But it wasn’t just the work itself that became difficult from the curse.  The more meaningful and devastating result of the fall was in man’s heart.  His heart was turned from God to self.  And his attitude towards everything else, but especially work, followed the same path. This reality is evidenced by two approaches to work that on the surface are drastically different but have the exact same root - pleasing self rather than pleasing God.

The Scriptural term for one approach is slothfulness, what we would term laziness.  On the surface, laziness appears to be a complete lack of ambition.  But in reality, it’s the opposite.  “The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labor” (Proverbs 21:25).  The slothful is FILLED with ambition - the ambition to be served without expending any effort.  In fact, there is a settled, stubborn refusal to work, usually manifested by an unending list of excuses, grievances, illnesses and self justifications.  The slothful’s god is himself.  He doesn’t see himself as an image bearer, created to labor and produce in imitation of His creator.

Selfish ambition describes the other approach to work.  In Luke 12:21, Jesus describes this person as “he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  This individual is highly ambitious, works diligently, but only sees the benefit of work in terms of selfish gain.  His thoughts aren’t directed towards benevolence, the kingdom of God or heaven.  His sole focus is on tangible, material treasures that he can consume and enjoy.

As we think about these sinful approaches to work, it is instructive to note that ambition itself is not evil.  Ambition is simply a desire, a desire to achieve something.  In fact, ambition is central to image bearing.  God Himself is ambitious.  Daniel 4:35 reveals God working His ambitions (doeth according to His will) with great determination.  Jesus was ambitious.  “I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”  The problem with human ambition is not ambition; it’s the direction of ambition.  Paul’s description of humanity is that each “has sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Sin is missing the mark, aiming for the wrong target.  Mankind “worshiped(s) and served(s) the creature more than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  The first sin, the one that ruined everything, was a sin of ambition, ambition aimed in the wrong direction.

The good news of the gospel is that what was hijacked and ruined in the fall has been redeemed and reclaimed by Jesus!  Remember, God is ambitious.  His eternal purpose, aimed squarely at the display of His matchless glory, was to redeem His people so completely that they would take on the image of His Son.  He spared nothing in this relentless pursuit, even sending His only begotten Son to take on human flesh, live righteously among unrighteous people, and then die a criminal’s death as the substitutionary atonement for their sins.  The Father’s ambition was equally shared by the Son, “who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14).

The death of Christ satisfied the Father’s just wrath and secured forgiveness of sins.  The resurrection of Christ brings new life, both life after physical death and new spiritual life now.  Spiritual life is a change in direction, from zealous for self to zealous for good works.  Ambition remains, but the direction changes.

The new ambition for the Christian is Christ-likeness.  Some confuse Christ-likeness with disinterest in the present world, viewing diligent pursuit of excellence and achievement as vain and worldly.  But this misses a great truth about our great salvation in Jesus.  His redemption redeems!  He has enabled us to live now as (imperfect) image bearers in every facet of life as we await our final change into His perfect glorious image, so that “whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Colossians 3:23).  Work heartily as to the Lord - this was our original design.  Labor that would produce profit, seeds planted that would multiply, new discoveries of God’s creation made that would bring flourishing - to the praise of the Lord.  To the Lord - this is the new direction.  The Christian understands that the fruit of his labor is not the true treasure.  No accumulation of wealth or notoriety can bring satisfaction.  But faithful, diligent labor to feed one’s family, clothe the needy, minister to the orphan and widow, support the pastor - this is worth work, unto the Lord.  Knowing that work is for the Lord’s sake encourages the laborer to endure the thorns and frustrations that accompany the curse that remains upon this earth.  It’s the power that enables the man to rise day after day in an imperfect environment to provide a meal for His children.  It’s the strength that enables the mother to forego sleepless night after night to care for her crying child.  It’s the persistence of the inventor to push past failure after failure to pursue an innovation that would benefit mankind.  This is Godly ambition.

But if we are completely honest, Christians still struggle with ambition and diligence.  The fight to conquer self, whether slothfulness or selfish ambition, is real.  The good news is that God is still working.  The same God who promised eternal life before the world began, who sent Jesus to redeem us from all iniquity, is still at work in us through the Holy Spirit, teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts (selfish ambition) and to pursue godliness in this present world.  God will give you the grace to become diligent! The good news continues through the life of Jesus, as an example for us to follow in His steps.  Consider Jesus the laborer.  Jesus never shirked His duty.   He was completely focused on doing the Father’s will.  He loved and served His disciples unto the end.  He provided the best wine for the wedding.  He made sure the multitude was sufficiently fed.  And we haven’t even considered the cross!   In the greatest labor ever expended, Jesus, at the cost of His own life, bore the burden we could never bear to provide the very best - righteousness!  Surely there is something to learn here about diligence, labor, and the quality of provision that we should be pursuing as redeemed image bearers.

Diligence in labor is a practical endeavor.  Disciplines must be developed.  Here are a few key suggestions for the aspiring diligent laborer:

  1. Understand your zone of responsibility - You aren’t responsible for everything, but you are for certain things.  A clear understanding of responsibility is essential for productive labor.
  2. Intentionally seek to learn.  Learning is a lifelong endeavor of the Godly person.
  3. Learn to prioritize.  You can’t do everything well, but some things must be done well.
  4. Conquer time.  The best of intentions is lost in wasted minutes and seconds.
  5. Embrace menial tasks.  The faithful in little things remain faithful in larger things.
  6. Embrace service.  The best cure for selfishness is love for others in imitation of Christ.
  7. Regularly do hard physical activities.  Learn to embrace sweat, weariness, and a good day’s work.
  8. Destroy excuses.  As long as there is a curse, there will never be a perfect setting for fulfillment of responsibility.
  9. Don’t be afraid to fail.  Failure is a part of life.  You will grow from the experience.
  10. Pursue a close walk with God.  Those who love little obey little.  Those who love much obey much.

Isaac Guess is the senior pastor at Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.