Are Your Dreams for The New Year Holy? 5 Questions to Test Your Ambitions

Denise J. Hughes | December 27th 2022

One day, while passing the food processors in Bed Bath & Beyond, I came across a large piece of wall art that said, “Dream until your dreams come true.” I stopped mid-aisle and stared at those words. We encounter some version of this message everywhere we go: “Never give up on your dreams!” Indeed, one of the loudest messages in the Western world is for us to dream big and do all we can to pursue our dreams.

And yet, if we’re “to seek to lead a quiet life,” as Paul instructs in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, is this antithetical to dreaming big and pursuing our dreams? What does Paul mean when he says “to seek”? 

In the original Greek, Paul uses the word philotimeisthai, which means “to strive earnestly” or “to pursue with zealous ambition.” This same passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 is sometimes translated as “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (emphasis mine, NIV). So, is Paul saying we need to cast aside all of our personal dreams and earthly ambitions?

Holy Ambition

Is all ambition bad? 

The answer is no. Not all dreams and ambitions are bad. There are two kinds of ambition, unholy ambition and holy ambition, and the Bible recognizes both kinds. In James 3:14 we’re warned, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and deny the truth.” Here, ambition is described as selfish, but in Romans 15:20, Paul describes a different kind of ambition, saying, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (NIV). Here, we see ambition is good when our desires are aligned with good ends and include good means. 

There are two kinds of ambition, unholy ambition and holy ambition, and the Bible recognizes both kinds.

Perhaps you’ve followed the world’s advice to dream big, and the pursuit cost more than you bargained for. Perhaps you’ve chased a dream only to discover it was a mirage all along; the thing you pursued didn’t even exist in the end. Or, perhaps you’ve run hard after a dream and achieved everything you once hoped for, but it didn’t fulfill you like you thought it would.

How can you know if your ambitions are good and righteous? How can you be sure your ambitions are compatible with leading a quiet life? 

Five Ways to Discern Holy Ambitions 

In Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, Jen Pollock Michel asks, “How do we ever know when desire isn’t the apple of self-actualizing promise leading us far from God? Can it be possible to trust our own hearts?” This is a good question. Before we can make it our ambition to lead a quiet life, we must take an inventory of the ambitions that already have a firm place in our lives. 

The following five questions will help us tease out any unholy ambitions lurking inside our hearts, but do keep in mind that these five questions are meant to be diagnostic, not condemnatory. Having holy ambitions isn’t something we acquire once and for all; rather it’s an ongoing process that requires the occasional heart check-up. So, let’s take a heart x-ray of our ambitions. 

1. Do you have relationships with people who cannot benefit you in any way? 

In other words, do you regularly enjoy someone’s company for the sheer sake of enjoying their company and not because your association with them could potentially benefit you in some way? Our response to this question reflects the ambition-direction of our hearts. When our ambitions are rightly aligned with God’s word and directed toward good ends, we can enjoy the presence of individuals who may not have anything to offer in terms of a potential promotion or positive association. Unholy ambitions lead us to see people as resources and opportunities, whereas holy ambitions lead us to appreciate every person we encounter regardless of their station in life. 

2. Do your ambitions or dreams take you away from your family to an inordinate degree? 

Most of us can think of a season (or two) when we were incredibly busy—busy to the point where we weren’t spending time with our families like we wanted to. But when a busy season turns into regular daily life, this is an indicator of an unholy ambition in our hearts. When our families continue to make sacrifices for our ambitions—with no end in sight—then it’s time to reconsider our ambitions. 

3. How committed are you to honoring and observing the Sabbath?

Observance of a God-ordained weekly Sabbath is a key litmus test. If we can’t accomplish everything on our plates in six days and then rest on the seventh day, something is amiss. If we consistently feel that we must work seven days a week in order to get everything done, then our ambitions have veered into unholy territory. A Sabbath doesn’t have to take place on a Sunday, either. Many folks have to work on Sundays, including pastors! Designating one day a week for rest is not only an act of living in obedience to Scripture; it is also paramount for our health, including the health of our souls, where idols of ambition can take root. 

4. Are your ambitions or dreams about making God’s name great or yours? 

This can be tricky because oftentimes our dreams and ambitions are mixed with both good and not-so-good intentions. Part of us genuinely wants to see God’s kingdom expanded, but in the process, we wouldn’t mind being known as one of God’s favorite agents in bringing about said expanded kingdom. The same is true in a non-church context. Part of us sincerely wishes to see our work bring good outcomes for others, but in the process, we wouldn’t mind being known as the person who helped bring about those good outcomes. It all comes down to credit. Are we ok if no one but God knows about our good deeds? If we can answer this question affirmatively, then our ambitions are likely in check.

5. Will you be ok with God if your ambitions or dreams never come about in this lifetime? 

Let’s say our ambitions and dreams have good ends and include good means. Let’s say we’re even ok with no one but God knowing about the good deeds we accomplish. But what if our dreams never come to fruition? If our biggest dreams and deepest longings are never realized, will we still follow after God? If our answer is yes, then that’s a good indicator that our hearts’ ambitions are on the right path. 

Undressing Our Hearts

Writer Jen Pollock Michel says, “When we talk about desire, we undress our hearts.” These five questions help us “undress our hearts” by examining our true intentions. They serve as realignment checkpoints to help us disentangle the layers of our heart’s desires. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s crucial if we’re to lead a quiet life. 

Unholy ambitions lead us to see people as resources and opportunities, whereas holy ambitions lead us to appreciate every person we encounter regardless of their station in life.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a mix of both holy and unholy ambitions taking up residency in your heart. It’s what it means to be human. And yet, this is something we can acknowledge in ourselves with honesty while also asking God to work on our hearts in these areas. God always welcomes our humble admissions and sincere pleas for his forgiveness, wisdom, and strength because keeping our ambitions in check is a necessary part of cultivating a quiet heart.

This article is an excerpt from Sanctuary by Denise J. Hughes. This 31-day devotional will help readers to find true peace in Christ among the busyness, noise and pressures of life.

Denise J. Hughes

A former English teacher, Denise is the author of three devotionals, two books, and one gift book. She’s also the General Editor of two multi-author works, including the CSB (in)courage Devotional Bible for Women (B&H, 2018). She currently enjoys writing for the First 5 app by Proverbs 31 Ministries and speaking at retreats, conferences, and other women’s events. Denise lives with her husband and three kids in North Carolina, where she always finds time for old books, peach tea, and a good football game.

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