Are you an ambitious person? I think I am. Is that a good thing? Can there be godly ambition and ungodly ambition? In English, the word can be used positively -- the pursuit of great goals, working hard to make them happen -- and negatively -- ambition as aggressive, cold, calculating, and power hungry.
I've been preparing a talk on this subject for my Greek classes, and this morning I was in Rom. 15:20. In fact, Paul uses the term "ambition" several times in his letters, both positively and negatively -- positively in places like here in Rom. 15:20, and negatively in places like Phil. 2:3-4 ("selfish ambition"). So if we ask, "Is ambition good or bad?" I suppose the answer is, "It depends." We could just as easily ask, "Is sex good or bad?" or "Is money good or bad?" or "Is power good or bad?" Like many things in life, ambition can be put to both positive and negative uses.
I think Paul is telling us what appropriate ambition looks like, not only here in Rom. 15:20, but in his entire life and ministry. What Paul is saying is, "I am controlled by an ambition to speak of Christ where he has never been named." For that reason, Paul has decided that he wants to visit Spain. I suspect that he also desired to preach the gospel in the British Isles, known as Britannia at the time. There is nowhere love won't go. Paul's life invites us to look at ourselves and our own ambitions in that light. Without ambition, the gospel is not preached, hospitals are not built, the poor are not fed, schools are not opened, political change does not happen, music is not composed, clothes are not designed, poems are not written. Without ambition, there is no excellence or creativity. In my own life, without ambition degrees would not have been earned, classes would not have been taught, books would not have been written, mission trips would not have been taken, mountains would not have been climbed, races would not have been run, exercise would not have been engaged in. The gospel allows us to become ambitious if our goal is to accomplish God's will for our lives in a way that honors him and helps others.
Thus far I have drawn three timeless principles from my study.
1. Holy ambition is always right and good.
2. Ambition is the joyful surrender to God's sovereign will.
3. Ambitious work is always the most satisfying work.
C. S. Lewis put it this way: "'Ambition.' We must be careful what we mean by it. If it means a desire to get ahead of other people, then it is bad. If it means simply wanting to do a thing well, then it is good. It isn't wrong for an actor to want to act his part as well as it can possibly be acted. But the wish to have his name in bigger type than the other actors is a bad one."
My goal, as I age, is to become more and more ambitious in the good sense of the word and, conversely, avoid becoming ambitious in the sense of pursuing my own will instead of God's. Like Paul, then, I still have many ambitious goals to pursue.