One of my favorite high school coaches often regaled us with stories from his glory days. When he played, they wore leather helmets (really, more like caps) without facemasks or mouth guards. If we ever accused him of hyperbole, he would pull out his front dentures as proof of several head-on collisions. Our coach pulled double duty with the basketball team, and toward the end of football season my 10th-grade year, I asked him what he thought about me trying out for the varsity basketball squad. I knew my coach liked me, and I assumed he’d welcome my interest. Instead, he cocked his head and laid his hand on my shoulder. “Winn,” he said, “you’d best stick to football.” He did not chuckle, as if this was an attempt at humor. He did not amend his opinion to soften the blow. He patted me on the back and left the room.
The truth is, I was short and slow. I could barely dribble, and while I could make a few shots playing H-O-R-S-E on the neighborhood blacktop, it would have been a victory if I ever managed to hit even the backboard in an actual game with swift-footed giants hovering over me. I had no business on the court, and the sooner I reckoned with this fact, the quicker I could give myself wholeheartedly elsewhere.
These places of discernment require wisdom. There’s certainly good reason at times to charge into daunting arenas when we lack the necessary skill or are uncertain of future outcomes. After all, Hebrews tells us that faith demands we cling to hope, even for those realities that, at the present, remain murky. (See Heb. 11:1.) To be sure, there’s no shame in risky attempts, and it’s admirable to foster courage and curiosity. Even more, we must expend energy in order to discover who we are and what we have to give away. I once spent a couple months trying to start a side business selling used cars. The entire enterprise was a debacle, but I’m glad I tried. Sometimes, we absolutely need to throw caution to the wind and just give life a whirl.
And yet, many of us also need the converse: to understand (and submit to) our limits. We need to make peace with our finitude. Christian conviction starts with the fundamental acknowledgment that we are constrained creatures. We are not God. Contrary to one popular parental philosophy, I have never told my boys that they can be anything they want to be. This would be a lie. My job as their dad includes, without doubt, spurring their imagination and keeping them wide-eyed about all the wonders before them. However, my job also includes paying attention, truly knowing them and helping them over the years to discover who they are and who God has made them to be. I’m to help them learn how God has knit their hearts, what gifts He has entrusted to them, what revs their engines, what bores them to tears. I’m to help them toward the joyous discovery of those (probably few) critical things that will be their responsibility in this world—and I’m to help them learn those (probably many) noble and worthwhile pursuits they must entrust to God and leave to the care of others.
Christian conviction starts with the fundamental acknowledgment that we are constrained creatures. We are not God.
Sometimes I think that if everyone knew all the things I just can’t muster the energy to care about or worry over, I would be fired for incompetence or dismissed as desperately out of touch. But the reality is that many of us live these tensions, many more of us than we’d ever know by the way we choose our words and cover our inadequacies. We simply cannot give energy to everything. We cannot accomplish everything. I’m slowly learning to trust that when we are faithful to the responsibilities God has placed before us, then somehow everything in need of attention will receive it. Thankfully, the world does not rest on my shoulders. Or yours.
We experience a profound grace whenever we make peace with what we cannot do, with those things beyond our capacity, skill, or resources. Is this not a crucial part of our confession—God is almighty but we are not? Aren’t our strained attempts to perfect ourselves, as well as our commitment to the idea that we can do anything we put our mind to, a form of idolatry? Was not Adam and Eve’s catastrophic failure their refusal to heed God’s warning that there was some fruit they were not allowed to eat, some knowledge they were not able to possess? God told Adam to name the animals and to tend the garden—all vital work. However, these instructions were narrow, and every bit of man’s labor was dependent (from beginning to end) on God’s sustaining presence. Eve and Adam were crucial to God’s vision, but it was God’s vision, not theirs.
Many in the agrarian world warn us of the grave dangers we invite by acting as if our technological prowess means we are no longer bound by the long-honored limitations inherent in the wise use of land and energy. Similar warnings could be made for economies and families, for churches and individuals. We were not created to live without boundaries.
This is good news. It’s a relief to embrace the truth that some work is not mine to do. I’m finding this true as a father, husband, pastor, and writer—I’m to do what I’m able (those things I must do), but I also must let go of those things God has handed someone else to do. I must trust that the loving Father who rules over the entire world has not abandoned the job.
Believing that, we realize our fundamental Christian confession—Jesus is Lord—has real-world implications. And as we humbly surrender our longings to God, together with our shortcomings and the restrictions due to our human frailties, we discover the liberation Paul enjoyed. “I have learned,” the apostle writes, “to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Phil. 4:11). When we are content, we can live at rest, even when our resources are bare or our future shaky. To be content, in biblical terms, does not mean we stop our efforts or put life on idle. Rather, contentment means that we are learning to live with a tenacious trust in God’s goodness and generosity. Richard Foster describes how “contentment means we can opt out of the status race and the maddening pace that is its necessary partner. We can shout ‘NO!’ to the insanity which chants, ‘More, more, more!’ We can rest contented in the gracious provision of God.”
In fact, this more, more, more strikes at the crux of our obsession and idolatry. We live in the age of ambition, immersed in a culture telling us there are no restraints, no curbs on what we can achieve if only we try hard enough. But the Bible (so far as I can tell) never encourages us toward ambition—at least not in any way that would buttress our prevailing notions of it (the compulsive drive for more power, success, or affluence). The Bible does tell us, however, to give our whole heart and body and soul to the task before us, working to the very glory of God. (See 1 Cor. 10:31.) The Scriptures do instruct us to seek first the kingdom of God, a pursuit requiring deliberate effort and energetic persistence (Matt. 6:33). And yet, our labor reflects God’s strength, not ours.
At God’s invitation, we enjoy the relaxed posture available to those who know He has already acted, that He gives us all we need. Contentment does not mean we lay down all our shovels and go on permanent vacation. Instead, it means that we hear the Spirit’s invitation to rest in God and then we work from this posture of rest and trust. Unfortunately, what most of us mean by ambition only reflects our hubris, an inflated sense of our own aptitude and clout. How long can a person endure this pressure? No wonder so many of us have grown disillusioned and exhausted. We’re suffocating under ambition’s grueling tyranny.
Once, a friend of mine asked Eugene Peterson what he believed to be the greatest temptation for church leaders. “I’d say ambition,” Peterson answered. “[Pastors] are tempted to do what it takes to succeed. Most of us grow up as competitors; competition is bred into our bones. And most of us are good at it … Not that we don’t want to do our best, but unchecked ambition cripples us.” I believe this wisdom works just as well for businesspersons trying to turn a deal, for artists trying to hone a craft, for students trying to make the grade, for parents trying to keep up with the Joneses, for all of us who are trying so hard to make something of ourselves, trying to not be left behind and to prove that we are worthwhile.
We have work to do, but only the work God gives us.
On those few occasions when Scripture does speak of ambition in a positive light, it tells us how our ambitious yearning should aim toward only one end: to please God. (See 2 Cor. 5:9.) Further, 1 Thessalonians turns most of our ambitious inclinations upside down when Paul instructs us to “make it [our] ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to [our] own business and work with [our] hands” (1 Thess. 4:11). A quiet life tending to our own business seems nothing like the cult of frenetic ambition hoisted upon us, accompanied by its unrelenting demands for our slavish participation.
In stark contrast to ambition’s seductive allure, we have been given a subversive, gracious truth: We live constricted by very real boundaries. We have work to do, but only the work God gives us. We have responsibilities, but only the responsibilities God entrusts to us. We are free from our own obsessions as well as from the crushing expectations of others. We are free, empowered by God’s Spirit, to move into our world with boldness and vigor. And we are free to shrug off every oppressive weight. Like everything else God created, that is good indeed.
Illustrations by Peter Arkle