What’s a woman to do with ambition?

April 20, 2010

A few years ago, a brother in the Lord told me something that kind of confused me.  “Guys find you intimidating,” he said.  “I can’t quite explain it.  You’re ambitious.”

More recently, I’ve heard different family members (immediate and extended) say things like, “A woman can’t be too ambitious.”

And I’ve been thinking about this, even as I brush shoulders with those in the MBA program who find me comparatively unambitious, at least not career-wise.  I’ve been thinking about this in terms of passion for gospel ministry.  In terms of church planting.  In terms of exploring missionary calling.  In terms of being a woman.

Does a woman with no specific calling or direction in life, an “unambitious” woman, make for a more suitable helper?  Must a single woman mute some of her “ambition” early on if she hopes to marry, especially since the roles of wife and mother may call her to lay any other “ambition” aside?

What of the woman who is persuaded that this “ambition” is her calling?  Is she in disobedience if she interrupts or drops her current “ambition” to support a future husband’s ministry or calling?

Are ambition and femininity antithetical?  For women, are ambition and family antithetical?

Lots of questions.  :]  Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, especially if the terms are defined biblically.  And some of these are easier to answer on a case-by-case basis.  But I think it’s important to think about these things rightly.  So I’m curious to know: in light of your knowledge and application of Scripture, what do you think?

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18 Responses to “What’s a woman to do with ambition?”

  1. Cassie Says:

    All my life I have called myself unambitious. I have no real drive to prove myself by accomplishing things. I have never really wanted a “career” or to make a lot of money at anything. (Hello, music major!)

    When I asked God what my calling was, my thoughts immediately turned to travel and to missions abroad. However, God told me that I would accomplish my mission right in my own back yard. This is when he implanted in me the strong desire to adopt children. The “modern woman” in me rebelled against this. This can’t be my whole life’s calling! “Just” to have children? I wasn’t even married at the time! I was dreaming of far-off places.

    However, God has a special way of speaking to a woman’s heart. Whether she is “ambitious” or content to be where she is, He is always calling us to something higher than we ourselves can accomplish on our own. Whether that has to do with family, jobs, mission, ministry, or what have you, He will call us all to do something outside of our own strength and power.

    THAT is what I call ambition. To trust that the Holy Spirit will use His vessels for his purposes, which may seem inglorious to some, but are impossible without Him. Are children my life’s ambition, my entire life’s goal? No, serving my God is my entire life’s goal. Loving his people is my ambition.

  2. Stephen Rodgers Says:

    My (deliberately brief) thoughts:

    “Does a woman with no specific calling or direction in life, an “unambitious” woman, make for a more suitable helper?”

    Absolutely not. I would argue the opposite (at least, insofar as I interpret the question as written).

    “Must a single woman mute some of her “ambition” early on if she hopes to marry, especially since the roles of wife and mother may call her to lay any other “ambition” aside?”

    Maybe or maybe not. That would depend on the specificity of the ambitions she holds. Some ambitions are antithetical to others; some are complementary; some are unrelated.

    “What of the woman who is persuaded that this “ambition” is her calling?”

    That’s a question of priorities. Like ambitions, some priorities are mutually exclusive, and some aren’t. Paul talks about this in regards to singleness vs. marriage, for example.

    “Is she in disobedience if she interrupts or drops her current “ambition” to support a future husband’s ministry or calling?”

    Maybe or maybe not. Ambitions don’t exist in a vacuum, and they are non-ultimate in their authority. Each needs to be independently compared to Scripture and God’s revealed/prescriptive will. (That’s the relatively easy part; conflicts in positively correlated items can still occur and are harder to deal with, which is what I think you’re driving at).

    Are ambition and femininity antithetical?

    Maybe or maybe not. Ambition for what? For the sake of ambition? If that’s what’s under discussion, then the antithesis isn’t with femininity, but rather with Christianity. I don’t think that’s what you meant, but I’m just throwing that out there for starters.

    For women, are ambition and family antithetical?

    See above.

    If you want the first-hand feminine perspective on this, hit up Hanka. ;-P

  3. Stephen Rodgers Says:

    I just noticed this is tagged as women-specific. Since I am a man, it’s possible that the only part of my comment you care about is the last sentence. ;-P

  4. tia Says:

    Cass and Stephen, good stuff. :]

    I asked some questions that require qualification, huh? Haha. I'm assuming that "ambition" is godly and God-oriented, not for its own sake or of the Phil 2:21 variety. I'm assuming all these terms are defined biblically with the desire to pursue God (not idols), and more personally, I'm wrestling with these questions in light of a complementarian conviction. I think once a woman is married, many of these questions are cleared; her role and calling at that point are clear, and her support of her husband is a wholehearted one. But these are questions that many of the single women I know (myself included) wrestle with.

    Come to think of it, my two examples (friend's statement and family's comments) may have been more confusing than helpful, too. But I pretty much laid them out to analyze the thinking that drives these viewpoints and whether they're biblically-driven or culturally-driven. I ask these questions, especially the first couple in the list, because those are the implications I derive from what people (even believers) sometimes say — that marriage is for the unambitious woman, that a good wife is a passive one with no calling of her own to realize, and that single women should solely focus on getting married (or the other extreme: forget about marriage and pursue your other ambitions). It's scary how subtly worldly, cultural thinking infiltrates how we make decisions, judge others, and live life. So it helps me to revisit even questions that may have obvious answers and to trace their implications to daily applications, to see if my life is plumb with His Word.

    Also, older men and women in the faith have told me in the past that there's unequal yoking even among believers when it comes to "calling" or "ambition." Missionary friends, a married couple, recently told me I needed to make a firm decision about whether I'll be a go-er or send-er and only marry a man who is already headed in that direction, lest I disobey His call. This is more subjectively determined, and I don't necessarily agree with everything all these people are saying, but I'm trying to glean what wisdom I can and test all things against Scripture. Trying is obviously the key word here, haha. :]

    All in all, I'm def dealing with these on a more specific level, but I posed them more generally to invite discussion and so we could challenge each other to really assess whether we're really believing, thinking, and living to please Him.

    My brain hurts now. Haha.

    Cass, I’m glad I’m laboring alongside you ❤
    And Stephen, I can't WAIIIIT to meet Hanka! And “women-specific” means it’s a topic that deals with women; men are more than welcome to input! :]

  5. Stephen Rodgers Says:

    Alright, well, then I’ll take another shot given your clarifications. Just so I have something to look back on, we’re agreed that we’re dealing with a subset of ambitions that are:
    * God-glorifying
    * God-pursuing/oriented
    * In keeping with complementarian theology

    You know what? Scratch that. I’m going to take a shot at responding like a human being and not a machine that makes outlines.

    As in many discussions involving hypotheticals and grey areas, it sounds like your well-meaning friends are trying to make an “either/or” out of something that God could also ordain to be a “both/and.”

    For example, last time I checked there was no such thing as a go-er or a send-er in a mutually exclusive sense. When I write a check for a missions team that I’m on…what does that make me? A send-er of a go-er who BOTH happen to be me? As I sponsor my fiancee’s VISA application, what does that make me? The send-er of a go-er who is coming to support the send-er of themselves when the next time to write a check rolls around?

    We are all send-ers, and we are all go-ers. I get paid to be a project manager in San Diego, and hardly a week goes by that my team doesn’t have some sort of conversation about ultimate truths. And yet, it would be a little absurd if I slapped a picture of myself up on the church’s world map and declared myself to be a missionary to the native peoples of the break room.

    Or would it?

    It’s easy to take cheap shots at labels though. Labels don’t shoot back, so let me break out a real-world example.

    My fiancee originally didn’t want to marry me. I mean, she thought I was amusing and possibly borderline psychotic, but certainly not marriage material since she was SURE that God wanted her to be a missionary. So she cheerfully went about her plans to move to some Russian village without electricity and tell people about Jesus. She saw men in general and me in particular as a threat to her serving God.

    What she didn’t anticipate was a change in perspective that showed her that we make a better dynamic duo than we do separate lone rangers. Yes, there are certain losses of efficiency: time spent taking me to the emergency room is time she could have spent polishing her knowledge of New Testament Greek. As she says, God made me a “special kind of stupid.” But at the end of the day, we draw each other closer to Christ. The apostle Paul never prayed that his sheep would “continually grow in the knowledge of logistical efficiency.” He prayed that they would grow in the knowledge of Christ.

    At the end of the day, she learned that God still wanted her to be a missionary…it just so happened that at least initially it looks like she’s going to be a married missionary to the people of San Diego. I’m told that she used to pray that God would have her do ANYTHING…except get married or go to America…since husbands and America are #1 and #2 on the things-Hanka-finds-supremely-annoying list. Turns out that God is a supremely good multi-tasker with a wicked sense of humor.

    My wife-to-be is one of the most ambitious people I know. One of her biggest battles (that is still ongoing) in making me more of an ambitious person, which she does primarily by example. A wife is uniquely situated to both encourage AND nag to the glory of God. I mean that sincerely, in the best possible sense.

    I guess this all comes down to the fact that God is in the redemption business, and that involves CHANGE. Now personally, I think change is scary. I get paid a decent amount of money to make sure that 1) change doesn’t happen, and/or 2) change only happens when I allow it to. And there’s a reason I gravitated to that field.

    But I also know that God has used both Hanka and myself as agents of change in each other’s life. Before I met her, I never considered foreign missionary service. Before she met me, she never considered marriage, or ministering in a first-world country. Because of the work of Christ in each other’s life, both our horizons have been significantly extended. And honestly, both of our “ambitions” have shifted from what we originally thought best to something a little more subordinate to the will of God. Let’s just say that you learn some measure of humility by the time you get to “Plan Q,” nevermind “Plan B.”

    I’ll close with a quote from a conversation I had with Hanka.

    Stephen: “Hanka, please stop criticizing my .”
    Hanka: “I’m not criticizing, I’m HELPING. I’m HELPER.”
    …long pause…
    Hanka: “Bible SAYS so.”

    You’re pretty darn smart Tia. You see the application there. ;-P

    • Stephen Rodgers Says:

      Apparently your comments eliminate words in brackets, so that final conversation should read:

      Stephen: “Hanka, please stop criticizing my (insert verb here).”
      Hanka: “I’m not criticizing, I’m HELPING. I’m HELPER.”
      …long pause…
      Hanka: “Bible SAYS so.”

  6. tia Says:

    Haha, hey, your very first points were good ones, too. And not only was your last comment posting really helpful, it was fun to read, too (the Hanka parts!). :]

    Your points about going and sending are especially well taken … I’m still digesting them (though I see my friend’s point, too; she works with people who have no Bible, no church, no believers). But you’re right — Plan B, Plan Q are all subordinate to Plan God. I’m so, so relieved and thankful for that.

    So, I think we’ve established that ambition isn’t necessarily “bad” for a woman, given all those premises we established (haha), unless someone disagrees or has something else to add.

    But — and this isn’t necessarily just directed at you, Stephen — why then do people say the things they do (like from my two examples)?

  7. Stephen Says:

    I’ll just email you and let someone else have a shot at talking to you. ;-P

  8. tia Says:

    haha, i don’t know if anyone else will … (twiddles thumbs)

    if not, i’ll just copy and paste your email. it was good. :]

  9. tia Says:

    from stephen’s email (thanks stephen!):

    Two reasons come to mind.

    1) There’s a bit of truth to it. People do have different personalities, goals, and priorities…and sometimes those can clash and cause conflict. Someone who REALLY wants to be a missionary to China who marries someone who REALLY wants to be a missionary to Chile is going to have to find a way to resolve that, since they’re limited by time and space. As the Devil’s Dictionary says, compromise is “everyone getting what they don’t want.”

    2) It’s clear, and Christians often confuse clarity for accuracy. We love to slam situations and truth through our Biblical hermeneutics and see what comes out the other side, but that’s not always appropriate. Just because the Bible deals prescriptively with a principle doesn’t mean that the application is equally simple. Like I said earlier, ethical quandaries tend to arise in conflicts between positives, not between a positive and a negative. If you have to choose between helping someone and shooting them, we know that the right thing to do is help them. But if you have to choose between helping two people, but you only have the resources/ability for one, that can get tricky.

    I would argue that most of the bad or overly simplistic advice that you get from well-meaning friends is some combination of those two factors: incomplete truth and being overly simplistic.

    Which is why I try to be as comprehensive and confusing as possible. ;-P

  10. tia Says:

    “therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, i say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 corinthians 5:6-10)

    friends, let’s be ambitious in this way

  11. paulandvern Says:

    tia, just wanted to let you know that this post was super encouraging. i’ve been wrestling with this issue for quite a while now, and actually sent your post out to multiple friends to see their thought process. no answers to write of, but i’m still thinking…thinking…thinking…….OKAY YAY! THANKS TIA!

  12. tia Says:

    p and v (but guessing this is more v), i hesitated to post this and then once i did, i wondered multiple times if i unnecessarily stirred the waters with all those questions. but i’m genuinely wrestling with them (though some clarity has come about recently), and these comments have been so encouraging and thought-provoking. i’m so, so glad this was profitable and encouraging to someone other than myself

    this conversation is by no means finished, so if your friends send you anything or if you think of something, please share! :]

  13. edyip Says:

    Wow, this thread is pretty epic. I don’t have anything deep or insightful to say. This thread seemed to consist mostly of Stephen and you exchanging comments, but I’m curious if there’s like a consensus among women about this topic.

    Do you think there are many women out there who have regretted choosing a family over career? or like…leaving their “ambition” at least in the professional sense.

    Not really food for thought so much as me just curious about this thing called females.

  14. tia Says:

    ed, i can think of a number of women on both sides — some with regrets (sometimes even with bitterness, particularly when their marriage or parenting hit hard times), and some with no regrets.

    in general, women believers are the ones i know who are without regret, though this doesn’t make them immune to sometimes-searing doubts and the temptation to “compare” with other women who’ve been ambitious outside the home (whether in professional work, in overseas missionary work, in pursuing personal dreams, etc.). lighthouse wives and mothers would be great to ask about this … i can think of several lbc wives/moms who can give you firsthand accounts about their struggles with this issue.

    i think it’s a pretty universal struggle for women, though i def don’t have the last word on that :]

  15. Cassie Says:

    Whew…I didn’t know if anyone else had followed up on this! I now am interested in Stephen and this wonderfully hilarious-sounding Hanka of his. Perhaps one day I’ll get to meet them.
    Or perhaps in heaven, since “Bible SAYS so”. =)

  16. c Says:

    crazy post..
    definitely something to chew on.


  17. […] has been one of those “while” thoughts.  I’ve revisited my questions from last April many times since, and every time, I just gave up.  Still confusion.  Still no […]


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