I wonder if in all of human history there has been a generation that has had as much ambition, as much self-confidence, as the millennials. You believe that you can make a difference, that you can change the world, and you have the ambition to get out there and attempt it. I like that. I like that because God loves to make good our ambition, to use it for his purposes. He loves it when we attempt great things for him and expect great things from him.
Ambition is a powerful trait. It is the trait of visionaries, of leaders, of people who change the world and improve lives. Ambition sent missionaries around the world. Ambition build the ministries we love, the ministries God has used to bless and challenge us. Ambition planted the church you attend and serve. Ambition is good, but not as a trait that stands on its own. Ambition is good, but it needs to be strengthened by at least two other crucial traits: character and self-discipline. When I look at your generation, I love the ambition I see, but want to encourage you to pursue the traits that will harness that ambition to the best and highest purposes.
Ambition + Character
Your generation has been encouraged to pursue and develop ambition. But, sadly, there has been less emphasis on character. In fact, that trait seems to have gone missing among old and young alike. We used to demand that our politicians were men and women of character and we would cast our votes not on the basis of good looks or smooth demeanor, but on the basis of character. Whatever else we wanted from a politician, we wanted to know that he was trustworthy, that she would do the things she had said she would do. Character gave us confidence because we believed our politicians, our pastors, our public servants, would act in ways consistent with it.
Character is a kind of moral consistency and uprightness. It is the quality of a person who has integrity, who knows what he believes and who is willing to make difficult decisions to protect and further those beliefs. It is a significant emphasis within the pages of the Bible. The men we call to be our pastors or elders must be men who have just one skill—the ability to teach—but at least 14 traits of character. The people in the Bible we most admire are also people of character—Joseph, who refused to compromise with Potiphar’s wife, David, who maintained trust in God even when hunted by Saul, Paul, who willingly suffered for the gospel, and, of course, Jesus himself who exemplified maturity of character in every way. It is character that compels a person to develop strong convictions and then to pursue those convictions with tenacity, without swerving. The man of character will not be swayed by opinion polls, the woman of character will not be swayed by peer pressure or even outright persecution.
Ambition without character can be downright dangerous. Then it becomes the trait of those who use others, who pursue what is full-out wrong or perhaps just trite and inconsequential. But character shores up ambition, it strengthens and protects it. It ensures ambition is directed at only the noblest pursuits. It is good to be ambitious, but better first to be a man or woman of character.
Ambition + Self-Discipline
And then there is the matter of self-discipline. Your generation loves to dream, to do, to deliver, but it may be lacking in the self-discipline to continue to act when encountering hurdles, resistance, or even persecution. Self-discipline is a form of self-control, that fruit of the Spirit that restricts us from what is unhelpful or unprofitable so we can focus on those few things that matter most. Self-discipline is commitment to a mission with an equal commitment to whatever might hinder or interfere with it. It prioritizes what matters most by neglecting or avoiding what matters less.
The people who have accomplished most in this world are the ones who are self-disciplined. Discipline has kept them from the million-and-one distractions of daily life. It has given them tenacity to endure in the face of difficulties and discouragements. It has allowed them to succeed in the eyes of God and man. William Carey once confessed, “I’m not afraid of failing. I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” He didn’t fail. He did succeed at what mattered most—he inspired a worldwide missions movement! How? He had ambition and he guarded that ambition with self-discipline. Ambition is at its best, its strongest, when guarded by self-discipline.
The world needs ambition, your ambition—the ambition of a generation raised with extraordinary privilege, world-class education, unique abilities, unusual determination, mind-blowing technology. The church needs your ambition—ambition directed to bettering the home, congregation, classroom, and workplace. God loves your ambition—ambition taken captive by his Word to carry out his will. Your ambition is a gift. Use it. Use it under the protection of character and self-discipline. Use it for God’s glory.
This article was originally prepared for The Heart of Teens.