Who We Are vs. What We Do
If you’re anything like me, when you think about your calling as a Christian, your thoughts probably go to What am I going to do for God? Jake feels called to serve the poor; Maggie’s called to nursing; Leroy’s called to the mission field; Juanita’s called to raise her children, sometimes even her husband. We often view activity and calling as synonymous.
But here’s a truth we don’t always think about: God’s glorious agenda for our ambition, like his glorious gospel, begins not with what we achieve but with who we are.
Walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which I’ve been called means I have a new ambition. Instead of gunning for my own glory or comfort, I’m ambitious for a changed life.
This can be hard to wrap our brains around because we tend to evaluate who we are by what we achieve. That’s the trap the rich young ruler fell into when he asked Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” and got his heart put on display in response. It’s the thing Peter kept stumbling over in his often comical attempts to prove himself to Jesus. It’s what I do when I find myself totaling my good deeds done for the day as steps closer to God. But Jesus wasn’t impressed with the rich young ruler or with Peter—nor is he all that impressed with me.
The worthy walk commanded in Ephesians 4 is unlike any other trip. This journey works from the inside out. It starts with who we are, then moves to what we do.
Ambition begins with knowing who we are in Christ and what we’re given because of that fact.
A Higher Calling
That’s why Paul begins with qualities like humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love (4:2). This is how Christ lived and loved. As his disciples, we follow after him. We walk as he walked. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). This is “the calling to which [we’ve] been called” (Eph. 4:1).
Make no mistake: ambition for godly change does lead us to do things. Future dreams are obtained through ambition for present growth. The goal of Paul’s exhortation is to arouse our ambition to apply the gospel to our own lives. Note some other areas Paul brings up in the remainder of Ephesians 4: peace, doctrine, purity, honest labor, holy speech, forgiveness. To experience our best future, we must apply those today. We must take action that accords with the gospel.
Get in the Game
In the Pittsburgh neighborhood where I grew up, everyone was a Steelers fan. In fact, if you didn’t like the Steelers, you had no business being in Pittsburgh. There were games where the temperature was below zero and the stadium was still sold out. (I didn’t say we were bright, just devoted.) But as kids we had few, if any, opportunities to get to the stadium to see the games live.
So each Sunday, robed in the sacred black and gold, we would mount our sofas, snacks in hand, and position ourselves to “experience” the game on TV. Through a mysterious process only armchair athletes can truly understand, we began a symbiotic meld with the players and vicariously participated in the gridiron struggle for yardage. Their first downs became our triumphs, their fumbles our failures. A touchdown prompted high fives and other raw forms of masculine exchange, as if we’d personally pounded the ball across the goal line. We gave 110 percent, but all from the cozy confines of the recliner.
You know, the athlete and the fan share some remarkable similarities:
- They both breathe.
- They’re both human.
- They both breathe.
Okay, so fans and players are remarkably different. Fans sit back in the recliner and enjoy the players’ performance. Their vantage point is for the most part through the electronic window of the TV, protected from the elements, the chaos, and certainly the pain of the game. With ready access to multiple angles, instant replay, slow motion, stop-action, and real-time, play-by-play analysis by trained commentators, fans don’t just watch the game—they “experience” it (as HDTV salesmen are eager to tell us). But their perspective is only theoretical. No matter how big the flat-screen TV, fans aren’t really playing the game.
Players, by contrast, experience an entirely different day. Being on the field is an immersion in chaos and pain. The players’ roles and responsibilities have direct bearing on what happens in each play. A player can’t simply hit the fridge or channel surf during timeouts. Unlike the fans, the players’ world is one of decision, action, and exertion. Everything they do matters. Their vantage point is a field of activity where they apply what they know. Football players don’t ask fans to join their huddle. Fans live vicariously; players live experientially. Same game, world of difference. Christians are not fans.
On the playing field of the real world, we’re called to get off the recliner and to go make a difference in the game. When Paul tells us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, he’s grabbing spiritual fans out of their cozy den and putting them on the field of play. He’s saying, “Get in the game!”
Thankfully, the gospel gives us all we need to play well; ultimately, not even the outcome is in doubt. But it’s not about watching, it’s about doing. And the doing of the worthy walk isn’t easy. Doing humility is hard—just try responding graciously to a big hit of criticism. Think purity looks good in the playbook? Try running it into the teeth of a blitz of sensual imagery. Committed to the ground game of truth-telling? What if it isn’t getting you anywhere? Eager for unity? What will we do when opposition is stacked up against us at the line of scrimmage?
Ambition begins with knowing who we are in Christ and what we’re given because of that fact. But it trains itself for the game of life according to the agenda God sets for us. He shapes our ambition for the role he wants us to play in his plan. God’s calling makes me ambitious for a changed heart and a changed life.
This article is adapted from Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey.
- Should We Seek to Burn Out for Jesus? (David Murray)
- An Open Letter to Those Living for Tomorrow (Matthew McCullough)
- Finding Rest in a Restless World