A bit over thirty years ago, I sat in a course in linguistics in which the professor frequently reminded us that, “there is no such thing as a true synonym.” By the time we had finished the course, we were convinced as well. However, there are times when a good synonym (or related word) is the only thing that helps someone “get the picture.”
The theme for Missionfest Manitoba 2023 is Holy Ambition. I have been asked by more than one person to explain the choice. Let me walk you through how the theme developed in my head.
I was reading in Romans and came to chapter 15 and verse 20 where Paul uses the phrase, “thus I make it my ambition.” In the next phrase, he explains the focus of that ambition: “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named…” Of course, anyone who has kicked around in the missionary world knows that verse well. But what I found interesting on that day was the use of the word “ambition.” Let me explain.
If you grab your concordance off the shelf you will find that, when the word ambition shows up in English translations, it is almost always a bad thing. The underlying word in the N.T. documents leans heavily that way. That is why most translators add the word “selfish” to qualify it. In Walter Elwell’s Topical Analysis of the Bible, he puts “ambition” at the top of his long list of Sins of Self-Indulgence. One commentator of another era infers that “ambition” was the original sin (Gen. 3:4-6).
But the English word “ambition” is used as a translation for two different Greek words in the New Testament text. One is without exception something God wants us to avoid. That is why the word “selfish” often tags along with it (Php 1:3; 2:3; Jas 3:14; 3:16). The other is what Paul uses in Romans 15 (and two other times in his letters). That kind of ambition is a good thing. It shows up in the Romans passage attached to Paul and preaching to the UUPGs (unengaged, unreached people groups). It appears in 2 Corinthians 5:9 and speaks of Paul’s personal aim to please Christ (knowing that he will someday appear before the judgment seat of Christ). And again, it shows up in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 where he urges the Thessalonian believers to aspire to live quiet lives as they wait for the second coming of Jesus. Open a parallel New Testament and you will see that translators have used a variety of words to express this more positive idea of ambition: to aim, to set as one intent, to aspire, to intend, to labour, to strive restlessly. In one translation, Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians reads, “do everything you can do.”
No one will argue that there aren’t bad ambitions. Sometimes, even missionaries can come down with a case of those. However, holy ambition, animated by a desire for God’s glory, is honorable, noble, admirable – and energizing. These good ambitions are not only important, but without them, nothing much happens.
This holy ambition, this zeal, led Paul to fasten his sandals and head into a storm (2 Cor. 11:24-28), to risk prison, to be willing to expose his back to the rod, to spend sleepless nights so people might know about Jesus. And he did not choose a simple task. “To go where Christ has not been named” meant that he intended to go where the Gentiles were. His driving aspiration, his restless longing, his strong ambition, was to find the people who were unfamiliar with Christ, the Messiah and share good news -THE Good News.
Ambition: to aim, to set as one intent, to aspire, to intend,
a goal to which one’s passion is attached.
The synonyms all hint at something soulish. But there is more, and we must not miss it. Embedded in this word ambition is action. When I am infected with this strain of ambition, I am not satisfied to rest with the emotion that such a thing may stir up within me. True ambition will lead me to do something, to act. I will learn, plan, strategize, prepare, and eventually, I will strap on my boots, pick up a map, sling a backpack over my shoulders, and do something. This holy ambition may attach itself to a people group, or a place, or a problem. But, if it is the ambition Paul describes, it will faithfully pursue its objective until, with God’s help, it has made a difference.
Written by Tom Castor,
Executive Director of Missionfest Manitoba Inc.