Most of my life I’ve been consumed, driven, encapsulated by the idea of making my mark in this world. With practically everything I’ve ever done – music, writing, journalism, even my Christian life – I’ve dreamed of making my mark in my profession, making a mark in this world, making a difference, and going down in the history books in some way.
I don’t know if I’ve inherited this drive from our culture, or if I’m just a naturally ambitious person. But I’ve spent a number of months wrestling through this thing, trying to understand exactly where it comes from, why I’m driven in such a way, why I think like this, and where such thinking is going to take me.
Having the kind of drive I have is supposed to take me to “success”. He who runs hardest wins the race, right? Except when you look back and realise that you’ve achieved none of what you set out to do, it can get pretty depressing. And then all you’ve ever done becomes clouded in a false sense of failure, because the idealistic goals were never realistic anyway.
And you also discover that when you reach the goals that you wanted to reach, you’re still not happy. How many famous people have everything we’re supposed to live our lives for yet are clearly unhappy?
Lest some of my Christian friends think this is all about worldly success, think again. Consider how much we actually promote and live the idea of “making our mark” in the church. We love to hear teaching that’s focused on how we can “make a difference”, how we can be “God’s generals” in this world, how our lives can have purpose and meaning and how we can and should do “great things” for God.
I can produce a number of cliché’s that you hear in church circles and a lot of preaching to this effect. While it all sounds great on the surface, it’s not helping to get to the heart of what is a big secret sin even in the church – the sin of unhealthy, self-focused ambition.
We taint a lot of what we do with this kind of ambition. Think about how we often think – maybe we look at William Wilberforce and his work in abolishing the slave trade and we think to ourselves, “I also want to do something great like that.” Sounds fair, doesn’t it? But actually the focus is wrong. We don’t look to free slaves so that we can do “something great”. We look to free slaves so that slaves may be free. Anything else is a self-focused ambition laced in good-sounding intentions.
So long as our focus is to use that kind of thing to find purpose, we will never actually be content and we probably won’t even achieve the goal. The way I see it now, this thing is driven by the need to find purpose. We feel that if we’re ‘making a difference’ then our lives have meaning and purpose. But is it right that we find purpose in what our hands find to do? Even if we don’t have any intention of “being great”, should we find any meaning in our work at all?
I’ve examined the life of Jesus and noticed that he’s not interested at all in finding purpose in his work. I can’t see anywhere where he exhorts us to either. Why would Jesus need to get meaning and purpose out of his work? Does God find meaning in His work? Surely not. He might find enjoyment, but meaning?
Rather, Jesus finds meaning and purpose in who He is. God finds meaning in who He is. While He creates, he creates out of enjoyment and overflow, not out of finding meaning and purpose or even doing “something great”.
Likewise, I’m not ever meant to find meaning in my work, but rather in who I am, and even more who I am in God – in Jesus. Because ultimately my identity can’t really exist outside of this.
It can, but then I wouldn’t be a Christian, because fundamentally a Christian is one who follows Christ – for the purpose of both knowing Him and becoming like Him. When I became a Christian I laid aside all my own ambitions and plans and my need for purpose in what I do, and I entered into a new life and identity that is in fact based on a life in Jesus.
So, in the church, we can’t have this mix of ambition – where we will ‘make our mark’, be ‘someone who counts for God’ do ‘great things for God’ (insert other such phrases here). All that talk leads to division and nonsense within the church. How many pastors have divided churches out of their own ambitions?
That talk is soul destroying. It puts false ambition into our minds and hearts and has us strive to achieve ‘great things’ that God never even asked us to achieve. It feeds our need to also be great.
It makes loving a labourious task, because we no longer love to love but love ‘to count’ for God. In fact, our relationships start to mean far less because we’re too busy doing other things which we think God views as more important, so we can make our mark and ‘count’ for God. We’re completely sidetracked on some or other mission and those who hold us the most dear suffer for it.
Think about what ‘counting for God’ is actually saying about the Gospel – did Jesus die on the cross so we could strive to ‘count’ for God? Of course not.
While God has prepared good works for us to do, that doesn’t mean He wants us to find meaning and purpose in those good works. Those are natural outflowings of who we actually are, not the other way around. We’re not defined by those good works, be it our job, our profession, or our passions, but are defined by who God is and then who we are in Him.
That means that I’m free to no longer care about whether or not anyone is going to remember me when I pass away. I’m free from this idea of leaving a legacy. I free from having to make a mark.
God never asked me to “count” for Him or “count” for His Kingdom. Why would He need me to count for Him? What for? I can now live free and love free; free from constantly worrying if I’m doing everything right, if I’m counting enough, if I’m doing enough for the Kingdom.
Is that apathetic? Do I lack ambition? Yes, I do. The drive is gone. And so I’m free to love my family and friends and work colleagues and anyone who I’m in contact with. I’m free to go to the nations or help poor people because I’m not longer tied to caring about doing great things. My head space is no longer consumed with how I’m going to get there, to that illusive place, where finally I count. My past now is no longer a list of failures but a life lived. I can be content with it.
And I can be content with who I am. Contentment is worth much, much more than anything my ambitions could ever have given me. Because ultimately everything I thought I wanted would disappoint, and what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul? (Matt 16:26.)
I’m still trying to free myself from the need to count, but I’m getting there. And the process is liberating.
In retrospect, isn’t this the Gospel? The one that says I’m free from law and now living under grace? The one that says God already loved me even before I came to Him? The one that says I no longer need to labour and strive for significance and meaning and purpose and acceptance? Yes, that’s the one. That’s the one I believed from the start.
About Ryan Peter
Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.