What are your aspirations in life? Some aspire to be a millionaire by age 30. Others to write the next great novel. Some set the bar a bit lower by aiming to gain respect in their field.
But we don’t hear too often of anyone aspiring to anonymity. Yet that’s the direction in which the Apostle Paul pushes us when he says in 1 Thessalonians “to aspire to live quietly” (4:11). Literally, what he says is that we are to make it our ambition to be unambitious.
At one level, Paul is urging believers to faithful stewardship of life, including our time, talents and opportunities. We are to be industrious, not idle. As we are able (and there are those times we are not), we are to avoid dependency on others by working diligently to provide for our own needs and the needs of others. We work to sustain and we work to share.
But Paul is suggesting something else in making it our ambition to be unambitious. He points us to the tedious rather than the tremendous, the mundane rather than the marvelous. He lifts our eyes to the lofty obscurity found in the old hymn, “Father, I Know That All My Life.”
“I would not ask the restless will that hurries to and fro, seeking for some great thing to do or secret thing to know…. I ask thee for the daily strength, to none that ask denied, a mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at thy side, content to fill a little space if thou be glorified.”
Isn’t that the model of our Lord Jesus? He came not to be served but to serve. He didn’t seek the spotlight. Unlike some ministry leaders today who never miss a photo op, Jesus was born into obscurity and he ministered not for show but to show his heart.
When Paul speaks of Jesus humbling himself by taking on our humanity and becoming a servant to the Father’s will, he addresses the forces of fallen physics that exert influence in our hearts. He singles out “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3). Selfish ambition seeks my own kingdom. Vain conceit champions my own glory. Both exert a gravitational pull away from the aspiration in life God desires. Both are enemies of the ordinary.
As believers, we are to aspire to greatness. Just not our greatness. We are to aspire to God’s greatness. That shows up in the little things, the commonplace. Things like a kind word to a coworker having a rough day. Stepping up to help with nursery at church. Setting up chairs for a Bible study, even when no one is looking. Sometimes we will be the on-camera personality, but the bulk will take place behind the scenes.
Does that mean it’s wrong to want affirmation? Is it wrong to want to be acknowledged for our service? Only when those things drive us, when they become the reason we serve rather than the residual.
Aspirations are different from a bucket list. A bucket list includes things like running a 5K, or visiting every state, or skydiving. Aspirations run deeper. They relate to what compels us, what we strive for in life. As disciples of Jesus, seeking to become like our Master, we are to aspire to nothing but the Father’s will—whatever that may hold for us.