Learning from John Stott’s Godly Ambition
Today is John Stott’s first birthday in heaven.
Coming toward the end of my (32-year) ministry as Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church, I read Alister Chapman’s new biography of John Stott with special interest. I wanted to see how he finished at All Soul’s and how he shaped the rest of his life.
Stott became Rector at All Souls in 1950 at the age of 29. Just shy of 20 years later he told the church council on September 20, 1969 that “he wanted to stand down.” The church was not prospering as it once had. He felt his calling was to “wider responsibilities.”
The council accepted the proposal and 15 months later Michael Baughen took the helm. “Within a few years All Souls was bursting again” (75). But, Chapman observes, “by almost any measure, Stott’s ministry at All Souls was a success” (77).
Stott was still on the ministerial team at All Souls for another five years. When the severance was complete in September, 1975, he wrote, “I find myself pulled and pushed in various directions these days, and need divine wisdom to know how to establish priorities” (Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott, A Biography: The Later Years, IVP, 2001, 248).
I found this comforting. It is remarkable how many good things there are to do. And if one is ambitious to live an unwasted life for the glory of Christ, discernment is crucial. Sudden release from decades of familiar pastoral expectations can easily lead to sloth or superficial busy-ness.
Stott’s discovery was that his calling was a remarkable global ministry. “As with Jim Packer, Stott gave himself to Anglican politics but in the end tired of them. Neither had an obvious, appealing role to fill in England. Both were in demand elsewhere. The result was that two of England’s most gifted evangelicals spent most of the end of their careers serving the church beyond England’s shores” (Godly Ambition, 111).
The thesis of Chapman’s book, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford, 2012), is that Stott “was both a Christian seeking to honor God and a very talented man who believed he had key roles to play in God’s work in the world and wanted to play them. In short, he combined two things that might seem incongruous: godliness and ambition” (8). With that double drive, “few did more than John Stott to shape global Christianity in the twentieth century” (160).
This ambition was as vital to the end of Stott’s days as his mental and physical life would sustain. One reason is that it was biblically grounded. Explaining his own understanding of ambition he said,
Ambitions for God, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world?
Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work — not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God. (156)
May every one of us, in the transitions of our lives, seek the kind of holy fire that gives both the light of discernment and the heat of ambition. All of it for the glory of God. This is my deep longing as I face whatever future God gives.
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