For twenty years, I’ve resonated deeply with the ministry of John Piper. Spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Don’t waste your life. Find your holy ambition. Over and over again, biblical exhortations like these have stirred me up with a vision of God and life and ministry that has shaped who I am and the choices I’ve made.
At the same time, I can look back over the last twenty years and see times when these exhortations have become distorted or twisted in my soul. The pressure they have created has come out in a dozen unfruitful ways in my life. The wrong kind of earnestness. A wretched kind of urgency. A thin and fragile kind of passion.
Clearly, some urgency and pressure is biblically demanded. The parable of the talents is really in the Bible, and there’s a real possibility of squandering the gifts and blessings of God. Jesus warned us about gaining the world and forfeiting our souls. So how do we ensure that our ambition is a Spirit-driven pressure and not a soul-crushing pressure? What keeps holy ambition from becoming wretched urgency? In seeking to spread a passion for the supremacy of God, how can we keep from being spread too thin?
As I near my fortieth year, I’ve found help on questions like these from a particular poem by John Milton.
Before Paradise Lost
John Milton (1608–1674) was nothing if not ambitious. From an early age, he recognized that God had endowed him with a remarkable intellect and considerable creative abilities. His holy ambition was to use these gifts in service to God.
At 21 years old, he published his first major poem, entitled “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” He composed it on Christmas morning in 1629 as a birthday gift to Christ (and subordinately, as a demonstration of his own poetic capacities). Milton was seeking to show that he was not going to bury his talent in the ground, but instead intended to use it for the glory of God.
“God’s aseity relieves us of the burden of being God.”
A few years later, he testified to his sense of the urgency of his task. Time, the subtle thief of youth, had stolen his twenty-third year. His days were flying on, manhood was just around the corner, and Milton felt he had very little to show for it. And yet, despite appearances, he entrusted himself to the will of Heaven, expressing his desire to avail himself of God’s grace in employing his gifts as he sought to live under his “great Task-Master’s eye.”
Of course, over thirty years later, in 1667, he would publish Paradise Lost, the epic poem of creation and the fall, and one of the greatest works of literature in the English language. But before Milton’s holy ambition came to fruition, he first had to endure his own dark night of the soul.
His Dark Night
In the 1640s, in the midst of a busy life in politics and the arts, Milton began to go blind. By 1652, his eyesight was completely gone. In “Sonnet 19,” he wrestles with the meaning of his blindness in the light of his holy ambition, and in doing so, he offers to us a useful measure to calibrate our own souls.
The poem opens with a consideration of his blindness. His light is spent before he has finished half his days. As a result, his “one talent” seems useless. All of his dreams of service to God through politics and poetry now seem like so many bubbles bursting in a summer wind. What good are his poetic gifts if he is blind and unable to use them?
His blindness is particularly troubling to him because in his middle age he is even more committed to serving his Maker. Perhaps the youthful lust for earthly fame and glory has burned away, and his ambitions have been more fully sanctified. And yet now he sits in a dark world, unable to see, but still contemplating the future day when he will give an account to God of what he did with the talents he was given. Meditating on the parable of the talents, he soberly anticipates the return of the Master, who chides the servant who refused to multiply his talent.
In his frustration, Milton asks, “Does God exact day-labour, light denied?” Will God really chide, rebuke, and even punish a servant for being unable to fulfill his calling because of blindness beyond his control? It is a foolish question, and Milton knows it. It comes from a place of complaining and grumbling, of frustrated hopes and evaporated ambitions.
Patience Confronts Ungodly Ambition
So Patience enters the conversation and speaks the final six lines to the frustrated poet. Patience’s words are both a rebuke and a relief, a correction and a comfort. And they challenge all of us who are tempted to let our service to God replace our abiding in God.
1. God does not need you.
God doth not need either man’s work or His own gifts.
Patience asserts God’s aseity. This rebukes the perennial human temptation to view ourselves as indispensable to God’s purposes. God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all things life, and breath, and everything (Acts 17:25).
“The labor that pleases God is a labor that embraces the easy yoke and light burden of obedience.”
When faced with the frustrating darkness that hinders our holy ambitions, we must remember that God’s purposes are always unhindered. He is entirely self-sufficient, suffering no need or lack or want, and a fountain of overflowing gifts. And even those gifts are unnecessary to accomplishing his purposes. God’s aseity relieves us of the burden of being God. Instead, we may revel in our own superfluousness.
2. Good labor bears an easy yoke.
Who best bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best.
Next, Patience reminds the poet of what God actually requires. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 may create a burden that can be relieved only by the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28–30:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The labor that pleases God is a labor that embraces the easy yoke and light burden of obedience. For his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Whatever pressure we feel in pursuing our holy ambitions, the faithful heart embraces the pressure as a mild yoke.
3. God has infinite resources at his disposal.
His state is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest.
Third, Patience testifies to God’s royal resources. Myriads upon myriads of angels work God’s gracious will in the world. They are ministering spirits, sent out to serve for the sake of those who will inherit salvation. “He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire” (Hebrews 1:7). God’s divine resources are infinite, and even the creaturely resources at his disposal are innumerable. Such knowledge again reminds us of our own superfluousness.
4. We serve best when we rest and rely.
They also serve who only stand and wait.
But our superfluousness does not render us purposeless. The climax of the sonnet is the final line, in which Patience brings the final self-awareness to the poet. Yes, the angels speed over land and sea to do God’s will. Yes, God’s saints are active in the world, laboring in his fields, and fulfilling his commission — both the original creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply, and the Great Commission to disciple the nations. But these are not the only kinds of service. Indeed, these are not even the best kinds of service.
“We serve God best when we know he has no need of our service.”
The best service is the kind that knows that, because God has no need of us, our first and fundamental task is to rest in and rely upon him. We magnify the worth of our Maker when we labor in the strength he supplies (1 Peter 4:11), even when that labor is not the work we expected. Whether we are hastening to fulfill our holy ambition, or sitting in the darkness wondering about God’s purposes, we serve him best when we know he has no need of our service.
In embracing our fundamental identity as creatures — as finite and limited beings who depend upon God always and for everything — we fulfill our fundamental calling as humans. And having done so, we are free to serve him in whatever way he deems best.