We should dream big in serving for God. Ambition is a necessary part of the church’s mission in the world, and that includes our own big, lofty goals. But how do we guard against those lofty plans really just expressing our own self-aggrandizement?
Here is the specific question from a listener named Natalie. “Pastor John, I hear a lot of Christians today talking about ‘having big dreams’ and ‘dreaming big for God.’ In light of God’s sovereignty, how do I think about this? I don’t want to use God’s sovereignty as an excuse to not work hard and achieve all I can, but how do the concepts of having big dreams, and waiting for God’s plan, work together?”
It seems to me that the concern behind this question is that, in the pursuit of big dreams, we may be so eager in that pursuit that we try to make a name for ourselves and either miss God’s plan for us or maybe fail to rely on God’s power in us. So, at root, I think Natalie is saying there is a possible ego issue here.
The Ego Battle
But here is the catch. This is so helpful to me to realize. Here is the catch. Whether you have no dreams, cautious dreams, or big dreams, there is always an ego question, an ego battle. You can’t escape it by choosing small dreams. If you have big dreams, this may be owing to ego exhibition. If you have cautious, careful dreams, this may be owing to ego protection. And if you have no dreams, this may be owing to ego paralysis.
Any one of those cases is an expression of pride, not just the first. We often don’t recognize pride in the wallflower who hides in the corner, doesn’t put herself or himself forward at all, when, in fact, the withdrawn person who looks humble may be just as consumed with concern for ego as the guy who is out there in the middle of the floor attracting everybody’s attention to stroke his ego. They may be exactly equal, proud people in God’s eyes.
The Never-Ceasing Battle
Here is an illustration. When I was just starting out in my academic career at age 28, I had some big dreams about making a contribution academically to the discipline of New Testament studies. So, I wrote two or three hard, academic, technical articles and published them in big shot journals. And then after a while, I feared that maybe I was being motivated by ego exhibition.
“Whether you have no dreams, cautious dreams, or big dreams, there is always an ego question, an ego battle.”
So, I said to myself: Okay, I have to watch out for that. I am going to stop that, at least for a season, and devote all my energies to being the best teacher I can be for these students and serve them well. Do you know what I discovered? The battle with pride did not go away. It just shifted onto a new battlefield. Now I found out that I could get high student evaluations if I taught in a certain way.
So, the very same question had to be faced. Was I teaching for the sake of ego exhibition or for the good of the students and the glory of God? And what I realized was that no matter whether you are a public figure or private figure, the battle rages.
We are proud, selfish, fallen, corrupt, ego-protecting, ego-exhibiting people, all of us, all the time, without the Holy Spirit. And so, I made a choice to put writing back into my life not because there was no danger of pride there, but because there was a danger of pride everywhere and there was no escaping it. And in writing I thought I could do the most good. So, that is where the fight and the monster would happen.
What then is the answer to whether we should have big dreams or not? Let’s just take the apostle Paul as an example. Paul said, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. . . . But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain” (Romans 15:20, 23–24).
So, Paul was a driven man. Christ had given him a mission, and he poured his life into it. He would reach as far and as many Christless places and peoples as he could. He was going to Spain. Who knows what might happen in Spain with those barbarians? And that is where he was going.
“Every dream is a gift. And every accomplishment of a dream is a gift.”
He tells the rest of us that, in view of the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection, in every sorrow and every pain and every inconvenience, we will be rewarded a thousandfold. In 1 Corinthians 15:58 he says, “Be steadfast, immovable, always” — and here comes this phrase — “abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
What does that mean? I have thought so much about this phrase: “abounding in the work.” Do you know what that means? Lots of work. Lots and lots and lots of work. That is what abounding in the work of the Lord means. It means lots of work, and that is a big dream.
The key to whether that “lots of work” is going to be an exhibition of ego or deep reliance on Jesus is found in 1 Corinthians 15:10, where Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder” — so, that is that abounding in lots and lots of work — “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
So, my response is: Go ahead. Dream your big dream. Do your work, lots and lots of it. But never, never presume that you are doing it on your own. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it [as though it were not a gift]?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Every dream is a gift. Every accomplishment of a dream is a gift. And when we get to the end of life, we are going to say — I hope we are going to say — with Martin Luther on his deathbed, these last words out of his mouth: Wir sein Bettler. Hoc est verum. “We are beggars. This is true.”