The Dirty “A” Word

Kathy KyoungAh Khang


Good Christians usually don’t talk about ambition. Maybe we call it “holy ambition” because if we add “holy” it makes it okay. I’ve read some of the Christian response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and, in a nutshell, my take is that we Christians are uncomfortable with ambition. I’m afraid, however, that perhaps we have mistaken humility as the antithesis of ambition. 

And as a result, Christian women may be even more uncomfortable with ambition. I’m uncomfortable talking about it with Christian women until we’ve established some level of safety. I need to know they won’t judge me. That they won’t think I don’t love my children or my husband or my gender because I am considering applying for a promotion.

Sheryl Sandberg is in your face about it.

“This book makes the case for leaning in for being ambitious in any pursuit,” p. 10 (see, still in the intro!)

Any pursuit. Hmmmm. 

As Christian woman I have found it much more acceptable to be ambitious on the home front. Live for your kids and husband, perhaps in that order, because your husband isn’t around during the day and part of the evening, but that’s another chapter. Keep a clean and orderly home. Buy, make, grow, or raise the best, healthiest what-would-Jesus-eat food for your family. Be crafty and a wise steward of money. Be a godly wife and mother.

And that works well, particularly if you are married with children, and that life is something you want and you and your husband willingly agree to.

But not all of us Christian women want that. I want some of that, but I also want to work outside of my home. I enjoy teaching, preaching, speaking, and training. I love it, really. I enjoy writing, and I want to do more of it because (and I say this in a hushed voice) I think I’m good at it.  I enjoy developing those skills as much as I enjoy hearing my husband unload the dishwasher (he really is doing that right now) after I’ve whipped up an amazing meal (which I didn’t do tonight). 

My Christian Asian American parents helped me pay for college, and I enjoy stewarding that gift by also stewarding my gifts of leadership outside of the home. But I know that they have mixed feelings about my sister being a stay-at-home mom after getting a degree in business and about the amount of travel I choose to take on even though I have a husband. 

I just don’t know if it’s okay to say that I have ambitions outside of my home. My home life ambitions have been affirmed in Church. My professional ones? Not so much.


Is it okay to tell people I have ambitions? Do you tell people you have ambitions? Would you describe yourself as ambitious? 

Kathy KyoungAh Khang is currently serving as a regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Kathy is one of the authors of More Than Serving Tea.  Graduating from Northwestern, Kathy began her career as a journalist. Her time in the newsroom pressed her to consider how her passion for writing would be integrated into living out her faith in Jesus. Kathy and her husband Peter Chang live in the north suburbs of Chicago, and are honored to be the parents of Bethany, Corban, and Elias. Kathy continues to write on her personal blog More Than Serving Tea.


I absolutely postiively agree with your piece! I'm a physician with a promising career, despite the fact that I work only part-time to be a godly mother and wife. It's so rewarding and yet so much more difficult to juggle than I ever imagined. My goals feel like they're at odds with each other sometimes. I don't see it as serving two masters, ambition/prestige and God. I see it as using the talents God gave me the best I know how. I think He calls women to professional life. But I also think our christian brothers and sisters could and should do a better job of helping our young women prepare for the challenges that the life of juggling these really does present us. I'd love to read more stuff like yours. As a side note, I've been afraid to read Lean In because I'm afraid I'll want to vomit and feel more conflicted than ever.

Jan 4, 2014 8:22AM by MaryEllen

I think it might help if we drop the word 'ambition' for a moment because of its American cultural baggage. If God calls you to something, to pursue that is faith, not ambition. If you shrink from that it's disobedience and unfaithfulness.

That doesn't means the end justifies the means, of course. But we've associated selfishness with ambition for so long that the phrase 'selfish ambition' seems to be an inseparable combination.

Sep 8, 2013 9:18AM by

Beautifully described - for non-Asians as well. I talked myself in my 20s and 30s into a conservative female role. It didn't withstand real scrutiny. Thank you for sharing!

Sep 6, 2013 7:01PM by

As a single, 3rd-year graduate student, I find people in the church actively try to discourage ambition. When I admit I'd like to become a professor: "Well, maybe you'll meet a really nice guy." Or "I bet you'll meet a really nice guy." It's always with the underlying assumption that being a professor and being married are incompatible, or that:

marriage (no career) >>>> career(plus possibly marriage)

I don't want to plan to become a professor as my fallback in case I never marry. I don't want to research while always planning to exit science as soon as a guy appears. I'm good at science, I love it, and I love teaching it and mentoring students. I feel the joy of the Creator when I research his works. But I tire of trying to explain this to fellow-believers.

Aug 27, 2013 10:38PM by

Fantastic article. We are all called by God according to our unique design and some leaders are born women! What can I say? It's weird having to justify that, but at least you don't have to justify it to God. He's the One who created you/me/us to be specifically able to lead, write, manage, speak, create, nurture, engage, according to His own plan. The only way to really succeed is to go for it!

Aug 14, 2013 11:24AM by

I am with you Kathy! But my struggle goes even a bit deeper as I strive to understand a woman's proper Godly role in this world. Is this what God intended us to be - working more hours per day than seeing our children and husband? Hiring others to clean our homes, wash our clothes, cook our meals?

Sometimes I really wish the Bible were written in modern day times. I want to think that it's ok to be ambitious and work in a corporation "for the man", because most women genuinely feel good when we are productive. But I just have a feeling that this is not the "productiveness" that God wanted us to be involved in. For men nor women...

I have quite a traditionalist view of everything :)

Mary Beth

Aug 11, 2013 7:51PM by

Hi Mary Beth,
You should definitely read 'Jesus Feminist' by Sarah Bassey.
I read it having the same questions you did, and came out with a different understanding of what it means to be a woman in christ!

Aug 16, 2013 10:55AM by

I would recommend reading this Greek and Hebrew Scripture study, Gender roles in scripture are not as binary as always assumed. I've found it helpful to go back to the original Greek and Hebrew so I do not let current culture's taint on translation slip in too much.

I do however understand your point of both sexes not letting busyness distract us from God.

Aug 12, 2013 11:59AM by

Reading Lean In right now, and loving it! Thanks for sharing this!

Aug 11, 2013 4:01PM by

I LOVE this :) Thanks Kathy -- Keep on 'doing' :)

Aug 11, 2013 2:32PM by

You know what? As long as you are living your life to the Glory of God then you should go where your passion takes you. God made you, He knows what makes you tick and I don't think that He expects us to hold back for fear of what others might say or think.

Aug 7, 2013 9:30PM by

This is so great. It's so important to speak out and create safe spaces for other women to share these feelings also.

Aug 7, 2013 5:58PM by

For any women out there who are also reading Lean In, please follow Kathy's blog and contribute your comments. It has been many years since I was in grad student/GradIV community, and there's nothing quite like a safe place to think together about how we can "translate" things like Sandberg's thoughts into a Kingdom perspective. While I strive to find like-minded friends where I currently live, I appreciate the thoughtful musings on places like The Well and More Than Serving Tea.

Jun 7, 2013 8:59PM by

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