Scripture is consistent in condemning selfish ambition. Some might struggle with how to accurately determine when ambition is selfish. How do we know when our ambitions are selfish, and how do we know when they are healthy and ordered?
What Is the Difference Between Selfish and Righteous Ambition?
First, let’s be reminded that anything we do, any good works are nothing to the Lord (Isaiah 64:6). Despite our best efforts, despite all of our hard work, in the Lord’s eyes, they are all utterly meaningless.
So, anything we do holds no real merit in the eternal sense and does not earn you points with God and men or mark you as more righteous than others. So, how does Scripture refer to those with selfish ambition?
- Proud, arrogant, unholy, without self-control, filled with conceit (2 Timothy 3:2-4).
- Those of selfish ambition seek their own interests, not the interests of Christ (Philippians 2:21).
- They bring disorder and every vile practice (James 3:16).
- They will be the recipients of God’s wrath and fury (Romans 2:8).
Those are some pretty harsh words, but the truth can often be difficult to hear. Especially if it is exposing our own weaknesses and sins.
In contrast, Scripture says we are to be humble, truly loving and take no concern for our own self-aggrandizement or recognition. Righteous ambition is revealed as the following:
- It seeks the highest good of others, with no concern for one’s own wants or needs (1 Corinthians 10:24).
- It is not boastful and does not insist on its own way, nor is it resentful (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
- It bears each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
- It serves not to please itself, but to build up others as Christ did (Romans 15:1-3).
Each of these points us back to the character of Jesus Christ. He sought the highest good of every single man, woman, and child that has ever, or will ever exist. He did so selflessly, setting aside His divine rights, becoming a man, and delivering Himself up to corrupt, sinful leaders who mocked Him, beat him, and murdered Him.
They labeled Him a criminal when He was perfectly innocent of all sin and wrongdoing. He never complained. He did not become resentful during His passion and demand to be recognized as the Messiah.
Not once did He complain that He worked harder or deserved better. That is our example. Everything we do, every good work should be done with that same heart. This is the very heart of discipleship. Jesus made that very clear when He explained the cost of discipleship (Luke 9:23).
Discipleship is a daily denial of our own selfish ambitions, preferring the will of God, which is perfect, to be done in and through us at all times and in every place. There is no room for your will or my will in the temple of the Holy Spirit. Sinful, unclean things only serve to defile a holy place.
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19).
What Does Selfish Ambition Look Like?
Bob was a good guy. He had a nice family, was well-liked by his co-workers, and was considered a righteous man in his church. Bob was the guy who, when the chips were down, would always be the first to step up and offer his help. It did not matter what that required. If that meant Bob would have to give money, he gave generously.
If that meant that he had to drive miles, he drove. If it meant that he had to work all weekend repairing a needy friend’s house in the summer heat, or helping to dig draining ditches, Bob was always there. In his church, Bob always got involved in any ministry effort that was made available to him.
When his church arranged evangelism teams, he was eager to be involved. They would go out every Wednesday, sharing the gospel downtown. After each outing, they would gather back at church for prayer and discussion of the day’s events. Nobody was singled out for praise or a pat on the back, but everyone was thanked for their efforts.
No medals were passed out, no trophies given, and no certificates awarded. After about three weeks Bob began to grumble about the team. “I’m the only one really doing much,” he complained. “The others come and go, but none of them is as dedicated as I have been. And do I get even so much as a little recognition in Sunday services? No.”
Bob’s attitude grew more and more negative about the evangelism team until he finally quit in righteous indignation. The pastor took Bob aside one Sunday and said, “Bob, can you tell me why you quit the evangelism team?” So, Bob unloaded.
He detailed how he was there consistently every week, how he talked to more people than the others, how he bought his own tracts to pass out and even shared them with the others, but he was not appreciated for his hard work.
The pastor calmly listened and replied, “Well Bob, we expressed appreciation for everyone’s help. Sure, we did not single you out, but that does not mean your contribution was unappreciated. But I want to ask you about something here, my friend. What was your motivation for doing this? Was it to be in the spotlight? Did you want to be praised for your part? If that is the case, then I think you need to reflect more on the condition of your heart, because your motivation is wrong.”
Bob was upset at first and skipped church the next two Sundays. Finally, the truth of what the pastor had said to him dawned on Bob, and he returned to church and thanked the pastor for confronting his bad motivation.
We are all like Bob at some point in our lives. We do not think we have been recognized for our hard work or talents, and we get resentful. This resentment is a symptom of selfish ambition.
Why Does ‘Do Nothing Out of Selfish Ambition’ Matter?
So, when that awful voice of disordered, selfish ambition starts chattering in your thoughts, remind yourself of your call to self-denial. Pursuit of the truth and good are to be our rule of life.
“True things must be preferred to false; eternal things, to those that are temporary; useful things, to those that are pleasant. Let nothing be pleasing to the sight but that which you see to be done with piety and justice. Let nothing be agreeable to the hearing but that which nourishes the soul and makes you a better man…If it is a pleasure to hear melodies and songs, let it be pleasant to sing and hear the praises of God…For he who chooses temporal things will be without eternal things. He who prefers earthly things, will not have heavenly things” (Lactantius).
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J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.