Ever wondered what kind of ambition reigns supreme in your heart? How can you test whether your pursuit of glory is more about you and your little kingdom than it is about God and his great kingdom?
Sometimes it’s obvious. The surrealist artist Salvador Dalí once said, “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing ever since.” First he wanted to serve others good food. Then he wanted to rule Europe. Then he realized that Europe might be too small to contain his greatness.
If you’re relating to Dalí right now, then you probably need no further diagnostics.
More often our own hearts are mixed. We dwell in shades of darkness. We have goals that we want to pursue, that we’re excited about. They appear to be for the sake of God’s purposes. But how can we really be sure?
Not What I Say But What I Do
In his brief letter to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” James gives believers (and leaders!) a little test to peek behind their actions and discern what is driving them. “Look,” he says, “at what you do”.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13–18)
In this part of his letter, James is teaching people how to live with folks in reasonable harmony. He starts with a pop quiz: Who is wise among you? The answer is, You’ll know the wise by their works. Conduct reveals wisdom. James wants us to look at our choices and actions. What will we see? There are only two possible answers.
We may see “wisdom from above,” which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason,” and a bunch of other wonderful things that make for harmonious relationships (3:17–18).
Or we’ll see that other kind of “wisdom”—the kind that’s “earthly” and “unspiritual” (3:15). This wisdom from below sails beyond nasty to downright “demonic.” It’s a word that points to the author of ambition-gone-bad, Satan himself.
When self-glory becomes the axis of our ambitions, we repeat the first-ever coup attempt when Lucifer tried to depose God and steal his glory. And the results are always the same.
What We Do Towards Others
The way we test our ambitions is by looking at how we conduct ourselves towards others. How do you relate to your peers? Staff? Co-workers? Family? People suffering or marginalized? Are you jealous of their accomplishments or the good things God is doing in their lives? Are you tempted to withdraw because the relationship appears to bring no advantage? Are you growing more focused on ways that they could serve you?
This kind of ambition is “selfish” ambition where we move ourselves to the center of our glory-drive. When ambition curves inward, it gathers energy for a gravitational field that attracts new glory. But instead of launching great deeds in the service of God, we’re more likely to launch massive monument-building campaigns for ourselves.
The result is, in James’s lingo, “disorder and every vile practice.”
There is another way; another order of ambition. Fueled by a heavenly wisdom, this ambition is of the God-centered variety. The kind that makes his glory the aim of every work. Because it doesn’t curve in but bends us out towards others, it seeks for what makes peace with others. It deals with them in a gentle manner. It doesn’t twist anything for its own gain, but acts with sincerity and impartiality, even towards those from whom it stands to gain or gains nothing.
This was how people encountered the Savior. His ambition was for his Heavenly Father. His heart was to serve and sacrifice for His people. Everyone was treated equally. And his death and resurrection now provides the power for us to break free from the tractor beam of self-glory.
God treated Christ as we deserved so that he could treat us as Christ deserved.
So how do we test whether our ambition is fueled by that glorious gospel-truth? Look at how you treat other people.
What behavior characterizes the way you think about other people in your life? Are you using them for personal gain? Or are you following the Savior and seeking opportunities to serve?
Heavenly Father, help me to walk in the path of divine wisdom from above, seeking not my own glory but yours as I position myself to use everything you give to serve your kingdom purposes.