Selfish ambition disorders the soul.
James paints a pretty sobering picture: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). The original word here for “selfish ambition”—eritheia—portrays those who, like prostitutes or corrupt politicians, demean themselves for gain. It underscores the idea that our self-exalting behavior boomerangs back upon us. We inflate our image only to discover our soul has shrunk.
John Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the early church, once said, “Men who are in love with applause have their spirits starved not only when they are blamed offhand, but even when they fail to be constantly praised.”
The Hero of My Story
Have you ever noticed how often our stories are just that—our stories? We become the cast, the script, and the plot, and our name is in all the credits. We’re on a quest for constant praise. And in the process we starve our souls.
I’ve had some soul-starving moments. I remember once when one of the elders from our team was telling me about a new initiative the elders wanted to undertake. I thought it was a great idea. In fact, I thought it was a great idea a couple of months ago when I thought of it and suggested it! Now my idea was being relayed back to me as if it had arrived by courier from some distant planet. There was no reference to me, my ideas, my greatness nor my glory. Nothing. Injustices like this had to be answered.
Maybe you’re thinking, “What did you do, Mr. Author-of-this-post-on-selfish-ambition? Did you quietly whisper thanks to God that, wherever the idea originated, there seemed to be common vision and alignment over an important initiative? Did you recognize that credit isn’t important anyway, that what’s important is that the church is being served? Did you remember that even if you did suggest it first, you probably got the idea from someone else?”
Not for a milli-second! My unanswered glory demanded that I speak. But because my friend was a discerning sort and would have certainly flagged any overt grabs for glory, I chose the more subtle, nuanced approach. Carefully referencing my prior conversations and convictions, I dubbed the idea wise, then added my appreciation for how the men around me are so easy to lead.
Real smooth, Dave. That’s what you call savvy politics.
No, that’s what you call raw, glory-grabbing, selfish ambition.
It’s the kind of ambition James describes as “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15). Yikes.
When I look back, I see myself sitting in my chair across from my friend. Like a hot air balloon, I’m there trying to inflate myself quickly so I can gain elevation in his eyes. The sheer stupidity wallops me all over again as I write these sentences. There was a lot of effort in that conversation to make myself big. But smaller was all I got. My selfish ambition overflowed in jealousy and moral worthlessness. Rather than getting excited about God’s work in and for the good of the church, I zeroed in my sense of need to receive credit for my idea. Empty vanity won the day.
Thankfully, God was faithful to convict me for my inordinate desire to receive credit for my idea. Mercifully, my friend was generous to forgive what I confessed to him a few days later.
The Real Hero
God’s aim is not to make you or I look great. He’s not on a mission to make sure that we get the kind of accolades that lead to our own self-promotion. Quite the opposite. He calls us to daily put ourselves to death so that others may flourish and his name be praised. Christ should be the true hero of the stories we tell.
My friends, godly ambition does not exist for our glory. When our glory is the goal, our ambition has become corrupted. It turns inward. It is selfish.
Let self-ambition die; you may be surprised by the life you find and the satisfaction you derive by giving glory back to the Savior– our True Hero!
Tenacious Tuesday Questions
Think of a time when you let self-ambition dictate your actions. What were (or are!) the results? Have they led to the promotion of God’s purposes in your life or the lives of others? What might godly ambition have looked like in that moment?
Lord Jesus, please teach me what it means to take up my cross and die to myself daily for the sake of your kingdom. Let my ambition be for the desire of your name, not mine. May you be magnified in my heart that you might be glorified in what I do for you.