Guarding Against Selfish Ambition
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”~ James 3:15–17
Selfish or Selfless?
“This is SPARTA!”
This was the catch phrase uttered by King Leonidas as he took his heroic stand against the Persian invaders in the movie “300”. Since the movie’s release in 2006, his “gung ho” resistance and love for Sparta has spawned many imitations. People loved the film because of King Leonidas’ selfless sacrifice for his country. Even when outnumbered and facing certain death, his love for Sparta drove him to defend it. The Persians, on the other hand, were driven by a different ambition. Their leader, King Xerxes, wanted to build a legacy for himself. Leonidus was selfless. Xerxes was selfish.
Sometimes the choice between selfishness and selfless sacrifice is stark. But at other times we may struggle to tell the difference. This is particularly the case in the area of “ambition”. Can a Christian be ambitious in the workplace? Should we take that promotion? Is it right for us to pursue that opportunity? Is it justifiable that we put my name forward in that report? Should we be jealous for that accolade that I ought to have received? These are important questions we face every day.
The Issue of Double-Mindedness
In his epistle, James addresses the issue of double-mindedness. He perceives his readers are divided in their devotion: devoted both to God and the world. We may also be double-minded in our workplaces: devoted both to Christ and to our careers. James exhorts his readers to be undivided in their service of Christ. It’s an encouragement we often need to hear.
James begins the short section in 3:13-17 by asking a rhetorical question:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.~ James 3:13
James explains that we can tell if someone is wise by the way that they live their lives. If they seek the “wisdom from above” they will be pure, peace-loving, gentle, open to reason, and possess other attributes that make for harmonious relationships (James 3:17–18). But if they seek the wisdom that is earthly and from the devil (James 3:15), it will be seen in lives full of jealousy, selfish ambition, and boasting (James 3:14). It may seem too bold to associate earthly wisdom with the devil. However, once we recognise that worldly wisdom is ultimately self-glorifying, it is not hard to see the link between selfish ambition and Satan’s desire to steal glory from God (James 3:16).
Such selfish ambition never satisfies us. It only breeds jealousy as we compare ourselves to others (James 3:16). This in turn spirals into disorder and ever vile practice (James 3:16). In other words, selfish ambition produces instability and improper deeds which guarantee negative consequences. Does that mean we should give up our ambitions altogether?
What is your ambition?
Ambition in and of itself is not bad. It all depends what our ambition is and who it is for. Paul makes it his ambition to “preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Rom. 15:20). This kind of ambition for the glory of Christ and the salvation of souls is clearly a good thing. On the other hand, Paul makes it clear that it is possible to “preach Christ out of selfish ambition” (Phil. 1:17). In other words, even when the outward action is right, it still may be sinful if it is done for the wrong motivation. So ambitions become sinful when we set our sight on the wrong thing or for the wrong reasons. When our ambitions begin to centre on self, it is clear that such ambition are borne out of earthly wisdom not God’s wisdom. When the most important thing isn’t serving Jesus or others, but that I be remembered for being first and best, we’ve already begun the dangerous path of selfish ambition. James warns us the that consequences will be disastrous.
How to guard against selfish ambition?
So what is the solution? How can we guard ourselves against the destructive selfish ambition that is all too common in our workplaces (and sometimes our churches too!) The solution is to ensure that we are pursuing the right kind of wisdom. In verse 17, James reminds us that godly wisdom is not earned but given.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.~ James 3:17-18
Godly wisdom comes from above and is the gift of God. Earlier in his letter, James encourages us:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.~ James 1:5
Reading the book of James is a good way to gain such wisdoms, as it challenges us not to be double-minded (James 1:6-8), but to be undivided in our devotion to the Lord. Ultimately, that wisdom comes from reflection on Christ and his cross, where God’s wisdom is perfectly manifest (1 Cor. 1:18-25). For Christ did not pursue selfish ambition but sacrificed himself for us on the cross (Phil 2:5-11). So Paul urges us:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,~ Phil 2:3-5
God’s wisdom manifest in the gospel has saved us from having to find fulfilment and satisfaction through our achievements. We no longer need to pursue selfish ambition so in order to earn acceptance from others or prove that we are valuable. We have been saved by grace and given a new identity in Jesus. As we reflect on Christ’s selfless service, our hearts are changed, so that we too set aside selfish ambition to serve others.
In conclusion, the way to guard ourselves against selfish ambition is to keep remembering who we are in Christ: our identity resting on his finished work on the cross. As we remember the selfless sacrifice of Christ, we will be freed from living for self to pursue the glory of Christ.
So what is your ambition? To serve Christ or serve yourself? Give up your small ambitions to embrace the greatest ambition of all: to glorify our Saviour.
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Gary Lee is currently attending Crossings Church in Singapore and was part of St Mary’s Cathedral Kuala Lumpur. He is an engineer by profession and has a passion for seeing the Gospel upheld and proclaimed in the work place. He desires to see Christians continue to find their identity and rest in Jesus Christ whether in the workplace, home, neighbourhoods, schools and Church.
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