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. (James 3:14-16, ESV)
Every generation has sins that they hate, shame, and take seriously. And at the same time, every generation has certain sins they have made peace with—sins they do not even name. Selfish ambition is one of ours. It has taken decades (literally) of me reading the Bible to recognize this in my own life.
How ridiculous is it that we can read a Bible verse dozens of times over the course of years and years and yet fail to see what it is actually saying? Our spiritual blindness is deep.
Selfish ambition is a sin that shows up in plenty of places in the New Testament. On multiple occasions, Jesus’s disciples argued amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest. Paul lists selfish ambition among other sins in Galatians 5:20 (see the NIV translation). In Philippians 2:3 he writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3, ESV) In chapter one of that same book, Paul points out that some actually preach Christ out of selfish ambition (Phil. 1:17)!
You will see it displayed over and over again in the Old Testament as well, although rarely with those words selfish ambition. In Jeremiah 45:5, God tells Baruch, a scribe who helped Jeremiah in his ministry, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.”
That verse truly gets at the heart of selfish ambition. Are you seeking great things for yourself? Do you long to be praised by others? To be considered an expert in your field? To climb the ladder of your profession? Do you daydream about growing your own influence or platform?
What’s ironic is we often praise people for these desires. Even Christians do it, especially when we are trying to encourage our young people. We have been so trained and conditioned by our culture that we no longer recognize selfish ambition as the sin it actually is. It is one of the sins we do not name.
Just the other day, I was reading a few online articles about selfish ambition, and in the middle of the page on one of them was an advertisement with the heading, “Your Mission is Too Important to Go Unheard.” It was an ad for an online course about how to grow your online platform and influence. But the astonishing part was, it was produced by the very same man who wrote the article I was reading! Apparently there was no thought given to the hypocrisy of an ad for a course telling people how to increase their online platform placed within an article about the sin of selfish ambition! Again, our spiritual blindness is deep.
I have recently seen selfish ambition in my own heart. I hate it. I’m praying that God would help me put it to death by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). Even as I write this very article, and post it to social media so people will read it, it creeps into my heart.
What we should aspire to is not a greater sphere of influence, but a peaceful contentment in whatever situation the Lord has placed us. We should long for hearts that daydream not of growing our own influence and importance, but of building up and serving others. Paul showed us the holy opposite of selfish ambition in Philippians 2:3—counting others as more significant than yourself.
Jesus attracted crowds because of his miracles, but crowds weren’t his focus. They were not his goal, or even his satisfaction. Instead he committed to going deep with twelve men for three years, and going even deeper with just three of them. Has the Lord given you one person to pour into, to influence, and to affect for his glory? It is enough.