Are you doing something important with your life? Are you on your way to the top? Are you accomplishing your goals? Are you a lean, mean, success machine? Are you striving to make the American dream look like a nightmare compared to the treasure chest of your accomplishments?
These are all questions about ambition.
No, cliche Christian hippie, ambition is not the devil.
Paul made it his "ambition" to preach the gospel to as many people as he possibly could (Rom. 15:20).
The whole idea of stewardship revolves around the concept of doing as much as you can with what God has given you (2 Tim. 1:6; 1 Peter 4:10).
In its pure form, ambition is the desire to not waste your talent and opportunities by working hard, being disciplined, staying focused, and maximizing your potential. This kind of ambition is necessary for people and churches to grow and adapt in a changing world.
But ambition has a dark side.
Selfish ambition is denounced in the Bible, and it is this vain desire for success that becomes a destructive idol.
"Don't be dramatic. It's not that bad. Selfish ambition is an American virtue."
James calls it demonic (James 3:14-15).
"But even if you're succeeding for selfish gain others can enjoy the benefits."
James says that where there is selfish ambition, there will be "disorder" and "every vile practice (James 3:16)."
"My words don't taste good."
They never do.
Selfish ambition is deceptive because it can occur in every area of life, not just in the pursuit of an Ivy League education or Olympic gold. So what does it look like? Here are some questions to help identify if you've crossed the line from the utopia of godly ambition into the oppressive dictatorship of selfish ambition.
1) Do you find yourself evaluating the worth of others based on how much they can help you?
2) Do you value your goals over your relationships?
3) Do your goals cause you to justify sin (like cheating, lying, jealousy, envy)?
4) Is the pursuit of your goals leaving you physically, mentally, and emotionally destroyed?
5) Do you need acclaim or progress to be at peace with who you are?
6) Are you answering "no" to all these questions because you don't want to admit that you're selfishly ambitious?
These questions get washed away because the selfishly ambitious person hears something trite like "relationships matter more than success" and responds with "that's what quitters say." Selfish ambition is more addictive than an In 'n' Out burger laced with meth.
But to illustrate the point that selfish ambition is a ladder to nowhere, let's look at a biblical case study: King Solomon.
Allow me to put Solomon's accomplishments into a modern perspective: If he were in High School, he would be the record setting athlete with pro potential who got a perfect score on his SATs, published a best-selling poem, and took every girl in school to prom. And his future kids would already have a sizable trust fund. And he'd have his own party house and it would be bigger than his famous father's estate.
But with a motherload of life accomplishments, what did Solomon realize they were?
He didn't realize that they had less meaning than other things. They were meaning-less.
Because apart from God all selfish upward mobility in this world is pointless. The grave is the great equalizer (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6). Works of vanity get thrown into the fire and burned (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Solomon, despite being a genius, figured out this fundamental truth the hard way.
Selfish ambition splits families and churches like a rusty ax. And this secular article from The Atlantic presents a strong case that happiness is more dependent on relationships than career success. We, too, often learn the truth about selfish ambition the hard way.
So Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit (Phil. 2:3). However, he doesn't command this because it's bad for us. He does so because that’s what Christ did when he took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of death for others (Phil. 2:7-8).
The God who actually has a cosmic right to do nothing for anyone else took the form of a servant for the benefit of others. He came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). He taught that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of all. This is mind-blowingly countercultural. But this is what Jesus did because he loves us.
When Jesus is the Lord of our lives, we have the ability to consider others to be more important than ourselves and thus find the fulfillment that selfish ambition can only promise.