Other "Thinking Drafts" and writing by Keith Drury -- http://www.indwes.edu/tuesday .

 From: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by Keith Drury
(c) 1989 Wesley Press

Chapter 7


... Abandoning Selfish Ambition

"Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant." Matthew 20:26 (NIV)

Do you want to be great? Do you have a burning passion to leave your tracks on the sand of history? Do you hunger for success? Do you desperately want to "make it" in life? Would people call you a "go-getter" or "ambitious"? Are you "on your way to the top"? If these sorts of words describe your quest for success, perhaps you have sometimes wondered if your healthy dose of ambition has tinges of selfishness in it.

Several years ago a bright young fellow on his way to success posed a serious question. This guy was a hard-working, promising lad. He always showed up, did his assignments with excellence, and inevitably put out the extra effort to achieve excellence. I call this sort of fellow a "sharpy," "producer" or "comer."

This bright young man came to me deeply disturbed. He wondered if his motivation was wholly proper. He thought there must be such a thing as good ambition. But he wasn't sure his unquenchable thirst for success was pure. In fact, he confessed he suspected it was mostly impure. He sensed he wanted to get ahead simply for the power, prestige, money, and influence it would bring him. "Is this wrong?" was his question.

What would you have said? What's the difference between good ambition and carnal one-upmanship? How can you tell which you have?

There are some people who worry too much about their motivations. These Christians don't get much done in the world because they're always checking themselves for improper motivations. Like hypochondriacs, they constantly invent spiritual illnesses. This is the devil's trick to keep such tender Christians preoccupied with themselves instead of a needy world. I'm not addressing these remarks to such folk. If you have such an extraordinary sensitivity, this might even be a chapter to skip.

However, if you seldom worry about your motivations, and are a hard-driving, success-oriented person, the Lord may have some words specifically for you in this chapter.

Motivation and Ambition

Right intentions can purify a foul deed. The New Testament repeatedly reminds us that we can be judged "blameless" by God if our intention is pure...even though the actual result falls pitifully below the absolute standard of perfection. Because of ignorance or spiritual immaturity, we may offer up a "spotted sacrifice" to God in our words, thoughts, or deeds. Yet, if our intention was pure -- completely hungry to please God -- He pronounces us "blameless" in His sight. God holds us accountable for what we say, think, or do purposefully.

In this, God does nothing more than we would do. For instance, last year my house was in desperate need of painting. Due to a pressing travel and speaking schedule, I determined to hire a painter to do the job. After mentioning it one night at the dinner table, my twelve-year-old son piped up, "Hey, Dad, I'll paint the house...I really could use the money." What was I to do? I took the risk and gave him the job.

He recruited another twelve-year-old to help him and plunged into the work with a hearty vigor (which began to wane as the hot days of August passed!). After several weeks he had finished the job and was ready for my final inspection and his pay day. He had worked harder than I had ever seen him work before. I could see that he had taken special care to avoid spilling drops of paint and splotching the trim paint on the siding. He had carefully scraped and peeled away large slabs of the old paint before adding the fresh coat. In some places he had carefully applied two coats to ensure complete coverage.

As we slowly examined our way around the house, I noticed an occasional slip-up -- a smudge of blue trim on the siding, or a few drops of yellow paint on the shrubs. As we completed the final inspection, I was remembering that he had never painted anything before in his life. I was justifiably proud of his hard work. As we finished the tour, he turned and gazed expectantly into my face. "How'd I do, Dad?" he said.

What do you think I said? I responded, "David, you've done a perfect job!" and gave him a great bear hug in appreciation. I paid him... even gave him a bonus.

Would God do less? No. He considers our experience, the difficulty of our assignment, our maturity, and the motivations of our heart. Like a loving father, He sometimes pronounces our work "perfect" even when He can see a smudge here and there. Only God has the wisdom to pronounce us blameless. Only He knows our true motivations. When our motivation is pure, God pronounces our deed pure.

Conversely, a pure deed can be polluted by foul motivations. Jesus reserved His most scathing condemnation for the Pharisees. They loved to engage in holy activities -- especially praying and giving -- but did these things out of impure motivation...to be seen of men or considered holy. An impure motivation can defile the best of deeds.

So what does all of this have to do with ambition? Much! Ambition in itself is not wrong. Sin enters the picture at the motivation level. Why are we ambitious? It is our motivation for getting ahead and the methods we use which determines the sinfulness of ambition. Consider three levels of ambition:

1. Holy Ambition

Some ambition is outright "holy." Holy ambition is a pure, pointed mandate from God. It is a call to complete a task or a mission. It is closely connected with the ideas of "call" or "destiny." Holy ambition is knowing for sure that God is calling you to do something. You believe you have "come to the kingdom for just such a time as this." It is hungering for obedience to your Master more than for mere accomplishment and success. Holy ambition produces a calm, unruffled drive like that of Jesus Christ, who never seemed to be in a hurry yet always knew where He was headed. Holy ambition is the conviction that God has called you to do something, and nothing in or under the world can stop you. It is a holy compulsion driving you to achievement as a matter of obedience, not as a matter of personal success.

Holy ambition drives you to succeed because you believe this is God's will for you. Not a general kind of will -- in the sense that God expects all of us to do a good job -- but in a personal way. It is a compulsion from God. You feel that God has "called" you personally to achieve this thing. You believe that God intends to accomplish this special work through you. It is His will, not yours. You are certain that this is God's will for your life, and you feel "destined" to achieve it.

Holy ambition isn't common.

2. Human Aspiration

This kind of ambition is neither good nor bad, it is simply human. God has created us with a longing for acheivement, fulfillment, even greatness. We have a hunger for significance, a desire for something better, something lasting. All of us have this yearning, Christian or not. This innate desire to achieve, to create, to improve, is stamped on our nature by the Creator. It is a glimpse of one way we are "created in His image." It is a drive to do better, to accomplish something, to leave something worthwhile behind us.

These human aspirations are not sin, they are wholesome. This desire for excellence, accomplishment, and betterment comes from God. Most all progress in civilization springs from this God-given drive. Christians, of all people, should fan these human embers of achievement into flame, for He is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is as work within us" (Ephesians 3:20 NIV). Most of us are achieving far below our potential. If we fear success, somehow thinking that failure is holy or honorable, we are wrong. Jesus clearly taught that the man who buries his potential in the ground will receive strict rejection from his Master (Matthew 25:26).

God expects you to invest and multiply the talents and opportunities He has given you. For He is the one who has given you the desires of human aspiration. These are neither good nor bad -- what they lead to will determine your goodness or badness.

3. Selfish Ambition

Here is the lowest level of ambition. Selfish ambition crosses the line from human aspiration into selfishness because the motivation is impure. Selfish ambition is sin. It springs from the flesh. It is the desire to be lord over others -- to possess the power of success. It is the desire to beat others, be number one, win for winning's sake. It is "healthy competition" turned into "hellish combativeness." Selfish ambition is a hunger for power, prestige, and status. It thirsts for recognition, rewards, and the influence which comes with success. This kind of ambition propels men and women to trample competitors under foot, to climb over friends to achieve success. Once a person with selfish ambition makes it to the next highest level, he or she quickly kicks down old friends who helped him or her get there. They are no longer useful in climbing to the next step of greatness. It is this third variety of ambition which is sin and out of place in the Christian's life.

Mixed Motivation

For most of us, our aspirations cannot be neatly divided between the three levels: sometimes there is mixed motivation in our desire for achievement. While we may not claim that our ambition is of the holy type, we usually feel it is of the wholesome, human variety. At least, mostly so. Mostly? Herein lies the problem of selfish ambition. Who would say that their ambition is wholly selfish? Few. Such a person is not a Christian at all. But a believer may come to recognize that his ambition is partly selfish. Satan does not attempt to turn wholesome ambition evil in a day or even a year. Rather, he injects the poison of selfish ambition...one drop at a time. Each tiny additional drop seems minute compared with the whole. We may not even recognize this poisoning process at first. Even when we recognize it, we dismiss this part of our motivation as inconsequential. We then comfort ourselves with the thought that our motivation is "mostly" pure.

But these tiny drops of selfish ambition multiply and taint our entire motivation. The devil, once given a foothold, is intent on expanding his territory. Like yeast, selfish ambition soon spreads its influence throughout the whole dough of our heart.

No serious Christian can be satisfied with ambition which is "mostly pure." That part of our ambition which is selfish must be cleansed, or it will stain the whole.

Degenerating Ambition

Ambition has a tendency to start out right, then get off track. Human aspiration can be 100% wholesome at first, yet later derail into selfish ambition. We can start out with a clean God-given desire to succeed; yet, as time passes, selfish ambition leaks into our motivation and we become selfish. We must constantly be on guard against the devil's attempts to introduce microscopic molecules of selfish ambition into our motivation. We must be constantly aware of these attempts to subvert our wholesome human motivation. It is clear that human aspiration can degenerate into selfish ambition.

Being "Power Hungry"

Even more serious is the degeneration of holy ambition into selfish ambition. God may call a man or woman to some great task. At first, this person's motivation is completely holy. He or she is obsessed with following God and God alone. However, as this great man or woman finds success, Satan begins to introduce the twin sisters of success: pride and selfish ambition. Soon our spiritual giant allows selfish ambition to make its bed beside the original holy ambition. The two lie together, and the "great man of God" becomes tainted by selfish ambition.

This is the danger of seeking a powerful anointing from God.

Do you hunger for more power from God? Have you heard stories of D. L. Moody and Charles Finney who merely strolled through factories and people fell under a powerful spell of conviction...just being in their presence? Do you yearn for this kind of anointing? If so, God may answer your prayer. Seeking is the way to finding. God may answer your prayer.

Many pray for this power from God. In fact, there is an increasing number every year. Their desire seems so pure, so consecrated...so godly. Yet, underneath it all there is often something dark going on. Their desire for power from God is sometimes impure. They crave God's power for selfish purposes. They yearn for the success and fame which accompany God's anointing. They covet the benefits of God's anointing more than the anointing itself.

Sometimes God answers these selfish prayers. Startling, isn't it? He sometimes grants power to unworthy vessels. I know of one preacher who led a great moving of the Spirit in a meeting...yet several afternoons that week, he sneaked off to a nearby adult book store to feed his own lustful cravings. Another powerful preacher was having great outpourings of God in his camp meetings, yet for years he had been lying about his past achievements, even inventing a fictitious doctorate for himself. A great author who had a powerful influence on my life turned out to be an adulterer.

What's going on here? How can men or women have such power when they are hollow inside? Once the truth comes out, we ascribe their use by God to mere human charisma or crowd psychology. We are wrong. They probably were anointed. God does not always immediately withdraw His power or authority from corrupt vessels. Frightening, isn't it?

How could God do such a thing as this? Why does He not reserve His power for only the purest and most deserving of His followers? Why grant it to hollow men or women? We don't like the answer: He sometimes imparts His power to such men and women so that all will eventually see their true inner bankruptcy.

For outward power and inward purity are two different things. Men who seek God's outward power, yet do not have His inward purity, are destined to eventual collapse. Their great ministries are "houses of cards" -- the higher they go, the greater their fall. When God answers their prayer for power, they are increasingly used in the Kingdom. They plunge onward and upward, constructing an ever-expanding ministry teetering on a foundation of sand. Finally, their personal tower of Babel reaches God's predetermined limit. It all comes crashing down in moral collapse. They exit in ridicule and humiliation.

The rest of us scurry about covering up the mess to preserve God's reputation and the church's good name. It doesn't work. The truth gets out. Everyone eventually discovers that this "great leader" was a hollow hero. His outer shell was magnificent, but his inner moral timber was infested with termites.

Yet God is glorified. How? Following his downfall, the church lays aside its secular preoccupation with outward power and talks in hushed tones about the importance of inward purity for a time.

Do you hunger for more power from God? Have you been selfishly seeking God's outer anointing on your life? Beware. Just as He answered Israel's prayer for a king, God may answer your prayer. But if you do not have His inner purity, you too will collapse.

It is clear, isn't it? Even our quest in spiritual matters may become tainted with selfish ambition. Like Simon Magus, we can hunger for God's power with selfish motivation (Acts 8:19-21).

How to Recognize Selfish Ambition

But how are we to know if our ambition is selfish? Is there some test we can take? Is there some wise sage we can visit who can tell us for sure? It's not that easy. However, with some reflection, the Holy Spirit is always reliable to point out sin in our lives. This is His work. Give Him a chance to speak, and you can be sure that if you have any selfish ambitions, He will expose it. Ponder the following questions as you listen to the Spirit. Is He saying anything to you? With Samuel, tell Him, "Speak, Lord, your servant listens." If He points out something, respond obediently. If you hear nothing, then joyfully move on to the next chapter with a clear heart. But if He speaks, seek His cleansing of your ambitions. Ponder these questions. Parhaps grade yourself with an A, B, C+, D in each of the areas:

1. Am I more interested in the glory than the goal?

2. How do I feel when someone else starts to accomplish "my thing," or fulfills my dream...do I rejoice or have a tinge of jealously or envy?

3. Am I preoccupied with the means more than the goal?

4. Do I visualize myself doing or being the dream, or do I visualize the recipients receiving the benefit of my work? It is need-oriented or ego-oriented?

5. Am I infatuated with power, money, prestige, influence?

6. Is my ambition short term, or has it been long lasting in my life? Has it "marinated" for several years, or is it really merely a temporary brainstorm?

7. Is it specific and definable, or inspecific and hard to explain?

8. Is it need-oriented -- growing out of a burden to serve people, or does it grow out of my desire for achievement?

9. Do leaders -- those in spiritual and administrative authority over me -- give me confirmation of this ambition? Do they say, "Go for it," or are they giving caution signals?

10. Do those around me "sign up," volunteering to help me accomplish this great ambition?

11. Am I obsessed with the accomplishment of this great goal?

12. Am I willing to "pay the price" to see it happen, or do I want someone to hand it to me on a silver platter?

13. Can I see it...can I visualize the results?

14. Do my spouse, parents, and other Christians confirm this ambition to me?

15. Would I feel "released" if God raised up somebody else who did it better than I?

16. Have I dropped past friends and associates who helped get me where I am?

17. In what way would God get glory if I achieved my deepest ambition?

18. Have I compromised any of my personal standards to get where I now am?

Prescription for Selfish Ambition

Do you sense that part of your ambition is stained with selfishness? What are you to do? Is there a means of purifying your human ambition? How will you keep it pure?

This is not one of those areas where you seek a single cleansing, then forget the problem forever more. True, you may need a crisis cleansing of your selfish ambition. You may need to "die out to your dreams." You may need to offer up your dreams on the altar. But dead ambition may rise again to haunt you. The devil doesn't give up that easily.

However, you need not feel that you are plagued with this sin forevermore. Selfish ambition can be crucified. If you take the antidote, the poison of selfish ambition can be neutralized in your soul.

1. Reflection.

Take some time for introspection. Not the morbid kind of self-abuse some do, but a positive time of silence and listening before the Lord. Give Him a chance to speak. He is not an angry, brutish God seeking to crush you under the load of your weaknesses and sin. Rather, He is a loving Shepherd seeking to gently nudge you onto the paths of righteousness. Take some time -- at least a bit -- for Him to nudge you. Don't put this book down without taking a few minutes to listen to what He has to say to you. Read over the list of questions listed earlier. Ask, "Is my ambition selfish? Any part of it?"

2. Call it by name.

If you sense the Lord pointing out selfishness in your desire to achieve, call it by name: selfish ambition...sin. Until we concede a particular attitude is sin, we will seldom see it purified. Once we call it by name, victory and cleansing can come. Be honest. Name it.

3. Confess to another.

It may not be absolutely necessary, but you will make great strides toward victory if you share your inclination to selfish ambition with a dear friend. This humbling act will give you a powerful jump start toward banishing selfish impurity from your ambition. This person may even agree to hold you accountable... checking in with you from time to time on the extent of your progress in casting out selfish ambition. If you were to do this, with whom could you share such a thing? Is there someone you could trust enough to confess this selfishness to him or her?

4. Die out.

It's an old fashioned term, but worthy of reconsideration today. Die out! It means surrendering personal hopes, aspirations, and dreams on God's altar of commitment. It is sacrificing your personal ambitions on the altar of consecration, like Abraham offered up his son. Dying out is surrendering your most precious desires for achievement to the Lord, assuming you will never get it back. (You may, but if you assume so the sacrifice is not totally surrendered.)

Dying sometimes takes time. Though there is such a thing as "sudden death," more often death is a slow (and painful) process. You may enter a period of dying out. Selfish ambition dies slowly. It tenaciously clings to life. This sin may die at once, or die gradually, but you can start the process of execution.

5. Recognize that God's focus is inward.

Our secular mindset sometimes overtakes us. We assume God, like us, is more concerned with what He does through us than what He does in us. In this we err. If God has a preoccupation, it is with our inside -- our attitudes, thoughts, motivations, and personal purity. Inside quality lasts; outside quantity fades. When we realize God is more concerned with our inner attitudes than our outward success, we will be able to lay aside our secular fixation with "climbing the ladder."

6. Focus on Christ as your example.

Are you ambitious? Then think of Christ. How would you measure His success? Was Jesus a "winner"? Would you consider Jesus Christ a high achiever? Was He a ladder climber? How high did he climb? Did He make it to the top?

He did! The height of His career was played out at the top of Calvary's hill. Like us, His disciples wondered who would have the place of precedence -- to His right and left -- when He came into His kingdom (Matthew 20:21). When Jesus hung on Calvary's hill to the right and left hung unknown thieves, on cruel crosses.

Jesus "had it all." He was God's Son. He was God. "Very God" reads most creeds. Yet he humbled himself to become a man, a common carpenter. He chose to be obedient to God. This was success for Him. Obedience. Even unto death. Painful death. Death on a cross.

And what did the Father do? God then exalted Him to the highest place of all. Didn't the Father give him a name which will ultimately send every knee bowing? Isn't this how the Father responds to humble servanthood?

In our obsession with our own success we sometimes lose sight of Jesus Christ. We "pig out" on "success formula talks" by others who have "made it." Each has his or her own "ten steps to success" for us. Some flaunt their wealth, influence, and power as evidence of their success. We are impressed. We too begin to hunger for worldly wealth, fame, power. And selfish ambition is born.

Rather, we should look to Jesus. We should seek the attitude Jesus had: willingness to "give it all up" in order to obey the Father. Jesus' example inspires true success: obedience.

7. Seek cleansing.

Some sins we can lay aside with God's help. Others we can seemingly drop ourselves. A few sins, however, require radical surgery from God. Selfish ambition will not be beaten by a simple 1-2-3 "how to overcome" prescription. God's grace is great enough to forgive you of this sin. But His grace is even greater than that: He will cleanse you of this inclination. God's grace is radical! It seeks nothing less than the total transformation of your entire life into Christlikeness. If you have selfish ambition, you must do something about it. But you need not rid yourself of this taint by yourself. God is able to grant you transforming power to correct this fleshly attitude. His grace is great enough to cleanse this selfishness of the spirit, purifying your ambition. This is the kind of God you serve!

Now, What about You, My Friend?

Has God pricked your own soul about your ambition? Do not listen to the voices about you. Listen to God alone. What does He say? Do you have selfish ambition? Is your ambition partly selfish? If so, seek God's cleansing. Seek the death of this yeast before it spreads its evil leaven into the whole loaf of life. God will do it. He is in the transforming business. Ask Him and see!

Bible Study

  1. Luke 22:24-26.

    -- What were the disciples arguing about? (v.24)

    -- To what did Jesus liken the disciple's attitude? (v.25)

    -- What way did Jesus suggest is to show greatness? (v.26)

    -- In what way did Jesus give these men an actual illustration of what he taught here, later that day? (See John 13: 1-17)

    2. Luke 14: 7-11.

    -- What were the guests doing that Jesus took note of? (v.7)

    -- What does Jesus recommend doing in a social situation where honor is being shown? (v. 8-10)

    -- What universal law of social position did Jesus give? (v.11)

    3. Philippians 2:3-11.

    -- What motivations does the Bible exclude for any act? (v.3)

    -- How are we to consider others in comparison to ourselves? (v.3)

    -- Is it wrong to look after your own interests? (v.4)

    -- What is our standard of attitudes related to ambition? (v.5)

    -- What happened to Jesus as a result of His humbling Himself? (v.6-11)

    4. Scripture Search. In each instance below name the person involved with their particular ambition.

    -- 2 Samuel 15:1-13; 18:18

    -- Esther 5:9-13

    -- Matthew 20:20-21

    -- 3 John 9

    -- Genesis 3:5-6

    -- Isaiah 14:12-15

    5. Personal Reflection.

    -- What in your life might be termed "holy ambition"?

    -- What desire for achievement do you have which seems to you to be wholesome human aspiration?

    -- If selfish ambition were to creep into your desire for success, where might you notice it first?

    6. Personal Reflection. What is one single thing you could do in response to the truths in this chapter?

    -- An action to take:

    -- A promise to make:


 From: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by Keith Drury
(c) 1989 Wesley Press
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 To contribute to the thinking on this issue or to contact the writer e-mail Tuesday@indwes.edu