The Dark Side of Ambition

by Dr. Jim Nutter

As we began the New Year of 2019, many of us set goals or what some call “resolutions.” These may have involved healthier eating habits, getting more exercise, or even an increased number of books to read or a plan of reading the Bible through in a year. All of these are worthwhile, ambitious goals, but what should be the source of our ambition?

We generally consider ambition to be a positive quality in our lives. Those who are the most ambitious are the ones who are the most successful in life, right? They have the drive, the work ethic, and the motivation and persistence to get things done. These people are always busy, always moving, always speeding ahead. Emerson agreed, stating, “Without ambition, one starts nothing.”

But can ambition ever have a dark side? Are our motives, intensions, and desires always pure, or is pride a temptation that is a struggle for all of us? Literature is full of these people, like Icarus, who didn’t heed his father’s warnings and flew too high towards the sun, only to have his waxen wings melt, and he suffered the consequences of a fall into the sea that took his life.

In all, ambition is referenced eight times in scripture (NIV); but interestingly, six of those eight times the term is presented with a negative connotation and coupled with the adjective “selfish.” For example, in Galatians, Paul includes selfish ambition in a long list of “acts of the flesh” (5:20) that are to be avoided.

Exactly how far back in scripture can the concept of selfish ambition be traced? Some would argue that it appears as early as the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were given the Edenic Covenant, and they only had one job to do: not to eat of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (3:2). But we all know how that story ends: John Milton even wrote an epic poem about it called Paradise Lost. Likewise, the Apostle Paul warns of the dangerous consequences of knowledge: “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (I Cor. 8:1).

In the New Testament, James and Paul both warn us of the dangers of selfish ambition which we should take note of in this New Year. James connects selfish ambition with envy: “Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (3:16).

Furthermore, Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, contrasts selfish ambition with humility: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (2:3). Even Ben Franklin, one of our Founding Fathers and a self-proclaimed Deist, acknowledged our Lord’s humble spirit as an example to follow: “Humility. Imitate Jesus…”

In one of the few times that ambition is used positively in scripture, Paul advises, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (I Thess. 4:11). In another, Paul confesses, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel…” (Romans 15:20).

So as we serve the Lord, our church, and our community this year, may we do so with a genuine spirit of humility and a heart of service that is far removed from any selfish ambition.
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