Ambitious to be like God, Adam and Eve partook of forbidden fruit (Gen 3:1–7). Ambitious to be like God, Satan asked Jesus to worship him (Matt 4:9). Ambitious to be like God, man denies his God and seeks abomination instead (Ps 14:1–3). Even as Christians, unholy ambition remains latent inside and lurks deep within our hearts. Ambition is not always evil. A man who applies himself well and excels in his skills will stand among kings as his reward (Prov 22:29). Ezra was skillful in his work and stood before the king while enjoying the favorable hand of the Lord (Ezra 7:6). Good ambition seeks the glory of God in every way (cf. Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 15:28). But, like Adam, Eve, and Satan mentioned above, ambition can be evil, which is why we must hold our ambitious hearts in check.
Let Others Speak Your Praises
The book of Proverbs repeatedly reminds us not to seek our own glory in a self-serving way. We should not promote ourselves before others, lest we find our self-evaluation wrong and receive a demotion instead. The king will call us to himself if we are truly worthy (Prov 25:6–7). Our praise should come from others and not ourselves (Prov 27:2). As Jesus said, we should sit at the end of the table and wait for him to honor us as he desires (Luke 14:7–11; cf. Matt 20:20–28).
Ambition Fulfilled Might Rob You of Personal Joy
I remember a story of a celebrity killing himself because he achieved all the fame in the world and still found himself empty inside. Your greatest ambition fulfilled will still fall short of the joy of heaven. The Proverbs use the metaphor of honey to speak directly and indirectly to this matter. An ambitious man who ingloriously seeks his glory is like one who indulges himself with honey (Prov 25:27). Perhaps a good man might incidentally receive the sweetness of man’s praise, but even then, he should not seek it. Any praise from man is more than enough, and seeking it out will sicken the soul (cf. Prov 25:16). Gorging one’s soul on praise is like eating too much honey, leaving the sinner unsatisfied and unhappier than before (Prov 27:7). In fact, if a man is never satisfied with whatever glory he receives, it may be that he is guided from below (cf. Prov 27:20). Like Adam, Eve, or Satan, he will only stop when he takes the place of God, which God will not allow. A heart with this ambition can only bring darkness to the soul. (The Antichrist also comes to mind: cf. 2 Thess 2:4, 9.)
Self-Praise Means Nothing Before God
Paul dealt with ambitious false teachers from time to time (e.g., all of 2 Corinthians). Whereas they boasted in themselves, he told them to boast in the Lord instead (2 Cor 10:17; cf. Jer 9:23–24). Self-approval yields no commendation from God (2 Cor 10:18). The only thing that makes us worth anything in his eyes is Christ’s righteousness by faith. Like Apelles, a name likely unremembered by most (and even me until I just reread his name), we are “approved in Christ” (Rom 16:10). We can be a “nobody” in the eyes of man but righteous in the eyes of God, which is all the approval we need.
Man’s Glory Means Nothing in the Church
A classic passage to address the wrongful promotion of men within the church is 1 Corinthians 1–4. Some promoted Apollos, and others, Peter, Paul, or Jesus. (Jesus seems like a good option, but, given their context, it seemed pious as it meant the rejection of Apollos, Peter, and Paul.) Paul wanted the Corinthians to glorify God through all of these servants as they were used to grow the church (1 Cor 3:6–9). If we find ourselves ambitious, even within the church, we must remember that God above is the one to commend and no one from man below, including our own selves (1 Cor 4:1–5).
A Final Word
Ambition ruined Satan forever and Adam and Eve for a time. Thankfully, when Jesus was tempted with the world, he chose the Father’s cross over Satan’s crown. And then, in reward for his faithful obedience, God raised him up, exalted him, and placed him on his throne.
May God help us to be like Christ and keep our ambitious hearts in check. May we be satisfied with the Father’s approval of us in Christ. Knowing that God will graciously glorify us in time, may our greatest ambition be the glory of God alone.
Pastor Timothy J. Atkins
Husband, Father, Grandfather, Pastor, Teacher, Discipler, and Follower of Jesus.