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 that comes with success. This kind of ambition propels men and women to trample competitors under foot and to climb over friends to achieve success. Once people with selfish ambition make it to the next highest level, they quickly kick down old friends who helped them 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 into 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. Then we 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 that is mostly pure. That part of our ambition that 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 percent 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.

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 that 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 bookstore 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.

Outward power and inward purity are two different things. People who seek God’s outward power, yet do not have His inward purity, are destined to collapse. Their great ministries are “houses of cards”—the higher they go, the greater they 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. The outer shell was magnificent, but the inner moral timber was infested with termites.

Yet God is glorified. How? Following the person’s 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).

Keith Drury, Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2004), 122–127.

We have just released a new Bible study on: Messy Relationships

These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.