Godly Ambition vs. Selfish Ambition: The Destructive Difference

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What is the difference between selfish ambition and godly ambition? There are several passages in the New Testament that warn against selfish ambition.

I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. (2 Co 12:20)

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. (Php 2:3)

But then Paul says, that ambition is good.

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. (Ro 15:20)

…and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you. (1 Thess. 4:11)

Different Greek Words

It is important to note that in Greek, unlike in our NIV bibles, the words are completely different. In other words, Paul doesn’t say ambition vs. selfish ambition, but uses philotimeomai for ambition that is positive and eritheia for the ungodly form of ambition.

Philotimeomai means ambition or to aspire to a goal. Paul says that we should be ambitious to preach the gospel where His name is not yet known and ambitious to lead a quiet life. By the way, I find it funny that in these two examples one is a very aggressive, bold ambition of a frontier evangelist and the second one seems to say the opposite—live a quiet life.

He describes two people with different callings or maybe, the same person, but in different situations:

  1. Someone like himself, called to endure great suffering and many challenges to get the gospel to others. (2 Cor. 4:7-12) His ambition fuels him toward this mission.
  2. The other is a someone in the congregation, not called to such a dramatic life—but still called to share the good news. In v. 11 he says that we should be ambitious to live a quiet life—but what is his goal? “so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (v. 12)

I think that speaks to us today, as many in America have forsaken both the quiet life, which is part of our witness, for a very loud life in voicing opinions on politics, coronavirus, the deep state, the infamous Q, vaccines, etc. This is precisely what Paul warns against. It becomes counterproductive to the goal of being a witness. It takes up lots of time and bears little to know kingdom fruit. Remember, our main commission from Yeshua is to preach the Gospel.

Paul mentions this to Timothy in how we relate to government:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Tim. 2:1-2)

How do we relate to politicians? We pray and intercede for them and even give thanks for them, so we can live a “peaceful and quiet live.” By peaceful and quiet he means—that we can focus on the kingdom, and government will have little involvement in troubling us. And, like always, it leads back to souls, as we see in verses 3-4…

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. While I started this study to contrast ambition and selfish ambition, there is a real revelation from Scripture for us today.”

To summarize:

  1. Make it our ambition to live quiet lives.
  2. To pray for those in secular authority and give thanks to God for them.
  3. Our quiet lives will keep them out of our lives.
  4. So we can focus on winning souls.
  5. Which is Paul’s other great ambition—making Messiah known in other nations.

Selfish Ambition

Eritheiathe word used for selfish ambition implies doing something out of bad motives—”implying rivalry” according to the dictionary of biblical language. It suggests a factious motive, divisive and sectarian. Look at the other words that surround eritheia in 2 Corinthians 12:20:

  • discord
  • jealousy
  • fits of rage
  • slander
  • gossip
  • arrogance
  • disorder

Selfish ambition promotes division and can turn believers against each other. It promotes improper speech and leads to pride.

I’ve had the great privilege over the past few years too work in the faith-based television and media industry with GOD TV. I have seen many in this field seek to push themselves forward. Everyone picks up on their sense of self-importance.

Manipulate to Minister?

A few years ago an old acquaintance contacted me out of the blue. He said he saw me on Facebook and wanted to reconnect. I gently reminded that the last time we talked he gave me a prophecy that God was going to ruin all my relationships in Israel because he perceived I had sinned. I told him that God had blessed our ministry in Israel over the past 17 years and that his prophecy was false. I told him I would love to reconnect, but we should deal with that issue.

He quickly replied and repented, but added, “Actually, it makes me think of another leader that may have been affected by some words I spoke to him also. Do you have Ward Simpson’s contact info?”

At that point, I was fairly certain that the only reason he was contacting me was to get on TV with Ward. He did contact Ward…but not to apologize. In fact, he never even brought up the issue, but did ask to be interviewed on GOD TV for his new book.

That is selfish ambition. And we fall into it when we can’t trust God to open up the doors that need to be opened in our efforts to serve God. It’s quite funny when you think about it. God is the best promoter in the world and He knows exactly when we have achieved enough character maturity to handle success. Remember, the higher the calling, the more you need godly character. (Ask Paul about this thorn in the flesh!) Selfish ambition distorts God’s perfect timeline.

If you don’t have the grace, you don’t want the promotion

I have seen wives, push their husbands into positions of authority in ministry, because they wanted it for him. Years ago, there was an opening in a congregation to which I was connected for a senior pastor. A man stepped forward, at the urging of his wife. The problem is that he didn’t have the grace for the position. He was selected and it ended up being a disaster on every level. Many people were hurt. Relationships were broken.

You see, the great danger of selfish ambition is that it puts you in places where you do not have grace to be. And it can be very dangerous. It’s only by the grace of God that we overcome the attacks of the enemy. When you push yourself into a position of ministry, it’s like driving a car without oil to grease the gears.

I’ve seen people beat up spiritually by the enemy because of selfish ambition. I have seen lives destroyed because of people without sufficient character, were promoted because of their charisma.

I’ve seen ministers shamelessly push themselves into positions of authority or influence. It is one of the reasons I love my best friend Ward Simpson so much. He leads GOD TV without any desire for fame. He simply wants to please God and extend the kingdom. Years ago, he was asked to introduce the president of Israel at a meeting. Another minister expected that he would receive that honor and when he saw that it was given to Ward, he simply left the meeting. And sadly, this man has a reputation, even amongst unbelievers, of pushing himself to the front. We need to run from selfish ambition!

It brings to mind the good advice from Proverbs.

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles. (Proverbs 25:6-7)

Godly ambitions are good but selfish ambitions can destroy us. And it is very difficult at times to discern between the two. It’s very important to go honestly before the Lord and have him examine our motives. You can do the Lord’s work without the Lord’s heart and even bear fruit…look at Samson. But in the end, you could be ruined…look at Samson!

Ambition in and of itself is not good or evil, it depends where it is coming from. If we had no ambition, we would never do anything. A good metaphor would be the way men are attracted to women. If God did not create men to be stimulated by what we see with our eyes, we would never pursue our wives, which would be devastating to the human race. But there’s only one woman that I am called to pursue that way, and if I pursue other women with the same desire, I am perverting God’s system.

In the same way ambition is good if we’re pursuing the thing that God wants us to pursue with the heart of humility.

This article originally appeared on Messiah’s Mandate, March 4, 2021, and reposted with permission.