Be ambitious; work hard for yourself. Take care of yourself first, so then you can take care of others. Succeed for yourself so that you can be proud of the life you have built. I’m no stranger to these principles. Enduring a challenge, being critiqued, striving for excellence, these are concepts I find exciting. They’re the ingredients to the American dream; woven subtly into our thoughts, they give birth to selfish ambition. The world teaches selfish ambition with full force because apart from God’s mission, it’s the only way to survive. But “this is not the wisdom that comes down from above” (James 3:15).

When I think of holy ambition, I think of the Apostle Paul. Paul was willing to give up what the world called beautiful for what the world called atrocious. He gave up status. He gave up comfort. He gave up glory. He gave up his own life to become a fool for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 4:9-11). This is godly ambition, the antithesis of self-ambition.

Wisdom From Above

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. James 3:13

James explains the solution to a small thing that causes huge problems: the tongue. Untamed communication causes a world of destruction. So how do we know when someone is actually wise? James teaches that wisdom is founded in deep, meek trust in a holy God, which sets sinners free from demonic self-promotion. Trust in God doesn’t free you to promote yourself; trust in God frees you to not need promotion at all. In our depravity, our thirst for promotion, recognition, raises and accolades is natural; it’s also demonic. But in Christ, we are free from thinking or striving or pretending as if we deserve any praise at all (Eph 2:8-9). The kind of person that needs no praise is the kind of person that controls their tongue.  

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. James 3:14

We assume the best about ourselves. We assume that, surely, we can’t be tasting the taint of bitterness as we watch another person get the promotion we deserve or while we daydream about winning the lottery. Knowing you should be happy for others’ success does not equal embodying joy on behalf of others. You can know you should rejoice with those who rejoice, but knowing doesn’t mean doing (Rom 12:15). Bitterness is the opposite of a tamed tongue. Selfishly ambitious people drop subtle hints about their awesomeness. They lace their conversations with their resume or list the ways they’ve served. They exaggerate, maybe just ever so slightly, to shine themselves in a dim spotlight. This person wants honor and devotion . . . in other words, deserved recognition and a devoted platform.

This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. James 3:15

God doesn’t mince any words through James’ writing. He casually and intently lets the progression of his description go from bad to horrific. Selfish ambition is earthly. It’s unspiritual. It’s demonic. No bones about it, the desire to be ambitious with even a hint of selfish-intent derives from the cosmic powers of Satan himself.

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. James 3:16

James defines wisdom by describing its opposite. The opposite of wisdom is bitterness, jealousy, and selfish ambition. These traits are derived from Satan and produce conflict, wickedness, and pain—disorder and every vile practice. This is true if people see it, but it’s also true if the sin is never outwardly displayed and only detected within a restless, unstable heart. What’s shocking is that this passage is talking about Christians. If there’s conflict between brothers and sisters, God teaches that their conflict and therefore, lack of wisdom is connected to their bitter jealousy and selfish ambition that comes from Satan.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. James 3:17

James finally describes wisdom as the opposite of selfish ambition. Wisdom is selfless, easy to get along with, tender-hearted, sober-minded and reasonable, compassionate and genuine. In other words, Jesus is wisdom personified (1 Cor 1:30). You’re not going to find authentic versions of these attributes boasted about on social media. You’ll find them in Jesus alone. These attributes are rare because they’re holy. Therefore, they’re not possible through human flesh alone, but are made possible only through he who calls us to repent of selfish ambition and commit to die (Phil 2:3). Wisdom is available when we deny the world’s version of ambition, when we say no to being great and loving success, and when we say yes to serving through pain and entrusting ourselves and others to the One who judges justly (Phil 2; 1 Peter 2).

Help for Selfish Ambition

Selfish ambition is demonic. Let that sink in. Eventually we all find places where self-promotion has seeped into our hearts and minds and perverted the things we are doing—even things we’re doing “for the glory of God.” From parenting to working to driving down the road to the friendships in our neighborhoods, bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are rampant.

Thankfully, Jesus understands. James reminds us that “we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2).  Jesus is the only one who is the perfect antithesis of selfish ambition. So much so that at the right time, for the ungodly, he gave up his own perfect soul for the sake of ours (Rom 5:6). He said no to what he deserved (Phil 2:6). He laid down his crown, his glory, his honor, and what was due him. Not only did he lay it down, he suffered for it (Phil 2:7). He suffered and experienced the worst pain for those of us who would need help with our demonic, selfish ambition (Phil 2:8).

Because selfish ambition is demonic, Jesus is the only answer. We must repent and lay down our lives for a relationship with the One who gives us new life (1 Peter 1:3). Here are some questions that will help us detect where dressed-up ambition has deviously found its demonic way into our hearts:

+ In what areas do you get easily “frustrated”?

+ In what areas do you want to look really good to the people around you?

+ Where do you find a hard time not getting your own way?

+ Where do you struggle to speak kindly and slowly?

+ Do you disguise selfish ambition by describing yourself as a perfectionist, goal-oriented, or trying to give glory to God?

+ Where do you tend to exaggerate when you’re in front of family, friends or co-workers? 

Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.