What does the Bible say about ambition?

Ambition is a strong desire to do or achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. Whereas the world nearly universally applauds and encourages ambition, the Bible does not see all ambition as good.

The ESV translation of the Bible uses the English word "ambition" five times. Four out of those five times it translates the Greek eritheia, meaning faction, intrigue, strife, or contention, as "selfish ambition" (Philippians 1:17; 2:3; James 3:14, 16). The same Greek word is also used in Romans 2:8, 2 Corinthians 12:20, and Galatians 5:20. The fifth time, "ambition" is a translation from the Greek philotimeomai and refers to striving earnestly (Romans 15:20). This same Greek word is used in 2 Corinthians 5:9 and 1 Thessalonians 4:11.

Clearly selfish ambition is not what Christians are called to. For example, in Philippians 2:3, the apostle Paul commands believers to, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." Whereas by nature each man loves to be a king, by the power of the Spirit we are called to see others as more significant. Instead of seeking to be served, we are called to imitate Christ who came to serve (Mark 10:45). In the NIV translation of the Bible, Galatians 5:20 lists "selfish ambition" among the works of the flesh or sinful nature. On the contrary, the fruit of the Spirit, with which we are to be filled, includes joy, peace, and kindness. Selfish ambition is never satisfied, but Christians find their rest in God.

To be selfishly ambitious is to be earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic. James 3:14–17, "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." Just as the sinful nature is contrasted against the Spirit, so the wisdom from above and below is also contrasted. Selfish ambition breeds disorder and every evil practice. Even the preaching of the gospel can be done from selfish ambition (Philippians 1:17). Selfish ambition is never satisfied, but Christians find their rest in God.

So, does this mean that all ambition is bad? Certainly not! There is such a thing as good or godly ambition. The difference has to do with motive. Paul made it his ambition to preach the gospel but from a godly, not selfish motive (Romans 15:20). Paul’s desire was to preach the gospel in order to bring glory to God. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 he writes, "So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him." In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, Paul exhorts believers in Christ to, "aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands." Aiming or aspiring, or having the ambition, to live in a way that pleases God is certainly a good thing.

The alternative to selfish ambition is not sloth, but diligent work done for the glory of God. Whether in preaching the gospel, in working, in eating or drinking, or in anything else it is the motive of the heart that matters. What we desire to do most must come from a desire to please God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Our ambition should always be His glory.

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