James 3: The Alternative to Selfish Ambition

james on work Mar 04, 2019

But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:14-17)

In James 3, we find plenty of wisdom for busy Christian professionals. Which of us doesn’t need a reminder to tame our tongues so that we might be more accurate reflections of Christ amongst our colleagues? But today, I want us to dig into the second part of James 3, and look at what the Scriptures have to say about ambition.

In verse 14, James warns us not to deny “selfish ambition,” but to recognize it for what it is: “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” Those are some strong words. But James isn’t finished. He goes on to say that “where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”

What exactly does selfish ambition look like? This is what James and we have already explored in James 2 with the admonition not to focus on what the rich and powerful can do for us and our careers, but instead being primarily concerned with how we can serve the powerless. Selfish ambition is when our work is primarily motivated by our own advancement, fame, and fortune, rather than service to others.

But while James comes down hard on selfish ambition, we must be careful not to write-off ambition altogether. Ambition itself isn’t what James is condemning here. Selfish ambition is. The Bible makes clear that there is a different kind of ambition that is not only acceptable, but commanded by the Lord.

Colossians 3:23 demands that “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” You and I aren’t called to simply punch a clock. We are called to lean fully into the work God has called us to do, and to do so ambitiously for his glory and the good of others. In the words of 1 Corinthians 10:31, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

How do we glorify God in our work? By obeying his commands, summarized by Jesus when he called us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). When God’s glory and the good of others is our primary motivation for our work, our ambition will be anything but selfish. Our ambition will be as James says in James 3:17, “pure…peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Let that encourage us today as we ambitiously pursue the work the Father has given us to do.


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