The Evil of Selfish Ambition
By Jon Speed
“Christianity is not a means for someone to find his own glory. Christianity is a means for one’s glory to be extinguished.” Martin Luther
I struggle with selfish ambition. There. I’ve said it.
Why is it so hard to admit this? Clearly, it is sin. But it’s the sin that is culturally acceptable in American Christianity. We admire this in our leaders and we encourage it with our children. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal to say so, but it is.
It is sin. It is rebellion against a holy God. My conscience knows it is true. My biggest problem is me.
Like any sin, I want to justify it. “I’m just trying to do my best for the Kingdom of God.” “I’m just trying to encourage others to be more evangelistic.” “It’s all about souls; I care about people’s eternity.” “I’m bold.” “I’m doing what Jesus did.”
Nah. That’s a bunch of baloney.
The truth is, there are times when I am more interested in building my reputation and my ministry than I am about building the Kingdom of God. I want people to know who I am and what a wonderful gift I am to the Church. Seriously. That’s closer to the truth.
Recently I read about one of the master manipulators of Biblical history; King David’s son, Absalom. Take a look at 2 Samuel 15:1-6 to get the low down on Absalom. Here we have the characteristics outlined of the sin of manipulation for the purpose of self promotion.
• Appearance trumps reality.
Someone who is a manipulator is someone who makes things appear to be more than they are. Truth in reporting is not what they do. Absalom is all about keeping up appearances. In verse 1, he gathers together chariots and horses and fifty men to run in front of him as he approaches the place where business was conducted in ancient Israel: the city gate. In other words, he organizes a parade for himself. He wants to be a big shot where the city elders make decisions and people congregate. It’s not likely that any of these men were from David’s court, but people probably thought that they were. This was by design.
There are a lot of ways to make things appear to be greater than they are. You don’t need your own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to do it. In the world of Youtube, and on websites, if you are creative you can make your ministry look impressive. But who are you trying to impress? And why? Answer those questions honestly and you’ll learn a lot about yourself. If we are really doing what we do for an audience of One, then why does anyone else need to know about it?
I understand that there are benefits for sharing testimonies of what the Lord has done on the streets. There is a place for it, as long as it is done in humility. There are practical reasons to share what the Lord is doing in ministry. For example, our ministry has financial supporters, and they want to know that we’re not living in semi-retirement under the guise of doing evangelism.
But there are things that we do that no one needs to know about. There ought to be things that we do, outreaches that we plan, that are simply for the Lord Jesus and no one else. I think this is a good safeguard over our hearts, which will keep our motivations pure on the advertised outreaches.
• Beware the man who always tells you what you want to hear.
As Tonto once said, “White man speak with forked tongue.” Absalom certainly did. Here people came from all around to speak to the official representatives of King David about their issues. Absalom makes a point to bring his parade to the gate and then intercept those who traveled to the gate. When he did, he feigned interest in each person. “Where are you from? What is your problem?” No matter what they said, his answer was always the same, “You have a serious issue! You’re right to be concerned!” He probably nodded his head as he talked, narrowed his eyebrows and showed his concern. Absalom is a salesman.
It is at this point that Absalom sows the seed of doubt in his own father’s leadership. Check out verse four: “Oh, that I were made judge in the land, that every man who hath any suit or cause might come to me, and I would do him justice.” Don’t miss this. Absalom is under the impression that he, by himself, has enough wisdom to answer every problem in the entire Kingdom! Absalom is full of himself.
Matthew Henry points out, “We read not of Absalom’s wisdom, virtue, or learning in the laws, nor had he given any proofs of his love to justice, but the contrary; yet he wishes to judge.” There is not a shred of evidence that Absalom has any experience in these matters at all. All he really wants is power.
Mark the pattern well. The effort to win over the masses by being everyone’s friend is always followed by a power play. It was not Absalom’s goal to make friends for friendship’s sake. Worse, Absalom is not content to live life under his father. It is not enough for him to live the life of royalty amongst the people of God. He is not content unless he is running the show, unless he is the big kahuna.
[There’s much more to say here, but stop for a moment. As John Piper has reminded us, we are content with far too little. Sometimes, I feel like I won’t be content unless our ministry is well funded or well known. This is treason. It is blasphemy. I should not be content unless I am resting in the presence of Christ. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee” (Psalm 73:25).]
Folks, it is easy to get people to like you. Just tell them what they want to hear. Once you have the support of a lot of people, you can make a power play. Power plays come in a variety of forms, but in the eyes of God they are always ugly. The motivation is not political power on the scale of a king, but it is still political. If we get to be respected enough, we may receive an all expenses paid outreach opportunity, get invited to speak with other big name preachers at a conference, or garner financial support so we can become full time evangelists, or get some evangelistic celebrities cell phone numbers on our speed dial.
None of these things are wrong by themselves; what is wrong is using the arm of flesh to gain these advantages rather than the calling of God. Absalom did not have that call. In fact, the Bible tells us exactly what his calling was: to be a judgment on David for his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:10-11). What if some of the angling for position in the evangelism community is a judgment upon it?
• Beware of false humility.
Humility is a virtue in all Christian circles. It is especially rare in ministry. Yet we all know we ought to be humble. Even the most arrogant know that they ought to be humble.
Have you ever wondered why it is that false teachers gain a following? Sometimes their bad doctrine is so obvious it’s embarrassing. One reason they gain followers is because they have a show of false humility. You can almost see the horns growing out of their heads, yet some act as if they are the second coming of the apostles. Why? Somewhere along the line their followers fell for a show of false humility.
Absalom lays it on thick. In verse 5, people came bowing before him because of his position as the king’s son, as well as the success of Absalom’s PR. What does he do? “No, no, don’t bow before me. I am just a man. Stand up, my friend.” He treats everyone as an equal and greets them with a kiss. Did Absalom really think he was no better than any man? Absolutely not. When you are gunning for the highest position in the land by means of deceit you’re not exactly looking to serve others. In the Kingdom of God, the one who leads is the one who serves.
And that’s the giveaway, isn’t it? There is no real service going on here. Absalom wants to lead by talking his way into leadership. He almost pulled it off: his PR campaign worked. Verse six reports that he “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”
What Absalom has done here is take the tools at his disposal in order to become king--his position, wealth, and charm—and used them to imitate a calling of God. He did not get a call from God but he wanted one. So he took matters into his own hands and tried to “build” a calling.
Many people want to be called into ministry and are not. Therefore, they try to “build” a ministry and hope that God will bless their efforts. They hope to convince God that He is wrong to have neglected them by building something in the flesh that will impress Him.
In literature there is a story of a man who dropped out of medical school but who wanted to do something great in the history of science. He wanted to create life. In essence, he wanted to play God. So he gathered all of the necessary parts: arms, legs, internal organs, feet, hands, and a brain. He put them all together and on that table of death he had something that resembled a man. But it was not a man. It was still a corpse. He did not have the breath of life in him.
Dr. Frankenstein wanted to animate the corpse with real life, but he wanted to do it without God. So he strapped that corpse on a table, hooked it up to some wires and chemicals, and zapped it. He created life of a sort, but the monster had no life. It was a walking, breathing, and even a talking contradiction. It looked like a man, but was not a man. Listen to what Frankenstein’s monster said:
“I was endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of
the same nature as a man…When I looked around I saw and heard of none like
me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and
whom all men disowned?”
This realization sends the monster into a rage against his creator and mankind. Dr. Frankenstein intended to do something that would bless the world, but God’s blessing was not upon it. His invention became a curse to himself and his friends. Too late, Frankenstein admits his mistake:
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is
the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes
his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his
nature will allow.”
It doesn’t take much to build a ministry these days; less than ever before. If you have a computer, an internet connection, a credit card, some additional funding, Absalomesque ambition and the ability to go out on the streets and pass out pieces of paper; voila, you have a ministry. Put the ingredients together, zap it with the electronic glow of a computer screen and you are “official.”
Why do we do this? Somehow there may be a desire within us that aspires to become greater than what God has called us to be. Or, as Stephen Charnock once said, “The most forlorn beggar has sometimes thought vast enough to grasp an empire.”
Please don’t get me wrong. There are people who are supposed to be doing full time ministry. If you are called to it, be bold and passionate about your calling. Pursue it with every ounce of energy you have!
But if you are not called, shut down your ministry. I’m not saying “stop evangelizing.” I am saying, shut down your ministry. There is a world of difference between the two. As God said to Jeremiah, “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.” Be content to serve as a Christian in your local church. Share the gospel without anyone ever knowing you have done it. Labor in obscurity. Bury yourself in your family, in your church, and on the streets of your community. Bury yourself in prayer, fasting, reading the Word and study. Serve your employer as if you were serving Christ Himself. Find your joy in Christ! If you are not called to ministry, but you faithfully serve Christ, you will hear those cherished words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into thy rest.”
If you are not called and you persist in “ministry”, beware of the damage that your monster can do to the Body of Christ. The corpses of the disillusioned, the apostate, the burnt-out, and those who have lost their families litter the “harvest fields” of evangelism.
I know many people who don’t think that establishing your calling is important. After all, we are all called to share the gospel, right? Keep in mind I’m not talking about sharing the gospel. I’m talking about full time ministry. Calling mattered to the Apostle Paul. He did not go out on his first missionary journey without the recognition of his calling being affirmed by the local church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-4). His internal call was confirmed by the external call witnessed of the leadership of the church in Antioch
If you ARE called to ministry, the best cure for manipulation is contentment. Someone who is content does not manipulate. If you struggle with this, I highly recommend Jeremiah Burroughs’ classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. The book is readable, saturated with Scripture, and will change your life.
Another big issue is humility. Study what the Scriptures say about humility. Recently a dear friend recommended the book Humility by C.J. Mahaney (probably because he knows me well enough to know that I needed it). It is a short book, but it will convict you of your pride. In addition to your study of the Scriptures, this book will help you apply what you learn.
Finally, if you are called to ministry and walking with Christ in humility and contentment, beware of those who are not. Modern day Absalom’s surround you. More likely than not, they are slapping your back and selling you on their personality. Your job is not necessarily to expose them (unless they are heretics or in blatant unrepentant sin), but you must avoid them and their deceptive tactics. Read the rest of the story of Absalom. God has a way of catching up with Absalom’s. You should run from them. Keep your distance. When God sends Joab along to deal with them, you don’t want to be anywhere in sight.