Philippians 2 – 1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
What does this say to me? For me it requires that I question myself on every decision that I make. What does “selfish ambition” or “vein conceit” really mean? I’ve pulled together some references, but it’s very clearly anything with selfish motives (even if they are “good” and can seem God-glorifying).
I think of this song by Mainstay, Take Away, where the artist says, “Ruin my agenda, holy as it never was.” I know that I try to claim that my plans and agendas are holy and of God, but they are only me attempting to fool God and manipulate Him into my agenda. For some reason, I like to set forth on things that most people will think are good and godly, yet I know that I’m only doing it for their praise and that my God isn’t really all that trilled at all.
I also think of those preachers who only want to grow their church just because bigger is better – it’s somehow validates their worthiness as a pastor. Vein conceit comes to play when I think of people that manipulate others in some way. It’s this idea that my idea and way is better and I don’t respect your idea as on equal footing as mine. It’s this conceit rooted in vanity (or pride) for whatever reason – age, intelligence, physical abilities, etc – just our abilities. I consider those (our abilities) vain – only because everything is given by God out of grace. For we deserve nothing and have nothing except by the grace of God. We are no better than anybody else because we simply can’t weigh the value of traits because all of them are given at His discretion; who are we to judge value?
James speaks of “selfish ambition” as earthly, unspiritual and demonic “wisdom” (James 3:13-16). The Lord himself warned against seeking first place (Matthew 20:26-27), desiring power, prestige and wealth (Luke 14:10). Jesus called his disciples to a life of self-sacrifice that gives priority to God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
As a work of the flesh, selfish ambition is present when we define ourselves by our achievements, rather than by our character. For many men, and increasingly for women, the choice of career represents an “idealized fantasy of who one is or might become . . . the medium through which these dreams are enacted and judged” (Ochberg, p. 3).
Symptoms of this selfish ambition are relentless striving with an inability to rest, discouragement at the lack of recognition obtained for one’s hard work, predatory competition (even in Christian leadership), use of the present situation (and people) as a stepping stone and an “endless itchiness for other possibilities” (Schnase, p. 17). The Bible leaves little room for exalting human achievement and constantly points us in the direction of exulting in God’s achievements. But our motives are always mixed, and a theology of grace accepts humanness just as it is. At the same time it points to something better. Because ambition is not uniformly evil, it is a risk worth taking.
Somehow, I need to check my motivations consistently and have my friends relentlessly question why I live my life the way I do. I’ll have to agree with Socrates when he says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, I invite you to examine my life each and every day. For, I give myself too much slack. Plus life is way more fun examined and alongside great friends.