So we have considered desire, envy, and competition, and we now come to ambition. To address the subject rightly, we have to recall what we learned thus far. There is a certain kind of desire that every human being has to deal with, and this is a desire that tends to veer toward envy. If God has not given us the grace of being able to see this in ourselves, we will come into competitive situations motivated in the wrong way entirely. And the same thing is true of our ambitions. Our ambitions will lust after what God has never given.
“And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, When thou art bidden of any [man] to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:7-11).
Christ tells us a parable that reveals His shrewd humility. But at the same time, if we understand Him, we see it is a true humility—this kind of thing offered up to God as a “trick that He won’t see through” is obviously crazy. This must be done before God openly. On one occasion Jesus saw a bunch of people jockeying for position somewhere, angling for that elusive place of honor (v. 7). He then told them a parable about the seating arrangements at a wedding, and He said not to take the seat of honor (v. 8). If you do, a more honorable guest will certainly show up, and the host will have to take you down a few notches, perhaps all the notches (v. 9). Voluntarily take the lowest place, He says, and you will be invited up—to the applause of all (v. 10). And having said all this, Christ gives the principle. The man who exalts himself will be taken down. The man who humbles himself will be exalted (v. 11). This is because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). This is a principle that runs throughout the Lord’s teaching, and throughout the Bible. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Up Pride Mountain:
Our culture has been profoundly shaped and affected by the Lord’s teaching. This is the case even though numerous individuals don’t have the heart of the matter within them. The obvious rightness of the Lord’s requirement is nevertheless reflected in our customs and manners in a way that was not true in the ancient world. But all this means is that the subtlety of sin has to take an extra hairpin turn in its way up Pride Mountain. We now have folks taking the lowest place as the way of manipulating situations and looking humble to boot. But just saying the right thing (like the Pharisee in the temple) is not good enough. We don’t want to be like the woman in the old blues song with “a handful of gimme, and a mouthful of thank you, honey.”
Confusion and Ambition:
We need to know what the adversary is—because if we have been paying attention, we already know where the adversary is: in our own hearts. “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but [is] earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife [is], there [is] confusion and every evil work” (James 3:14-16). The word rendered as strife here is a particular kind of strife—it is not the strife of two armies colliding, but rather the strife that results from electioneering or campaigning. Positioning would be another word for it. The NIV renders it well as selfish ambition; we might say striving ambition. Now, who is the running mate in this campaign? Two times James tells us—envy, bitter envy. If this is the condition of your heart, don’t lie to yourself about it (v. 14). This ambition does not come from above, but is diabolical (v. 15). And where you have envy and this kind of ambition together, you have “confusion and every kind of evil work.” Always. This striving, this ambition, comes from a love of honors, a love of glory (Mk. 12:38-40), which is coupled with a hatred of the road that God has required for all who would come to His kind of honor and glory. We don’t like that road because it runs through a deep valley.
A Two Way Street:
The person who is ambitious like this is begging for the opposition of God. Confusion and every evil work will dog him. God does not just make positive promises (“if you humble yourself, you will be exalted”). He also makes negative promises also (“if you push yourself to the front, He will see to it that you are set back”). When the disciples on the road got into an argument over who was the greatest, He spoke to them this way. “And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, [the same] shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35; cf. 10:42-44). There are two ways to take this, both healthy.
We do not live in a pyramid world—which is another way of saying that glory and honor are not zero-sum games, any more than anything else in God’s plan is. If you think that only one can occupy the top spot, and that you want to be that one, this will result in confusion and every kind of evil work. But God has created a rich, textured, and organic world, with an almost infinite array of options for godly ambition. There are two things to recognize—the first is that God is the master composer, and His symphony is going to be glorious beyond all reckoning. The second, just as important for your joy, is to find out what instrument you have been assigned and stop starting greedily at the first violin. In his introduction to a discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul says, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think [of himself] more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). Godly ambition does not mean that any Christian can be at the top of the pyramid (making faces at the archangel Michael) provided he just humbles himself enough. This is not the spiritual equivalent of “any child can grow up to be president,” which is (incidentally) a lie. Godly ambition means that those who humble themselves in accordance with God’s word will find themselves blessed to the maximum capacity that their gifts and calling will allow. To want anything more than that is to take hold of the wrong kind of ambition. Drop it; it is your death.
The Way Up Is Down:
Jesus does not teach us that there is a problem with wanting to be great in the kingdom (Matt. 5:19). On repeated occasions, He instructs how to strive for that. He tells us how live in such a way that God says well done. If you don’t want that well done, then something is really wrong. But if you want the well done, here is the thing—you have to do it well. And doing it well involves imitating the Lord Jesus, who certainly had more reasons to not “stoop” than we do.