What does non-selfish ambition look like?

Kara Martin // May 17, 2018, 6:44 pm


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A friend of mine was seeking to recruit a young woman who had worked for a major consulting organisation. She was a wonderful prospect: Intelligent, enthusiastic, a great writer and a strategic thinker. So he decided to do a reference check. 

Her former manager was very positive about her, but he did have a concern. “She did not really fit the culture here,” he said. “Several times, she passed up the best assignments which might have fast-tracked her career. She seemed to prefer assignments with small, not-for-profit organisations. She seemed to exercise a passion for justice and was taking too long to climb the corporate ladder. Frankly, she lacks ambition.”

My friend was delighted with the description and subsequently employed the young woman, who has been an outstanding appointment. He saw the accusation of lacking “ambition” as a positive mark of her character – that is, she lacked selfish ambition.

“Monster” ambition

For Christians, there is often a difficulty living within the modern corporate culture, where ambition is seen as a pre-requisite for success.

For Christians, there is often a difficulty living within the modern corporate culture, where ambition is seen as a pre-requisite for success. In an article widely circulated on LinkedIn, author and CEO Mark Stevens writes about the “monster ambition” that employees need to demonstrate in the workplace: 

  • Achieve goals no matter what it takes
  • Step over competition to win
  • Forget about balance in your life
  • Don’t buddy with others in the office

While these behaviours seem extreme, they are reasonably common in corporate culture. But they work against positive work relationships, trust, teamwork, and also impact home life. 

Ambition vs outcome

Damien was working for an airline company and had a tip-off about an issue brewing in a colleague’s department. He relayed the information to his colleague, who was shocked.

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

“Because we’re on the same team,” Damien said in surprise. 

“No, we’re not. We are competing. Don’t think I will repay the favour,” said his colleague. 

That was one of several signals that made Damien realise he could not continue in that organisation. However, he has had major success in several other organisations that did value working relationships, teamwork, integrity and results. 

Christian ambition

I have worked with a woman who is very ambitious, but seeks to express that ambition in a Christian way. Together, we reviewed biblical literature and other helpful information to determine how she can use her passion effectively.

We concluded that the Bible dismisses selfish ambition, but rewards passion for God and others, even if you benefit through use of that drive.

Ambition gives force and passion to seeking God’s purposes, and ambitious people are initiators, future-oriented, creative and consistently motivated. 

The Bible gives us a balanced view of self, affirming that the self is made in God’s image and likeness, and therefore has God-given value (Genesis 1:27). This includes ambition, since some of us has been created with the gift of ambition.

R. Paul Stevens points out that there is value in ambition, since without ambition we would be passive and complacent, lacking direction. For Christians, ambition gives force and passion to seeking God’s purposes, and ambitious people are initiators, future-oriented, creative, and consistently motivated. 

However, we need to ensure that our passions align with what God cares about. Not everything we do is affirmed by God, since our sinful nature gives us a tendency to be self-centred (2 Timothy 3:2). 

The Bible refers to the tendency to selfish ambition several times. In Galatians 5:20, Paul uses a Greek word that referred to work done for pay or accepting a position not for service but for what one can get out of it. James declares “selfish ambition” to be a form of earthly, unspiritual, and demonic “wisdom”. (James 3:13-16)

There are subtler warnings elsewhere. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus calls his disciples to a life of self-sacrifice, giving priority to God’s kingdom and righteousness; and in Luke 14:10-11, he warned against desiring power, prestige and wealth.

In Romans 12:2, Paul warns against being conformed to the mindset of the world, including the focus on ambition. He also speaks out against uncontrolled desires, which may include ambition (Philippians 3:19); and against the love of money, which may be a source of ambition. (1 Timothy 6:10)

Stevens lists several symptoms of  selfish ambition, which stands as a useful checklist to evaluate our behaviour.

Do we:

  • Define our self by our achievements rather than our character?
  • Find meaning in our own life rather than as a child of God?
  • Relentlessly strive, finding it difficult to rest?
  • Get discouraged by a lack of recognition for our hard work?
  • Exercise predatory competition, stepping on or over others to achieve what we want?
  • Use the present situation as a stepping stone, continually looking at the next thing?

Jesus on ambition

Rather, we need to follow Jesus’ advice by denying ourselves, sacrificing our personal desires (Matthew 16:24) while still having healthy self-esteem, implied in the command to love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Matthew 19:19).

Well-known management consultant Ken Blanchard described this conundrum neatly: Bad ego is when we Edge God Out, through either fear or pride; while Good Ego is when we Exalt God Only, with humility and confidence.

As our example, let us consider Jesus, who did not lack ambition. He knew he was the Son of God destined to sovereignty. However, he did not boast, take credit, show off or demand attention; nor did he operate from fear by hiding behind his position or withholding information.

Bad ego is when we Edge God Out, through either fear or pride; while Good Ego is when we Exalt God Only, with humility and confidence.

Instead, Jesus has a perfect balance of humility and confidence, as Paul points out to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests … In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Philippians 2:3-11

Jesus was born in a barn, not in a palace; lived an itinerant lifestyle, hand to mouth; and died a shameful death on a cross. He voluntarily separated himself from God not for his own power or glory, but in obedience and for our sakes. As he said, he came to serve, not to be served. (Matthew 10:45)

The ultimate check on our ambition is that we should love God pre-eminently, with our whole self, heart and soul (Matthew 22:37). If we are continually conscious of God as our audience, then we will be more aware when our words, behaviour, and actions do not meet His standards.

This extract from Workship 2: How to flourish at work ($20), is published with the permission of Graceworks. It is the second book in the Workship series. You may purchase Workship: How to use your work to worship God ($18) and Workship 2: How to flourish at work ($20) from Graceworks or SKS Books.

About the author

Kara Martin

Kara Martin is a project leader with Seed, a lecturer with Mary Andrews College, and formerly the Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. She has worked in media and communications, human resources, business analysis and policy development roles, in a variety of organisations, and as a consultant. She was Director of the School of Christian Studies for three years and has lectured with the Brisbane School of Theology, Macquarie Christian Studies Institute and Wesley Institute. Kara has a particular passion for integrating our Christian faith and work, as well as helping churches connect with workplace Christians. She is married to David, and they have two amazing adult children.