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Ambition | Part 2: Symptoms of Selfish Ambition

July 7, 2019 Series: Ambition

Topic: Topical Passage: Romans 2:7-8

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Ambition | Part 2: Symptoms of Selfish Ambition

[start recording] Good morning! Welcome to Sunday school! I hope you’ve had a wonderful week! We are on part 2 of what looks to be a four or five-part series on ambition. I hope you enjoyed last week’s lesson and that you’re ready to be convicted about selfish ambition! But before we do anything more, let’s begin with a word of prayer.


If you weren’t able to be here last week, it is going to be hard for me to totally catch you up to speed, so I’d encourage you to check out the notes on our website. However, just to give you a synopsis, we looked at various definitions of “ambition” and then wrote our own. My definition of ambition, which combined elements from a number of different definitions, was, the strong desire to achieve success, usually defined as power, wealth, or fame.”

Next, we took a few minutes to talk about two types of people: those who are prone to selfish ambition and those who are prone to little ambition, and I asked each of you to identify with one group or the other. How many of you who were here last week said you are prone to little ambition? How many decided you are prone to selfish ambition?

Finally, we talked about a very important word that is at the heart of the concept of ambition and that word is “glory.” We said that the word “glory” shows up 384 times in the NKJV! It is a very important word biblically, and it is at the heart of the topic of ambition. In fact, we said that you could also define ambition as, “the strong desire to achieve success and obtain glory.”

So then we went to Romans 2 and learned some things about good and bad ambition.

The Essence of Selfish Ambition

Now, I’d like to begin this session with a question. In our first session, we learned from Romans 2:6-8 that every human being is ambitious to some degree or another. We are “wired for glory.” Hamsters don’t seek glory, but people do. However, we also learned that there is a good and a bad kind of ambition. Good ambition is described in Romans 2:7; bad ambition is described in Romans 2:8.

So the question I’d like to ask you is this: what is the difference between the glory seeking of Romans 2:7 and the self-seeking of Romans 2:8. In other words, what is the difference between good and bad ambition?

In a sermon on this passage, John Piper put it this way. He said that godly ambition is “radically God-centered.”[1] What does it mean to make the human pursuit of glory “radically God-centered”? Let’s take a look at those three points about the pursuit of glory from the end of our last session and show how we can make each of them God-centered. 1) “We worship what we perceive to be glorious.” Godly ambition perceives God to be ultimately glorious and worships Him alone. 2) “We seek to get as close to the glory as possible.” Godly ambition seeks to get as close to Jesus as possible through Scripture meditation, prayer, fellowship with God’s people, obedience to God’s Word, etc. 3) “We desire to share in the glory that we worship.” And we are going to see in lesson four that godly ambition does this by pursuing Christlikeness.

But this lesson isn’t about godly ambition, is it? It’s about selfish ambition! So what does selfish ambition look like? Well, just like godly ambition is radically God-centered, selfish ambition is radically what? It is radically self-centered! Godly ambition ends with us reflecting God’s glory. Selfish ambition ends with us rivaling His glory.

Perhaps the greatest example of selfish ambition is Satan himself. It is hard to imagine a bigger ambition than, “I will be like the Most High.” But what was the problem with Satan’s ambition? It was not radically God-centered! Instead, it was radically self-centered! Satan set himself up as a rival to God and sought glory apart from Him! And then, Satan tempted Eve the same way in the Garden! He said, “God knows that in the day you eat of it… you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Selfish ambition is pursuing my own glory as detached from the glory of God. You say, “Do people really do that?” The answer is “Yes, all the time!”

You say, but what does that really look like in our day and age? Well, you can’t see selfish ambition because it’s a matter of the heart. But here are some of its symptoms.

Symptoms of Selfish Ambition

  1. Comparisons with Others | 2 Corinthians 10:12, 17-18

“For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise…. But ‘he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’ For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends.”

When you enter into the kind of comparisons Paul describes in this passage, you prove that you are seeking your own glory as detached from the glory of God!

In his book, Dave Harvey retells the story of Julius Caesar reading about Alexander the Great. The story goes that after reading about Alexander’s exploits, the young Caesar burst into tears. His friends asked him, “What’s wrong?” To which he responded, “Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.”[2]

Talk about selfish ambition! It’s pretty bad when the fact that you don’t measure up to Alexander the Great brings you to tears! Caesar’s ambition was not godly ambition! He wanted to be the greatest, and he was crying because he thought he had failed!

What about you? Do you fall prey to comparisons? This sin has always been a temptation for mankind, but the invention of social media magnifies the temptation many times over. I heard a news story recently about how young adults are requesting plastic surgery in record numbers. Why? Because they want to look like their air-brushed selfies on Instagram and Snapchat.

Comparison is the enemy of contentment. It will either leave you feeling puffed up, or (more likely) it will leave you depressed because you cannot measure up. Stop comparing yourself to others and glory in the Lord! Rejoice in the fact that you are accepted in the Beloved and seek the approval of God; not the approval of men!

  1. Craving the Approval of Men | John 12:42-43

“Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

These verses are part of a summary of responses to Jesus’ ministry found in John 12. Surprisingly, John tells us that there were many, even among the rulers, who believed in Jesus! And yet, because of the Pharisees, they did not confess Him publicly, because “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

If God were to look down on your life right now, could He say that about you–that you love the praise of men more than the praise of God?

I have been convicted lately about my lack of fear of the LORD. I don’t know how much you can identify with this statement, but is scary how little I actually think about what God thinks of what I am doing and allow fear of the Lord or a desire to please Him to motivate my actions! Fear of God must drive us! We must seek to please God, not ourselves or others!

Are you afraid to witness because you’re scared of what your unsaved friends will think? Why do you serve in your church? Is it so that people will see it and praise you? How do you respond when you don’t get the glory you think you deserve? Harvey quotes John Chrysostom, who was a pastor and famous preacher in the early church. Chrysostom says, “Men who are in love with applause have their spirits starved not only when they are blamed offhand, but even when they fail to be constantly praised.”[3] Ouch!

Does your engine run on the praise of other human beings? Do you have to constantly have your ego stroked in order to go on? Do you fall to pieces when somebody criticizes you? If so, then you may be guilty of selfish ambition.

  1. Sinful Perfectionism

This one is really just a corollary of pleasing people and comparisons. And it is one that I really struggle with! When I was a boy, I can remember sweeping the front porch before guests were supposed to arrive and thinking to myself, “I am going to get this front porch spotless! When people show up to our house, they are going to say, ‘Wow, this is the cleanest front porch I have ever seen!’ And they may even ask who cleaned it! And that is going to make me and my family proud.” You laugh, but that is the way I thought as an eight- or nine-year-old about sweeping the front porch!

Now, for those of you are prone to little ambition, that story I just told might sound like the most ridiculous thing you have ever heard. But for the others, it really hits home, doesn’t it? Some of you need to forsake sinful perfectionism! I’m not saying, “Don’t give your best,” because 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” But when it becomes more about your glory than the glory of God, that is when you’ve got a problem! Do not be the slave of sinful perfectionism!

  1. Factionalism | James 3:13-18

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

James appears to be writing to churches in which there was conflict. But (as is usually the case) both sides claimed to have wisdom! So James is describing to them what true wisdom looks like. He says that it is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, and meek. Then he contrasts this with wisdom from below, which is characterized by envy and self-seeking (which, once again, is the NT word for selfish ambition). So… selfish ambition and conflict go hand-in-hand. We see this exact same phenomenon in Philippians 2 and elsewhere in the NT.

In his Bible study on Philippians 1-2, Steve Pettit describes the word for “selfish ambition” this way. He says, “A good illustration of strife [or “selfish ambition”] is a politician who runs for office, ambitiously courts popular opinion, and competitively positions himself to win the race against any rival. He cares only about himself and is driven by selfish ambition. In fact, he resents the success of others and works to demonstrate his superiority.”[4]

Steve Pettit is right–selfish ambition often shows up in politics! In fact, that appears to the be context of the origin of this Greek word! Prior to the writing of the NT, this word is found only in Aristotle, where it refers to “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means.”

But maybe some of you aren’t really into politics, but you like sports. So let me ask you, what does selfish ambition look like on a sports team? It looks like players who can’t get along and work together as a team. It looks like ball hogging and a focus on one’s own personal stat line. It looks like unfair demands and a lack of concern for the good of the team. Selfish ambition is ugly, isn’t it?!

So we’ve seen selfish ambition in politics and selfish ambition in sport. Now imagine selfish ambition in church—what does it look like? People forming clicks and lobbying for their own agenda, old ladies gossiping about one another, pastors and deacons pulling power plays—what usually happens in those types of situations? (The church splits.) It’s ugly, it’s deplorable, and great damage is done to God’s reputation. Instead of glorifying Him, we make Him look bad. All because some people in the church were “tired of being a sidekick.”

Brothers and sisters, if conflict seems to follow you everywhere you go, maybe the problem isn’t everyone else–maybe it’s you! Have you considered the possibility that your own selfish ambition may be what is driving the conflict? Isn’t it time that you confessed that selfish ambition to God and asked for the humble heart of a servant?

  1. Pride | Philippians 2:3-4

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”

This is that passage I referenced a moment ago. And what we see here is that not only do selfish ambition and conflict go together, but also selfish ambition and pride go together.

The proud, selfishly-ambitious individual does not put his own interests last; he always puts his own interests first. I was talking with a friend of mine recently and we were catching up on our lives; but we spent over an hour talking about his life, and it wasn’t until the last five minutes of the conversation that what was new in my life came up! But I have to ask myself, “How many times do I do that to other people?” Do you dominate your conversations? Do you do most of the talking, or have you learned to ask good questions and to listen?

You know, pride shows up in so many ways! For instance, you could be the best listener in the world and be very arrogant and selfishly manipulate that skill to your own advantage! So please don’t think this is primarily about how much you talk! This is about your heart! What’s inside of there? Is it full of pride and selfish ambition, or is it full of humility and a desire to serve others?

  1. Building Monuments to Yourself Instead of Monuments to God | Judges 15:16-19

“Then Samson said:

‘With the jawbone of a donkey,

Heaps upon heaps,

With the jawbone of a donkey

I have slain a thousand men!’

And so it was, when he had finished speaking, that he threw the jawbone from his hand, and called that place Ramath Lehi.

Then he became very thirsty; so he cried out to the Lord and said, ‘You have given this great deliverance by the hand of Your servant; and now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?’ So God split the hollow place that is in Lehi, and water came out, and he drank; and his spirit returned, and he revived. Therefore he called its name En Hakkore, which is in Lehi to this day.”

This example came from a sermon series my pastor preached recently on Judges. I’m sure we all know the story; God has just given Samson victory over his enemies, whom he slew with the jawbone of a donkey. But what I want you to notice is the name Samson gives to the hill on which this event took place. He calls it, Ramath Lehi, which means literally, “Jawbone Hill.” God gives Samson an incredible victory, and he has the gall to glorify the jawbone, as if to beat his chest and say, “Look at me! Look at what I have done!”

And in case you think this is an anomaly in Samon’s life, take a look at the very next story! Samson gets thirsty, so he cries out to God. (By the way, this is the very first recorded prayer in the story of Samson. Apparently, Samson didn’t think he needed God very much.) But here he complains to God, and despite the fact that Samson’s prayer borders on accusation and demand, God graciously answers. God splits the rock in two, and water gushes out, kind of like it did with the children of Israel in the wilderness. So Samson is amazed and tells everyone about God’s goodness and how He answers prayer, right? No, he actually names the spring, “En Hakkore,” which literally means, “Spring of the Caller.” Instead of the glorifying the God who brings water out of the rock, Samson glorifies his own impressive ability to talk to God and get what he wants. How arrogant!

But don’t we do the exact same thing every time we make monuments to ourselves instead of monuments to God? We name buildings after ourselves, we want people to see, “Look at who I am! Look at what I have accomplished!” Instead of giving God the glory!

King Nebuchadnezzar tried that. He said in Daniel 4:30, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” And God said, “Boy, who do you think you are! I can make you eat grass, man!” And He did. For seven long years Nebuchadnezzar roamed about in the field eating grass like a cow, totally out of his mind!

You see, God doesn’t take it lightly when people try to steal His glory.

  1. Lack of Love | Galatians 5:14, 19-23

“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself….’

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love….”

So here Paul is setting up a distinction between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. But he prefaces that in v. 14 by saying that love fulfills the whole law. And then the first item in the fruit of the Spirit list is “love.” And at the same time, “selfish ambitions” is one of the works of the flesh! And Paul says in v. 17 that the flesh and the Spirit are contrary to each other! So, if you are filled with selfish ambition, then you will not have love! Conversely, if you do not have love, perhaps part of the problem is selfish ambition!

One of my favorite Dr. Seuss books that I love to read to my girls is “Yertle the Turtle.” Have you read it before? Yertle is king of an island called Sala-ma-Sond. And He wants to build a gigantic throne. So he commands all of the other turtles to come and stack themselves up so that he can sit on the top of them and be higher. It’s a perfect illustration of selfish ambition.

Love sacrifices itself for the good of another. Selfish ambition makes other people sacrifice so that I can get ahead. Think about that as you relate to your parents and grandparents. Think about that as you relate to your friends. Think about that once you get married and start a career. Do you consistently make other people sacrifice so that you can achieve greatness, or do you willingly lay down your rights to serve others?


When we come back to this series, I am going to give some practical reasons to forsake selfish ambition. But for now, I want you to think about those symptoms. Do you have the disease? Perhaps some of you need to decide today to forsake selfish ambition.  

That isn’t a one-time decision. Ever since the fall, selfish ambition has been woven into the core of the human DNA. And particularly if this is something that you struggle with, you will have to repent of this sin over and over. But I pray that today I would have given you some tools to understand the battle better. And I pray that as you continue to fight, even as you are humbled to discover deeper levels of sin, you would also be encouraged by the progress you are making as you grow in Christ-likeness.

Take some time in the quiet to confess your sin to God before I close us in prayer.

[1] John Piper, “The Final Divide, Eternal Life or Eternal Wrath, Part 3.” Desiring God Ministries. December 13, 1998. Accessed May 25, 2019. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-final-divide-eternal-life-or-eternal-wrath-part-3

[2] Plutarch, quoted by David T. Harvey in Rescuing Ambition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 35.

[3] John Chysostom, quoted by David T. Harvey in Rescuing Ambition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 39.

[4] Steve Pettit, Live Worthy of the Gospel (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2016), 34.