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Ambition | Part 3: Practical Reasons to Forsake Selfish Ambition

July 21, 2019 Speaker: Kristopher Schaal Series: Ambition

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Practical Reasons to Forsake Selfish Ambition

  1. Because Selfish Ambition Will Shrink You

When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they did not become bigger; they became smaller. They immediately shrunk and protracted, they shriveled in on themselves, so that human beings today are a mere husk of what we were originally created to be prior to sin!

Harvey includes the following quote from Jonathan Edwards.

“The ruin that the Fall brought upon the soul of man consists very much in his losing the nobler and more benevolent principles of his nature, and falling wholly under the power and government of self-love. Before, and as God created him, he was exalted and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish. Immediately upon the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness.”[1]

In other words, selfish ambition shrunk Adam and Eve, and it will do the same to you. Harvey mentions that the early church had a fascinating phrase for this dynamic: incurvatus in se. That’s Latin for we “curve in ourselves.”[2] What a perfect description of selfish ambition! In aspiring to be great, we become small. By seeking honor, we degrade ourselves. We try to make something of ourselves, but we become nothing.

A great illustration of this in the Bible is Haman in the book of Esther. Haman is probably one of the most ambitious men in Scripture, but it is all selfish ambition. Haman is filthy rich and arguably the second most powerful man in the world, and yet he wants more. But as you read the story of Esther, it becomes evident that Mordecai is the much “bigger man,” so to speak! Haman has to brag about his accomplishments in order to feel secure in himself, whereas Mordecai seems to be little more than amused when he is rewarded by the king by being praised all day long. Haman loses his ability to function when a single man (and not even a high-ranking official) dishonors him! Also, he is a big scaredy-cat who resorts to begging for his life from the queen in the end! Mordecai, on the other hand, remains calm and shrewd, even when his entire nation is in peril! Haman’s insecurities drive him to lash out against others, to the extent that he masterminds a Holocaust! Mordecai’s, on the other hand, possesses a sense of confidence in the Lord that allows him to be kind and loyal, even at great potential cost.

So do you want to be big or do you want to be small? Selfish ambition will shrink you.

  1. Because Selfish Ambition Is a Miserable Dead-end Street.

Another one of Scripture’s most ambitious men was Solomon. Now, Solomon was obviously tremendously gifted by God, but he didn’t rest on the laurels of his own giftedness! Instead, he worked hard to accomplish great things! But in the end, Solomon discovered than none of these pursuits proved to be ultimately satisfying or meaningful. Solomon tells about what he has learned in the book of Ecclesiastes. And in that book, he describes selfish ambition as the modern equivalent of a rat race and a dead-end street.

One of the points that Solomon emphasizes in Ecclesiastes is that ironically, highly ambitious people often suck the joy out of their very own lives! So all of you people out there who are tempted with selfish ambition, read the following statements of Solomon and weep!

  • Ecclesiastes 1:9-11:

That which has been is what will be,

That which is done is what will be done,

And there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which it may be said,

“See, this is new”?

It has already been in ancient times before us.

There is no remembrance of former things,

Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come

By those who will come after.

In other words, you will never do anything that it ultimately new, and you will be forgotten. As President Harry Truman once said, “The only new thing in the world is the history you do not know.” You see, if we knew our history, we would understand that people have been doing the very same types of things we’re doing for thousands of years! In fact, the irony of the situation is that the reason we think we’re doing something is new is precisely because we have forgotten the past! And just like that, the next generation will forget us, too! If you live to do something new and to be remembered, you will be sorely disappointed!

Ecclesiastes 1:15:

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
And what is lacking cannot be numbered.

In other words, you will never solve life’s ultimate problems. Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but now there is talk in the medical community about an “antibiotic resistance crisis” and warnings that the end of antibiotics may be in sight as new strains of resistant bacteria emerge. Bill Gates has donated more than $30 billion of his own money to help fight famine. But famine won’t go away.

Does this mean that we give up and stop trying to subdue creation? Absolutely not! But after a while, you realize that you’re playing “Whack-a-Mole.” The underlying problems keep resurfacing at other times and in other places. If you live to fix ultimate problems, you will be sorely disappointed!

  • Ecclesiastes 9:11:

I returned and saw under the sun that—

The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all.

In other words, hard work doesn’t always pay off in this world! We’re trained to think as Americans that if you only work hard enough, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. (As a side note, it is difficult if not impossible to understand the history of America without recognizing the role that ambition has played in our history! In some ways, you could say that to be American is to be ambitious! But that is not always a good thing.) Americans like to convince ourselves that as long as you work hard enough, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps! But Solomon says that isn’t true!

He says, “You know, the fastest person doesn’t win the race.” Now that gets our attention. Think of the Olympics. What do you mean, “The fastest person doesn’t win the race?” That’s the definition of a race, isn’t it? “No,” says Solomon, “The fastest person doesn’t win. It’s the person who happens to be able to afford the training, the person whose parents put her into sports at age three, the athlete who happens not to break her leg in a freak skiing accident, the one who is born into a situation in which he doesn’t have to go out and work full-time as soon as he is old enough to support his own family. It’s the guy who happens to end up with the best coach, the one who doesn’t get sick on the way to tryouts, the girl who is born in the right year so that she is hitting her peak at just the right time! It’s the guy whose country does not disqualify itself by doping other athletes, the one who performs well under pressure, the one who happens not to get sick on the day of the race–that’s who wins the races–NOT THE FASTEST GUY!”

“Time and chance happen to them all.” Life isn’t fair. Get over it. You say, “Pastor Kris, that’s very depressing!” It’s not meant to be depressing; it’s meant to make you stop and think before you give your life to the pursuit of selfish ambition, thinking naively that as long as you work hard enough, everything will turn out alright in the end! It won’t! So stop it! Mere hard work is never the answer! Live for God and eternity!

  • Ecclesiastes 10:5-7:

There is an evil I have seen under the sun,
As an error proceeding from the ruler:

Folly is set in great dignity,
While the rich sit in a lowly place.
I have seen servants on horses,
While princes walk on the ground like servants.

In other words, sometimes people who are totally undeserving get all the glory while those who deserve to get glory get overlooked! How frustrating! But isn’t it true? Have you ever seen this happen? Have you seen it happen in your workplace? Have you seen in happen in elections? Have you seen it happen in various government appointments? Sure you have! It happens in all three contexts!

So what’s the point? The point is not to live for the praise of men because the praise of men is so fickle! You may do something truly remarkable, and people will celebrate the idiot. So do not live for selfish ambition unless you want to die miserable and totally disillusioned!

  • Ecclesiastes 12:1-5:

Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth,
Before the difficult days come,
And the years draw near when you say,
“I have no pleasure in them”:
While the sun and the light,
The moon and the stars,
Are not darkened,
And the clouds do not return after the rain;

In the day when the keepers of the house tremble,
And the strong men bow down…”

In other words, you are going to get frail and die. Never make fun of an old person; before long that will be you. Some of you guys may be tempted to pursue selfish ambition through your physique. Some of you girls may be tempted to be vain about your appearance. Don’t go there! I’m telling you, it’s a dead-end street! You don’t want to be one of those pitiable actresses who succumbs to scores of plastic surgeries because she feels her one glory slipping away! Live for something higher! Live for something nobler!

  • Ecclesiastes 2:16:

For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever,
Since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come.
And how does a wise man die?
As the fool!

We’ve talked about this a little already, but you will die, and history will forget you. This one sounds the ultimate death knoll for selfish ambition. Some of the greatest men and women in history got no more than a paragraph in your high school history book. People who don’t like history wouldn’t even know their names. Do you really think that you can achieve any kind of lasting, meaningful, satisfying glory in this life? Take if from Solomon–you are sadly mistaken and hopelessly naïve.

You say, “Wow, that’s pretty discouraging! Are you trying to discourage us?” In some ways, yes! I am trying to discourage you from giving yourself to selfish ambition! So forsake selfish ambition! Run away! Stop trying to pursue your own glory in this life as detached from God’s glory! It’s sinful, it’s displeasing to God, it’s selfish, it’s impossible, and it is a miserable, dead-end street.

Conclusion

In Harvey’s book, he refers to a baccalaureate address given at Yale by Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards. His title was, “On the Love of Distinction,” and Dwight had this to say about selfish ambition: “Wickedness can in no other form become more intense, nor its plans more vast, nor its obstinacy more enduring, nor is destruction more expansive, or more dreadful.”[3] What a strong warning against the dangers of selfish ambition!

[1] Jonathan Edwards, quoted by David T. Harvey in Rescuing Ambition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 37.

[2] Ibid, 38.

[3] Timothy Dwight, quoted by David T. Harvey in Rescuing Ambition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 42.