Too Small for Selfish Ambition

I’m not supposed to admit this in public, but I will.

I want to be the next big thing.

It’s not a godly desire. In fact, this is exactly the kind of “selfish ambition” that James warns against (James 3:14).

But it’s there and the pull toward being “known and respected” is real.

This kind of selfish ambition is dangerous. James goes on to say that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

Yes, this desire to be “the next big thing” opens me up to every sin imaginable and I’m in danger.

I think we all are. Everyone who writes or speaks or has a social media following (or everyone who has dreams of those things) is in danger of indulging in sinful behaviors and habits that might produce fame — even “Christian fame” — but also pollutes the soul.

How do I combat this way of thinking? How do I surrender my ambition to the Spirit’s transformative power that I may be filled with “wisdom from above” (James 3:17)?

I search for my place in the grand work of God.

Let me explain.

In the first episode of the science TV show Cosmos, host Neil DeGrasse Tyson emphasizes the smallness and insignificance of human life by sketching cosmic history on a “calendar” that begins at the Big Bang (January 1) and concludes with the breadth of recorded history (the final minute of December 31). DeGrasse is trying to decenter human experience and place us within a grander story in which we are merely bit players.

Of course, Cosmos is born from an atheistic worldview that has no room for supernatural realities, much less a God who has created all things — and chiefly human beings — for his glory.

But the point DeGrasse makes in his show is helpful for those of us prone to selfish ambition.

It’s not all about us. It’s not about me at all.

It’s about God and the Kingdom he’s building among us.

Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into an impossibly large tree with branches that provide homes for all the birds of the world.

Observing the extremes of the parable is important. First, the seed starts out nondescript and easy to ignore. So it was with the Kingdom. The cataclysmic event of Jesus’s resurrection was missed by most who were alive that day. Only three women in a patriarchal society that had been marginalized by the Roman Empire knew what had happened. The greatest news in the history of the world — that death had been defeated and life had come — was not reported by the great historians and social commentators of the day. It was spoken by widows and fishermen.

There’s no way that the Kingdom could have grown from these beginnings to have the global reach it now enjoys without God causing the growth. A mustard seed cannot grow into the tree described in Matthew 13 unless God works a miracle.

All the human ingenuity in the world, all the great church programs, all the charismatic Christian leaders in the world would fail to produce the Kingdom-plant that lives today. Without the work of the Lord, the Kingdom would fail to grow.

The fact is, I couldn’t even write this article without routinely stopping and asking the Lord for help crafting sentences and selecting vocabulary. As taught in John 15, I am fruitless unless I am connected to the vine of Christ and his Kingdom. Without the Holy Spirit uniting me to Christ, I am unable to function.

So my selfish ambition is a result of spiritual myopia. I look around at all the authors with all the books and all the influence and followings and I think to myself, “I want to matter like that.” But in Christ’s Kingdom, he is the one who matters. Our significance is not found in our worldly successes but in our relationship with the King. Are we a part of the Kingdom priest-family? This is what gives us significance.

Much like human history on DeGrasse’s cosmic calendar, the successes of our greatest heroes are but specks on the Kingdom calendar, blips in the great history of God’s work in the world. Even if I were to be the next Billy Graham, I would still be “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

So why should I pursue my own success and selfish ambitions? Would it not be better to pursue “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17)? For then I would contribute to “a harvest of righteousness…sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18).

With a cosmic view of God’s Kingdom work embedded in my heart, I am able to recognize the smallness of my service. To me, these small things are still struggles, toil, and even suffering (Colossians 1:24-29). Yet, rather than being crushed, I am motivated to do endure “light momentary afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17) with with all the Spirit’s “energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29), because I have a cosmic perspective of what God is doing in the world.

Reformed Margins is a small site with a small readership. Perhaps one day it will grow. Or maybe it won’t. But that’s not the point. The point is to keep writing and keep being faithful in the small things that God has given us to do.

In a couple of months, I will be ordained as an Assistant Pastor. Maybe one day I’ll be a Senior Pastor of a large church. Maybe I’ll never leave this Assistant position. But my “career path” isn’t the point, even when selfish ambition tries to direct me there.

Rather, the faithful, cosmically small work of the pastor is what I have been called to. And you have been called to faithful, cosmically small work as well.

Those of us haunted by selfish ambition would do well to remember just how small our contribution to the Kingdom of God really is, no matter how “big” it might be in the world of Christian celebrity culture and social media fiefdoms.

We would do well to serve in that small way with all of God’s energy which he powerfully works within us. Maybe then we would see that we’re simply too small to allow selfish ambition to take root in our hearts. Perhaps recognition of our small place in the great Kingdom-work of God is the beginning of wisdom from above.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

One thought on “Too Small for Selfish Ambition

  • March 28, 2018 at 6:42 am

    I am an Anglo married to an Asian raised there before coming the US. We have very different culture, starting at home and extending outwardly. As a result, we are on the “margins” of society and church life. So, I read your blog with interest, always looking to see things “from the other side.”

    What you said today transcends any one culture. All are driven to be recognized, but that ambition can be hurtful if not properly balanced with God’s perspective. So, while I don’t want to over-inflate my worth, neither do I want to under-value the gifts God has given me to use.

    As I read your post today, I was reminded of Romans 12:3.

    Keep up the good work!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.