Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. ~ Philippians 2:3 (NIV)
We all need to feel that we have a place of significance. But needing to have significance in God's Kingdom is not the villain that torments us — in fact, God made us with this wholesome desire for value and significance. This desire is not sinful in and of itself.
The place where we run our train off the tracks is when we assume we can orchestrate our own importance through clever management of our ministry by performance and by acquiring some degree of power.
At this point we need the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah's counsel to Baruch is timely in our day: But as for you, do you seek great things for yourself? Stop seeking! (Jeremiah 45:5, HCSB).
There is such a thing as honorable ambition, but honorable ambition should be rooted in the office that seeks the man rather than the man seeking the office! It must be said that a desire to be great is not necessarily in itself sinful. It is the hidden motivation that determines everything — there is both worthy and unworthy ambition.
The word ambition comes from a Latin word which means "to canvas for advancement." A true man after God's heart will never campaign for promotion. It is important that the master principle be clearly grasped. A balanced statement comes from S. D. Gordon, who said simply, "Let it once be fixed that a man's ambition is to fit into God's plan for him." Jeremiah's exact words are important: great things for yourself. Notice: for yourself.
When unworthy ambition is controlling us, at the end of the day we are left feeling empty, exhausted, and with a sense of guilt. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous pilot, Charles, was a quiet person, but she had strong thoughts about life. Once, she said, "The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere."
We must discover and guard the true source of personal meaning and significance. Count Zinzendorf summed it up in one simple sentence, "I have one ambition: it is He, He alone."
People called by God are not the only ones to fight this battle, but we certainly have to admit it is a temptation. If we only believed what Samuel Brengle said: "The final estimate of men shows history cares not one iota for the rank or title a man has borne, or the office he has held, but only the quality of his deeds and the character of his mind and heart."
This search to express and experience a sense of our own importance is not just disappointing, but dangerous and destructive. Billy Graham said pride is one of the three deadly sins for an evangelist's ministry. Yielding to it leads to a self-centered obsession. The tales are legendary of those who clambered and competed for prominence, power, and place in the "me first" atmosphere of our world of today. Too often, they won — but lost.
Spurgeon warns, "Be not proud of race, face, place, or grace." Pride was called "the devil's dragnet." It has pulled millions into his control.
John Stott said, "Pride and madness go together; so do humility and sanity." The old country preacher was right, "Take your choice — it's humility or stupidity."
To plan our own ministries with human logic or selfish desire is to wage war with God. We must remember real significance is given to us by God and not gotten by us by clever management!
Let's be honest, so much of what is done is thinly disguised as self-advertisement. We need to regain a proper biblical perspective with this matter of personal significance — but how? Let us first believe that when the devil cannot keep us from doing God's work, then he changes his strategy to make us very proud of what we have done in God's work. He never stops. He is relentless, and he has us all in his sights.
More full-time Christian servants that I know have gotten drunk on the strong wine of praise and commendation than those I know who ever became intoxicated with any liquor!
Pride causes us to lift ourselves up above God, then against God, and then finally without God. A proud preacher is as much a contradiction as a humble devil.
Overcoming a Culture of Self-Absorption
So again, where do we find the balance? What needs to happen in the lives of each of us? We need to acknowledge that we live in a culture where advancing one's self is considered a worthy virtue, that this matter of meeting our own ego needs is a well-fed obsession in our day, and it is flat-out un-Christian!
Our most basic problem is our egocentricity, our demand to run our own lives and to be ultimately responsible for all our choices and free to do as we please with our desires.
Consider, if you will, the comments of Ian MacPherson, the Scottish born preacher: "Never try to be great; the very effort will make you small. Greatness, if it is to come your way at all, will come without your being aware of it. May I remind you of that singular petition in the old Moravian liturgy, 'From the unhappy desire of becoming great, good Lord, deliver me'?"
And consider how nobly one of the notable preachers of the past, Henry Ward Beecher, said, "Every young man who is aspiring wants to do great things and to preach great sermons. Great sermons ninety-nine times in a hundred are great nuisances."
The only escape is to focus instead on enjoying the Lord Jesus and to become consumed in advancing His Kingdom. Over fifty years ago, Bishop Stephen Neill spoke to a group of young men about to be ordained, and he was bold to say, "I am inclined to think that ambition in any ordinary sense of the term is nearly always sinful in ordinary men. I am certain that in the Christian it is always sinful, and that it is most inexcusable of all in the ordained minister." He is right, of course, unless this ambition is centered in advancing the fame and name of Jesus.
At that point each of us is left with himself — no one knows the motivation of another. C. S. Lewis said, "Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst." Roy Hession, the revivalist, was once asked "What does it mean to be sincere?" He replied, "It means to live out in the open with both God and man." So then, here is the question with which each of us must wrestle: Do I have, in any way, a hidden agenda?
The True Source of Our Significance
Having confronted the perilous danger of seeking to find our significance outside the purpose God has for us, let us move quickly to a conclusion.
Our significance has been bought for us and secured for us in Christ. I do not have to make it happen. But that is also true in my Christian service. Where I serve and what I do in service is totally His sovereign choice for me. I have no opinion — it's His to choose for me. I go through the doors He opens, and when I accept joyfully His plans for my life, I am liberated to live. Everything we could desire to make our lives complete is ours to enjoy in Christ, which includes a sense of wholesome self-worth beyond anything we can engineer for ourselves.
The Holy Spirit redirects our energies toward glorifying God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to redirect our life passions. My mind and heart are focused on finding pleasure in God and bringing pleasure to God without regard for how others evaluate me. We bypass the opinions of people as we refocus on promoting God's glory and gain without sticking our finger up in the air to find out which way the trends want to take us. To say it another way, we refuse to be religious opportunists!
In this renewed focus, we discover true humility, which is the byproduct of being consumed with the supremacy of Christ. When we become enthralled with all Christ is, unconsciously we display the elements of true humility: praise, obedience, trust, and grateful service, even if it's out of view of the masses.
So, true humility is simply a proper attitude about ourselves which comes as we focus on the greatness of our God, our value before Him, and our inadequacy apart from Him. It is, to me, the only way to avoid what I call the perilous push to self-importance.
Michael Gott is president of the Michael Gott International Evangelistic Association, evenly dividing his time between international and U.S. evangelistic ministry.