Galatians 5 includes selfish ambition in a really nasty list resulting from following the desires of our sinful nature. Its companions are sorcery, outbursts of anger, drunkenness, hostility and sexual immorality. Two verses later, Paul offers a contrast: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Because of their proximity, it’s clear that the two lists are intended to be read together. That raises an interesting question: what is the opposite of selfish ambition?

The answer is not self-control. It is not possible to combat selfish desires by being more controlled. You just can’t will yourself not to be jealous or envious of someone else moving up faster or getting the influence you desire. Paul says clearly that the root of selfish ambition is following your sinful nature. In contrast, the root of patience, goodness, self-control, etc. is being directed by God, by the Holy Spirit. So it’s a conscious decision to follow a different pattern as well as the fruit of a transformed heart.

Once you are Spirit-led, your approach to leadership will look like this:

  • a love for people that comes out in getting to know them, caring deeply for them and developing them
  • the ability to rejoice in others’ success and promotions
  • peace that grows out of a confidence in God’s sovereignty, knowing that you don’t have to strive to advance yourself
  • patience to wait for the right opportunity
  • showing kindness and doing good to everyone, especially those who demonstrate ugly ambition
  • faithfulness to do your current job well and not let your heart drift
  • a gentle approach, instead of elbowing people out of the way
  • and self-control — a fruit, not a strategy; a symptom, not a solution.

Galatians 6 summarizes: the opposite of living to satisfy your sinful nature is living to please the Holy Spirit. The former yields decay and death, while the latter yields life and blessing. I want my leadership to bring life and blessing — to myself and to those I lead. Sure, I want to keep growing in responsibility and influence, but I want to do it the right way.

How? Galatians 5 concludes with this tough advice:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.

Editor’s note:

This blog is best read in the context of a series, because my thoughts on the topic are part of a journey. You can find the rest of the series here:

Since I made this post in January 2010, it has regularly shown up in my top entry pages for this blog. But as I read the comments posted by my readers, I realize that it addresses a common itch but doesn’t necessarily scratch it satisfactority. I am therefore writing a new entry in the series that attempts to get practical. I’ll post a link here when it’s ready, and I encourage my readers to add their own practical advice to my thoughts.

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