The opposite of selfish ambition

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.

Romans 12 – criticism part II

My pastor, Chan Kilgore, once said that people never build monuments to critics. Is that really true? When he said it, I immediately thought of a lot of the figures in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Payne and Paul Revere were pretty serious critics. But there’s a difference between protesters who take potshots and protesters who do something about their beliefs. And victors always get to define the terms. Instead of “critic” and “traitor,” we in the United States prefer “forefather” and “patriarch.”

The question I want to consider is: why should a leader bless those who persecute him? Verse 20 gives one answer: to heap “burning coals” on them. It seems to me that alone could serve as a nasty motivation for “kindness.” But is that what this passage is about? Of course, the Bible preaches a countercultural message: seek genuine blessing for your critics. Why?

Point number 2: critics are essential in the life of a leader. Many gurus have written about the inability of senior leaders to get accurate assessments; candor is inversely proportional to level of position. Therefore, if a leader can receive it, the poignant commentary of a critic is essential because of his immunity to persuasion. He provides that “alternative” viewpoint we need so much.

I have a challenge for you. Next time you’re persecuted, ask yourself, “What if they’re right?” It could cast some light onto your blind spots.

An Old Testament example takes it one step further. In 2 Samuel 16, David’s son Absalom has taken the throne by force, and David is forced to flee from Jerusalem. While David is at a low point, an opportunistic descendant of David’s predecessor begins throwing stones and verbal lobs, claiming that David is getting a taste of his own medicine. David’s men want vengeance, but he rebukes them:

My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.

David shows incredible restraint, perspective and confidence in God’s Sovereignty. I think we’d all do well as leaders to respond the same way. What if God has given you a critic for a specific purpose? If you could see criticis that way, wouldn’t you pray for them, seek to bless them tangibly and work to overcome them by doing what’s right?

Lest we idolize David too much, let’s look at the rest of the story in 1 Kings 2:8-9. Years later, when David gives his final instructions to another son who is taking the throne legitimately, he admits that Shimei stuck in his craw. David tells Solomon,

I swore by the Lord that I would not kill him. But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.

Don’t we wish! If only we could all keep our hands clean and leave it to our sons to clean up for us. Not sure how to respond to that one. It certainly speaks to the deep, irreversable pain a critic can bring to a king. It’s easy to do the right thing for a while, but difficult to let go of the feelings surrounding the experience.