James 3 continues, saying godly ambition must be pure and sincere. Other versions use some helpful synonyms. Ambition must integrate as part of a holy life. It must be honest, without hypocrisy. The Message says it’s not two-faced.

What does pure ambition look like? Purity means it’s in its original, uncorrupted state. Dave Harvey says that we’re all wired to pursue glory. In the first days of creation, we existed in perfect relationship with our Creator, seeking his glory alone. If God was lifted up, we had everything we needed. But we perverted our original design, turning our focus to ourselves. (I say “we” because I’m convinced today we would do the same thing as our pansy ancestors Adam and Eve.) It’s impossible to make something pure that has been corrupted. Think about snow. Once its dirty, there’s no making it white and powdery again. Or salt. As Jesus said, how can you make unsalty salt salty again? So even when we attempt great things for God’s glory, we should suspect ourselves. Our motives are seldom as pure as we want them to be. We just can’t have pure ambition on our own.

Ambition should be sincere and honest. I come from an organization that loves the leader who stands up and says, “I never wanted this job, but since you chose me, I’ll do the best I can.” We love humility and, conversely, we suspect signs of ambition. In contrast, I have a healthy suspicion of platitudes. I admit I love the ideal of an unsought promotion and of a leader emerging from the rough. It makes a great story. But two problems stick in my mind. If a leader really has no ambition and never sought a position, then he has never prepared himself for higher levels of leadership. Who’s to say the reluctant leader is a lifelong learner or takes leadership responsibility seriously if they didn’t want the job? On the other hand, if a leader is saying that deceitfully, then I have bigger issues. False humility may well be the tip of the iceberg, a sign of darker things lying below public view.

In contrast, godly ambition is never two-faced. I heard a story that Abraham Lincoln was once charged with being two-faced. He responded, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” It’s far better for a leader to admit their ambition… and shift it toward the cause. Better to be open about ambition. When it’s on the table, there’s a certain amount of accountability, because leadership is a private matter lived out in public, as the authors of The 52nd Floor put it. Ambitious leaders need help to keep their aspirations pointed in the right direction.

Moses is a great example for us. In Exodus 2, we eavesdrop on a dialog that exposes Moses’ real fear of leadership. He is as reluctant a leader as you’ll find. But it’s not from pure motives; it’s fear based on his failure in Exodus 1, when his unharnessed, misguided ambition led to murder. The second time, he needs convincing that God is in the call and will give him everything he needs to lead. The next couple of books in the Old Testament portray a leader with mature ambition, deeply concerned with God’s glory. Multiple times Moses appeals to God to make his Name great or to act on behalf of Israel “for the sake of your Name.” Sure, he still struggles with the purity of his ambition, getting angry with Israel, breaking priceless handwritten tablets and smacking rocks with his staff, but Moses’ name becomes great only as he pursues God’s Name with his whole heart and allows God to show his great power rather than trying on his own effort to save Israel.

In this world, our leaders may never achieve pure ambition, but the pursuit of it is an admirable trait.

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Shepherds shouldn’t just be overseeing their flock to look for threats. They should be looking within. In Acts 20, Paul says to “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock… I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise… Therefore be on the alert.”

This is one of the more scary warnings in Scripture. After all, if we can’t trust ourselves, who can we trust? Am I really capable of becoming the biggest danger to my flock? If so, what should I be alert for? Here are a few questions for self evaluation:

First, what is my motivation for ministry and leadership? Jesus warned against “hired hands” who don’t care for the sheep like the Good Shepherd does. Seasonal workers who are disinclined to sacrifice too much for their flocks are a danger to the flock. Am I just doing a job, or am I fully vested?

Second, how am I using leadership for my own benefit? Ezekiel 34 offers a stark contrast between the self-serving leaders of Israel and the Good Shepherd. God warns these shepherds who have abandoned the flock, taken advantage of them for personal gain, and ignored or mistreated the weak. “I now consider these shepherds my enemies,” he says. There are perks for leadership roles. What is my attitude toward those “trappings”? And do I exist to serve the sheep and their Shepherd, or do they exist to serve me?

Third, what is my relationship with the Owner? In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak has a chapter dedicated to the issue of lack of trust between shepherds and owners, saying there’s a common belief among herd owners in the Middle East that shepherds will steal or eat their flock if given a chance. When you think about the bonding and loyalty that can develop when shepherd and sheep spend so much time together, betrayal would not be difficult.

When the guard becomes the enemy, the flock is in deep trouble.

The problem is that weariness, entitlement, selfishness and betrayal don’t just happen suddenly. They creep in over time. Laniak offers a couple of concrete examples. False teachers get their start when leaders let their moorings drift from God’s word and begin to allow popular trends or “original ideas” to supplement or replace orthodoxy. Or when leaders lose their nerve to speak against the things they know they need to.

Another foothold is fatique. When I’m too tired, I don’t even notice the roots of a problem. I know what to do when I face a trial. I know what to do when I see division and quarreling. But when I’m weary and right in the middle of it, I don’t recognize the trial or the disunity for what it is, and I react in the flesh.

Laniak nails the fact that no one is immune from an imperceptible shift. It has the ring of truth to it:

Becoming a wolf only takes a combination of skepticism and time.

So, what should leaders do to guard our hearts? Here are some of my personal solutions.

1. When I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time for me to move on.

This value is specifically set up to guard myself from internal drift. I got the idea from Andy Stanley at Catalyst a few years ago. It fits with one of my personal goals: to never grow old. As I’ve written before, I subscribe to Douglas MacArthur’s definition of youth: You are as young as your optimism and as old as your fears. When cynicism and weariness take over, it’s time for me to seek a new fountain of youth in a different role or different ministry area — something that will motivate me and purify my motives.

2. Give others permission to “call me” on something.

A few years ago I heard one of the authors of TrueFaced talk about the idea of accountability from a slightly different angle. He urged us to admit our weaknesses and then give permission to our followers, our team or even our kids to “call us” when they see us moving into that area of weakness, hypocrisy or sin. Because of power distance, they aren’t going to do it naturally; they have to be given permission. If we take the steps before something happens to admit we’re capable of becoming a wolf, then we’ll have some critical safeguards enabled if we start to drift.

3. Suspect myself first.

This guideline came from a marriage book I read recently, When Sinners Say I Do. It’s great advice for any interpersonal relationship, and it comes from Jesus’s urging to remove the huge chunk of wood from your own eye before trying to remove a speck from someone else’s. When I find fault with someone, I need to ask myself what my own responsibility is. There is often something I could rectify. But my tendency is to suspect others or my environment first. When I interact with the person by first owning my own fault, the encounter goes a lot better!

That’s really what Laniak is saying here: suspect yourself. “Who can accurately assess the urges prowling in the darkness of our own souls?” David is a prime example. During the time that kings go to war (external threats), he stayed home. And in beginning an affair with Bathsheba, he became the wolf inside the camp. His cry in Psalm 51 and 139 is for God to search him and root out any wicked way. That’s my prayer as well today.