Character traits–Ambition


Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:



Richard Hollerman

Some may wonder whether this term is to be considered in a negative light or a positive one.  Ambitious may be defined as “eagerly desirous of achieving or obtaining success,” or “showing or caused by ambition,” or “strongly desirous.”[i][i]  There are two words that are translated “ambition” in the NIV and the NASB.[ii][ii]  The negative term is eritheia, where it is translated as “selfish ambition.”  Paul referred to some who “proclaim Christ out of “selfish ambition” (Philippians 1:17).  He says that we are to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (2:3).

Selfish ambition (or empty conceit) will regard self at the expense of others.  James warns against this selfish sin: “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth” (3:14).  He goes so far as to say, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (v. 16).  This is the selfish ambition that we should not have in our heart for it is the very opposite of heartfelt love.  God said to Baruch, “Are you seeking great things for yourself?  Do not seek them” (Jeremiah 45:5).  Let’s not have an unholy and worldly ambition that seeks personal advantage.

On the other hand, there is another Greek word that is highly positive and means a “godly ambition.”  The term is philotimeomai.  Paul wrote, “I aspired to preach the gospel” (Romans 15:20).  The ESV has, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.”  The apostle wrote, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).  Paul’s life ambition is affirmed in 2 Corinthians 5:9: “We also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”  His earnest desire or his fervent ambition was to do one thing: to be pleasing to Christ Jesus!

How do our ambitions in life measure up to this?  Do we have an ambition to make a lot of money and be rich?  That is the goal of many people.  But Scripture says, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).  Do we have an ambition to get the best grades in school at the expense of our spiritual quest?  Do we have an ambition to excel on our job when this is spiritually destructive?  Do we have an ambition to win over other people in any way?

These are unworthy, unspiritual, and wrongful ambitions.   Instead, let us have a godly ambition to pray more, study God’s Word more, and love and serve others more.  Let us have an earnest ambition to know God’s will and walk in it, “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).  Let us have an ambition for God!


[i][i] Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.

[ii][ii] Richards, Expository Dictionary, p. 38.

Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:

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