Last time we looked at ambition as an offshoot of selfish desire—something that seeks its own goals at the expense of principles and people. Looking at all the possible pitfalls of being driven, it is easy to wonder if ambition can ever be a good thing. And yet, we know from Scripture that it can. Look at these words that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:
Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:9-10)
If ambition is really always sinful, then why does Paul use that word here? In fact, I believe that Paul was as ambitious as anybody who ever lived. It was Paul’s nature to be extreme. Even before he was converted, he was zealous in persecuting the church, and it took an extreme act of God to redirect him. And after Christ got a hold of him, Paul continued to live life without taking any half measures.
Was Paul wrong in living this way? Was he guilty of transgressing Jeremiah 45:5? Was Paul wrongfully “seeking great things” for himself?
I think we can solve this problem by understanding that Jeremiah was not condemning all ambition as sinful. Instead, he was showing that selfishness is always sinful and corrupting. It is not ambition itself that is sinful; rather, sin springs from the selfishness that so often accompanies ambition.
As we look at Paul’s ambition, then, we see that his goals were uncorrupted by self-focus. I see three aspects of selflessness in his ambition in 2 Corinthians, and I’ll examine the first aspect today: the direction of his ambition.
Paul says that his ambition is “to be pleasing to [God].” And this marks a steep separation between spiritual ambition and sinful ambition. Paul never sought great things for himself; he always sought great things for God. The apostle is like a violinist who cares not for the audience’s applause, but only for the smile of the master who taught him. He lived to please the Lord.
Paul expressed this very pointedly in earlier words he wrote to the Corinthians:
But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.
For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.
Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)
Paul had little regard for any human opinion of him. Even though he cared about people, at the end of the day his labor wasn’t aimed at earning their approval. He recognized that he was not ultimately accountable to man, but to God. For this same reason, Paul’s own opinion of himself held little weight.
In other words, Paul was saying, “It is a small thing to me what you think, and it is a small thing to me what I think. You don’t know the truth of my heart, and though I may know me better than you, I don’t even know the truth of my own heart, because the heart of man is deceitful.”
So, Paul’s ambition was not for the sake of pleasing others. And it was also not for the sake of satisfying himself. Instead, it was aimed at pleasing the Lord.
This is what drove Paul. And this is the pervasive reality of Christian living. The basic principle of all that we are and all that we do should be a desire to please the Lord—not just on the outside, but on the inside as well. Our drive is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1). Whatever it is that we do in life, whatever careers we choose, whatever ministries we choose, whatever paths we go down, this must be what drives our ambitions.
This God-aimed direction is the first aspect of Paul’s holy ambition. Next time we will look at the second: the fact that his ambition was formed in light of heaven.
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