If you were to ask people in the church to describe demonic practices, you aren’t likely to hear the word “ambition” listed. Sure, maybe witchcraft, and Ouija boards, idolatry, and pornography, but ambition is a good thing, right? Our culture values hard work, and for many Americans busyness has become a status symbol. This was argued in a 2017 article out of the Journal of Consumer Research:
In contemporary American culture, complaining about being busy and working all the time has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon. On Twitter, celebrities publicly complain about “having no life” or “being in desperate need of a vacation.” A New York Times social commentator suggests that a common response to the question “How are you?” is “Busy!” An analysis of holiday letters indicates that references to “crazy schedules” have dramatically increased since the 1960s. To explain this phenomenon, we uncover an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals. Our investigation reveals that positive status inferences in response to long hours of work and lack of leisure time are mediated by the perceptions that busy individuals possess desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition), leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.
Who doesn’t want to be in demand? Thus we adore ambition and the ambitious. It’s here that the Bible gives us a serious word of caution. Not all ambition is good. In fact, there are some kinds of ambition that are really evil. There is such a thing as satanic ambition.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (Js. 3:13-16)
The first thing to note about this kind of ambition is that it is selfish. The word used by James connotes “a feeling of resentfulness based upon jealousy and implying rivalry.” It is a self-centered ambition, leading a man or woman to compare themselves to others, and driving them to be better than everyone else. If someone is superior to them in some respect, they’re likely to be jealous of that person and resent them. This ungodly ambition seeks the glory of self rather than of God and keeps people from God’s kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Cor. 12:20; Rom. 2:8-9).
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about demonic ambition is that it can even be the cause of externally-good works. Paul told the Philippians, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:15-17). Recall that the same religious leaders who Jesus said would one day cry, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” (Mt. 7:22), were also said to have done everything they did for the praise of men (Mt. 23:5). Demonic ambition exalts self while looking down at others, and it resents anyone or anything that takes the attention off of it. This was one of the obvious downfalls of the Pharisees when Jesus walked among them (Mt. 27:18).
Selfish ambition is from the spirit of the anti-Christ and is contrary to the kind of attitude God calls us to have as Christians. Paul said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). The opposite of demonic wisdom that seeks the glory of self is the wisdom and mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5-8). God the Word had all status but came as a servant and counted sinners as more significant than himself by suffering for their salvation on the cross. The antidote to the deadly poison of selfish ambition is to set our minds on Christ and to see ourselves as the sinners which he came to save. We are not competing with each other or with Jesus for glory; we are weak beggars who have been served by the Lord and who in turn must count others as more significant than ourselves.
God has given you Jesus, and he wants to give you the wisdom that doesn’t lust for praise or power. It is a wisdom that is “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Js. 3:17). Rather than resent the success of others, this wisdom rejoices with them in their blessings. Like Jesus, this wisdom is a free gift, given liberally by God to all who ask in faith (Js. 1:5-8). If you’ve been driven by satanic ambition, remember that Jesus came to save the selfishly ambitious. Stop trying to garner adoration for yourself and give glory to God by surrendering to the one who had all glory yet emptied himself to serve you. May God protect us from every evil work, and through Christ help us to love him to the degree with which we once loved our sin and ourselves.