Who wants to do great things for God? Who wants to have a lasting impact on the world for Christ? Who wants to be a part of successful and influential ministries?
What Christian doesn’t, right?
If you find yourself wondering what great things God has called you to and considering how you can have a lasting impact on the world, I want to ask you some questions. Just consider these honestly for a moment:
- Where does your desire to “do great things for God” come from?
- Who decides what “great things for God” and “lasting impact for Christ” look like?
- How strong is your desire for success and influence, regardless of whether it is in the spiritual realm or not?
- If God told you that His plans for you included none of your ideas of what “great things for God” and “lasting impact for Christ” look like, how would you feel and how would you respond?
- What I’m asking really boils down to this: are there any traces of selfish spiritual ambition in your life?
“Selfish spiritual ambition,” you may be asking, “is there such a thing?” Is it possible to have selfish ambition even in good, God-honoring desires? I would argue that it is not only possible, but it is running rampant in our Christian culture. Although it is more difficult to spot than the open, obvious ambition of the world (pursuit of money, fame, personal comfort and happiness), selfish spiritual ambition creeps up from the same root—the desire to glorify ourselves above others.
Our culture tells us that achievements are more important than character. We Christians internalize this false doctrine by saying that it is more important for us to do great things for God than just to do what He asks of us. But God’s Word is very plain: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 15:22) God wants our obedience more than He wants us to go out and make a name for Him. He will bring Himself renown—He does not need us to do it. We presume too much when we imagine that God needs us to bring a lost world to Him.
It may not seem to you that selfish ambition has crept into Christianity, but let me offer two pieces of evidence.
First, why do you think The Prayer of Jabez was such a success? (Prompting The Prayer Of Jabez For Women, Teens, Kids, Young Hearts, and Little Ones, The Prayer of Jabez Devotional, Prayer Journal, Video Curriculum, Encouragement Cards, and on and on.) I can tell you right now that it’s not because Americans long to pray. It’s because Jabez’ prayer starts like this: “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory!” Christians living in our culture have bowed down to the foreign gods of our non-Christian friends and neighbors—success, prosperity, and the pursuit of the American Dream. These gods are disguised at times. We dress them in different clothing. We say we want to do great things for God, leave a legacy, and change the world for Him. The fallacy lies in this: only God does great things, the only legacy worth leaving is Christ’s, and the only one who can change the hearts of men is their Maker, Redeemer, and Lord. We crave blessings and larger territories. Maybe they aren’t the same blessings and territories that our secular friends want. Maybe they are good things, like being a missionary or evangelist. But we crave them nonetheless. “We must haves them, my precioussss.” I’m not saying the prayer of Jabez is wrong to pray or that the book isn’t good—I’ve read it and found it to be an encouragement to my spiritual life. But I would say that the fanfare surrounding the uncovering of this “hidden” passage of Scripture and the success in sales and a million spin-offs is a sign of a desire in cultural Christianity that is stronger than a desire for God.
Second, have you ever heard of Saddleback or Willow Creek? There’s a good chance you have if you hang out with pastors or church leaders. These are synonymous with “successful church” in American Christian subculture. Books have been written about their methodology and church after church copies their ideas and philosophies on ministry. Why? Numbers. These churches have been “successful.” If you were secular businessperson looking at the local church, what would you say the sign of “success” would be? Numbers. More people in your club means more money means more opportunities, more influence, more power. Now let me ask you, do you think that this is God’s view of a successful church? I would say no. Again, as with The Prayer of Jabez, I’m not saying churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek are bad. In fact, they seem to be doing many things right. They are ministering to people’s needs and the Lord is using them. But the fact that so many churches out there have ditched seeking God’s will in exchange for a “successful ministry model” shows that something is way off.
Now, you may be thinking that there are plenty of Christians and people in the Bible who did great things for God. Certainly! I’m not denying this. But let’s look at an example. The Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament, was a great missionary, and is arguably the most influential Christian who ever lived. But were those Paul’s ambitions? I would argue that they weren’t. From his conversion to his ministry to his imprisonment and finally his death, Paul considered himself a bondservant and a slave to Christ—doesn’t sound like the motto of a “mover-and-shaker,” does it?
Read through the book of Acts and you will find that Paul’s decisions were always a response of obedience to the will of God in his life. When Paul was still Saul, the unbelieving persecutor of Christians, Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Jesus confronted Paul for his persecution of the church and immediately gave him a command: “get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6) Jesus didn’t just tell him to follow his heart and pursue his dreams. He was very specific and very much in control of Paul’s life.
Consider the start of one of Paul’s missionary journeys. “While they [the church at Antioch] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul [Paul] for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2-3) Paul didn’t write out a 10-year plan for becoming a great missionary and impacting the world for Christ. He was led by God and was merely obedient to the Spirit’s leading and the church’s commissioning. For more examples, see Acts 15:2-3, 15:22, 16:9-10, 18:9-11, 20:22-24.
Throughout his ministry, Paul was led by the Spirit, sent by other believers, and guided from one task to another by the hand of God. God orchestrated and coordinated everything—Paul was merely an instrument, yielded and available for God’s use. And who received the glory? God! If Paul had been guided by his own ambition, he would have missed many of the opportunities God had prepared for him and anything good that did come from his actions would have led to pride and personal glory for Paul, not God!
Now, let me make it clear that I’m not suggesting that your own personal dreams, desires, and goals are wrong. Psalms 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” What I am suggesting is that they need to be held in open hands, fully surrendered to God. Your responsibility is to “delight yourself in the Lord,” not to make your goals and dreams happen. If you surrender your desires, you will find that some are fulfilled, some are not, and many are changed by God’s work in you. But no matter what, God must be God of your dreams, desires and goals, just as He is God of every other part of you.
Let me offer myself as a final example. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do great things for God. It sounds pretentious and prideful (because it is), but let me be completely transparent: If I could have my way, I’d like to be a famous Christian filmmaker, author, pop theologian, emerging ministry-starter, missionary, and—who knows—maybe even die a martyr’s death. Now, I wouldn’t say any of these are necessarily bad. (Paul says that the desire to be an elder in the church is a worthy desire.) But the sign that they are selfish ambitions in my life is that, if Christ asked me to do none of these, but instead “just” be a good husband to my wife and member of my church, I would balk and reply, “But Lord, I know you’ve called me to greater things than that!” How prideful am I to believe such things? But I do! I am ambitious and the world (and much of American Christianity) tells me that’s okay.
Up until now I’ve believed it.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.” (Phillipians 2:3-4)
“Command those who are rich in this present world [Americans] not to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependant on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
Note: My apologies to Christian readers outside the United States. I don’t know what influence Western and American mindsets and philosophies have had on your own culture, but if they are as pervasive as I imagine they are, then hopefully this has encouraged you as well.