On the Subtleties of Selfish Ambition

I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as ambitious. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as ambitious; in fact, I spend most of the time feeling guilty that I don’t have more of a desire and drive to be and do more.

Enter Sunday morning.

The passage was James 3:13-18 (NIV): “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

The theme was true wisdom, and the pastor defined true wisdom as “acting from what you know to be true about God.” Conversely, false wisdom is acting from envy and selfish ambition. The root of envy, he said, is the lie that Jesus is not enough, and the root of selfish ambition is the lie that who God says I am is not enough. Selfish ambition doesn’t always look like scratching and clawing to get your way (though it certainly can be that); sometimes, it’s selfish promotion – the way we present ourselves to others out of a need to be seen, or a need to be seen as somebody. In other words, it’s the way we try to manufacture significance when we are discontent with who God says we are. (You can catch the full teaching here. I highly recommend it.)

I want to rewind my life to about three years ago, and have a conversation with my twenty-four-going-on-twenty-five-year-old self. (Not that she would have listened.) The one pounding out edits for The Field, discouraged that twenty-five is just around the corner, and she’s done nothing significant with her life. (Her words, not mine.) The one working two part-time jobs, neither of which really utilizes the degree for which she worked two and sometimes three part-time jobs throughout college to pay for, and ceaselessly looking for the opportunity that will, because that would mean she didn’t waste four years and thousands of dollars. The one who can never quite get her ducks in a row the way everyone else can. Because envy and selfish ambition have a harbor in her, and that harbor is only going to expand in the coming years.

Selfish promotion. As I heard the term on Sunday, it was uncomfortably familiar. It reminded me of something in the publishing world called self-promotion. Of course, self-promotion in its most glaring form – that is, authors talking about themselves and their work all of the time – is frowned upon. The less obvious self-promotion – like spending obscene amounts of time and energy building relationships with others who will talk about them and their work – is expected and encouraged. The obsession over beating algorithms and statistics in order to be seen and entice people into your world – like knowing exactly what to say, and when, and how … expected and encouraged. Filtering your fullness through the three or four topics that define your brand … expected and encouraged. Making goals, shattering them, and of course, sharing when you do – sharing everything you do … expected and encouraged.

Why? Well, publishers expect and encourage authors to do these things, because when their authors and books are seen in the right light, it positively affects their bottom lines. And authors go along because they want to be seen, and want to be seen through their brand.

I have been as guilty as anyone of giving selfish ambition harbor. And I’d love to say I left it all behind when I dismantled my online author platform through April and May of last year, but…

I have this story I’ve been working on for almost thirteen years. Have never so much as finished a rough draft, though the story has evolved. I expect to be working on it for at least another ten years, maybe even fifteen. It’s just not there yet: I’m still getting to know the fleshing out the characters and plot and themes and structure. It needs … time to mature.

At times, though, I still feel immense pressure to have something, anything to share with the world. So I might share snippets here and there on social media – you know, to assure all of you that I am hard at work writing this thing. I might get thinking that twenty-five years is a long time to spend on one story, and I might start and finish other, easier stories and push them out there. I might build a platform that God has not given me. All because I believe the lie that who God says I am is not enough, that I have to be more, and I have to do more.

Around the New Year, God gave me an unexpected career goal, and automatically, I wanted steps to get there. The only step I’ve been given at this time, though, is to pray and believe. Because it’s not time for it yet, not even time to be working for it yet. But the time for it will come.

Everything I am and do between now and then in obedience to Him is enough.

I don’t have a platform anymore. Maybe someday I will again. If it comes it will be when God gives it, not when I make it happen. And He will ordain it unique to me, not what works for everyone else, or even how I have done things in the past.

Right now, I simply believe Him when He says, “It is not time for platform yet, but it will be. Right now, it’s time for a palm tree,” and that He, and whatever He gives, is enough.




One thought on “On the Subtleties of Selfish Ambition

  1. vallezc3 says:

    Wow…close to the bone.

    I often look for something to challenge my thinking but this post has caught me by surprise.

    You raise some very interesting questions around selfish promotion that I need to ponder. It’s a difficult thing to hear the individual voices of passion and obedience, they work well together until one becomes dominant over the other which my passion could be doing.

    This really spoke to me,

    ‘automatically I wanted steps to get there. The only step I’ve been given at this time, though, is to pray and believe. Because it’s not time for it yet. But the time for it will come.

    Everything I am and do between now and then in obedience to Him is enough.
    Thank you for sharing.’

    Thank you for spending the time to write your thoughts.

    Tony C

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