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“The Wrong Kind of Ambition”

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

(James 3:16

There is such a thing as healthy ambition. For example, one who aspires to the office of an overseer desires a good work (1 Tim. 3:1); we ought, like Paul, to make it our ambition to be pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9); we are commanded to make it our ambition to lead a quiet and dignified life working with our hands and minding our own business (1 Thess. 4:11).

But there is an evil kind of ambition that is self-centered, self-serving and self-important. The word eritheia is used seven times in the New Testament, each time in connection to the Church’s ruin and division. In Romans 2:8 it is used to describe those whose ambitions are “selfish” resulting in the severe judgment of God. In 2 Corinthians 12:20 it occurs in the middle of a string of sinful behaviors (“disputes” NASB) that are ruining the unity of the Corinthian church. 

This is not surprising considering eritheia’s presence in Paul’s representative list of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20 where it is again translated “disputes” (“strife” KJV, “selfish ambitions” NKJV). Paul used it to describe those who preach with the wrong motives (Phil. 1:16) and live with the wrong spirit (2:3). James indicted the divided Christians he wrote to on the same grounds of harboring “selfish ambition” (Jas. 3:1416) that characterized wisdom which is not from above but is “earthly, natural and demonic.”

Obviously, eritheia is no good and tears up God’s work of uniting humanity in the body of Christ. Discovering the origins and evolution of this word further help us understand its New Testament uses and the dangers of “selfish ambition.”

Eritheia was derived from erithos which was a perfectly respectable word in its day, meaning “a day laborer”. The word was specifically connected with spinners and weavers of wool (erion) which is where eritheia finds its derivation. It then came to mean “labor for wages.” What’s so wrong with a person being paid for honest work? (1 Cor. 9:1-14) Here we begin to see the degeneration of a good word into an evil one that parallels the uncanny human capacity to turn a good thing into a bad thing.

Eritheia began to take on the meaning of work that is done purely to get a paycheck and nothing else; that kind of work underneath which is no spirit of service but only one question: “What do I get out of all this?” The word then came to describe people who were running for political office, not out of a sense of civil duty and service rendered to the State, but purely for their own selfish profit (honor, wealth, power, etc.). Some things don’t seem to have changed much.

Again, eritheia took on two additional nuances of meaning later on. First, it came to be used to describe political party squabbles; the kind of jockeying for a better position of power which has become so common in secular and church politics (see Lk. 22:24). Second, it took on the meaning that the New Testament writers have used, namely that “selfish ambition” which any concept of love, honor or service is absent. 

Eritheia is the self-centered, ‘me first’ politics that destroy God’s building, ravage God’s vineyard and divide God’s body. Churches that have divided over various things can probably trace the schism back to its source and find eritheia alive and well on one or both ‘sides’ of the issue.

Corinth had divided into factions just like our secular politics, red and blue, liberal and conservative. Each side was more concerned with their own position of primacy all the while Jesus, their exalted ‘Lord,’ took a back seat. Paul’s writings to them were to help these squabbling spiritual infants to see their ugly factious behavior through the lens of the cross. Surely they would see eritheia has no place in the body of Christ!

Certain preachers, like those Paul encountered in Philippi, preached the gospel not to spread the blessing of salvation in Christ to serve their fellow man but purely for selfish motives (Phil. 1:15-18). They were preaching Jesus as Lord but their heart wasn’t motivated by love to exalt Jesus but rather by eritheia to exalt themselves. Many preachers today fall into the same trap of displaying their own piety and knowledge in preaching. We must discipline ourselves lest we too be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). As one commentary stated, no preacher can show at one and the same time that he is clever and that Christ is wonderful.

Selfish ambition is characteristic in Paul’s works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) and in James’ wisdom from below (Jas. 3:13-18). It is characteristic in us when we measure things by how we can personally benefit. May Christ help us crucify this ugly behavior which is so flagrantly out of step with His gospel of selfless sacrifice!

The evolution of this word is a commentary on human nature. It began by describing the work a man does for an honest day’s pay and came to describe the work which is done for pay alone. This word should warn us to be careful how we view our work. Do we go to work not only to provide for ourselves and our family but to also help with the needs of others? Are we laboring for our true Master and the true reward? (Col. 3:22-25). Let us not ask, “What can I get out of this?” and instead ask, “What can I put into this that will bring honor to Jesus?”

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