Autobrakes and the Holy Spirit: How to avoid selfish ambition in our work

“Everybody’s got an angle.” That’s what Bob told Betty in the classic film White Christmas. She accused him of being cynical. He insinuated that she was naive. “Surely you knew everybody’s got a little larceny operating in them,” he added.⠀

Larceny. Now that’s an indictment — that deep down we’re all petty thieves, stealing from others to serve our own interests. Perhaps I should examine my motives through that lens. What’s my angle when it comes to acquiring that new client or agreeing to teach that class? What do I hope will come from that networking connection? Am I barging my way onto someone else’s platform in order to build my own? Is it all for personal gain?

Larceny is probably the oldest angle in the book. We may detect it at work when Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in an attempt to become like God. Her son Cain stole the very breath of life from his brother. And the entire Babel project could be viewed as an attempt to rob God of the glory due his name. As they built the tower, the people encouraged one another, “[L]et us make a name for ourselves…” (Gen 11:4).

Babel may have happened thousands of years ago, but the glory-seeking that led to it has not been entombed in ancient history. We see it on display everywhere in our culture today. And ministry leaders are not immune. When we sit down to our work, commonly characterized by love and self-sacrifice, some of us may admit that, deep down

  • We want our tweet to go viral.
  • We want to write the sermon series that becomes the bestselling book.
  • We want to be invited to speak on the main stage at a leadership conference.
  • We want to be the lead pastor of our denomination’s flagship church.
  • We want to cut the single that will outperform Chris Tomlin and Hillsong on the charts.

When selfish ambition eclipses the more noble reasons for which we do our work, our tasks and relationships become more about us, advancing our name, image, and influence than humbly serving those to whom God has called us. Subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, we bring a less-than-holy angle to our work, an angle that puts our own glory ahead of God’s.

The Angle: Selfish Ambition and Conceit

The Apostle Paul warned the church at Philippi about glory-seeking: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (Phil 2:3). In other words, do not let self-advancement, self-promotion, or seeking your own glory motivate you. Paul categorized these motivations as “works of the flesh,” in opposition to the kingdom (Gal 5:19-21). James called them “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” and noted, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:15-16).

As the dust has settled after a turbulent year of vocational discernment and job hunting, I can clearly see how much of my work in recent years has been motivated more by selfish ambition than for love of neighbor. A recent Ph.D. graduate, I set my sights on a tenure-track teaching positions. I knew that my C.V. (my academic resume) needed to be filled with publications, presentations, and teaching experience. So, I wrote articles, attended conferences, and took on a heavy adjunct teaching load. But my primary goal was to make myself look good to a search committee, not to serve my discipline and my colleagues and not to serve my students or the universities that employed me. Looking back, I wonder to what extent I robbed others in pursuit of my own glory.

The Correction: Humility

Becoming aware of and naming my selfish motivations is only half the battle. If we do nothing to keep them in check, they have a way of creeping back in. Instead of seeking our own glory and making a name for ourselves, we need to seek God’s glory and make his name great. But how do we do that?

Paul tells us that humility is the answer. Humility is the opposite of, and really the antidote to, selfish ambition and conceit. Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3). New Testament scholar Walter G. Hansen comments on this verse: “Paul does not advocate total self-neglect, but a reprioritizing of life so that each of you gives the largest share of attention to others.” One step toward humility is evaluating our motivations and asking, “What angle am I working here?” The next step is to ask, “How can I prioritize the service to God and neighbor?”

When we struggle to find examples of people who eschew selfish ambition and live solely for the glory of God, we can look to Christ Jesus himself, Paul instructs. Instead of seeking his own personal advancement and his own glory, Jesus emptied himself and became a human, and a human who served others (Phil 2:6-7). He humbled himself not only in his life but also in his death (Phil 2:8). But his humility was not in vain. Because of his humility, “God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9).

I have a friend who models this sort of humility in his coaching and consulting work. He approaches every client, every social media post, with the intention of helping others. If he lands a new client, great. If he makes a new contact, stellar. But he seeks to serve others first and trusts God to bring the contracts and the revenue. He lives out the principle Peter taught which echoes the humility and exaltation of Christ: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

Humility often looks like doing our job and doing it well. We seek to lead and serve the ones to whom God has called us. We pray that everything we do is “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and done in a spirit of thanksgiving (Col 3:17). As ministry leaders, we do our work in such a way that we “prepare God’s people for works of service” (Eph 4:12). And we trust God to shepherd our lives, our careers, and our influence as he sees fit.

The Need: A Braking System

When I dropped off our Subaru Outback at the dealership for airbag maintenance, the service representative gave me a loaner car for the day — not just any loaner car, but a brand new, fully loaded Outback. Moonroof? Check. Leather seats? Check. Seat warmers? Check and thank you. Reverse automatic braking?

I discovered the reverse automatic braking when I backed out of my driveway for the first time. Apparently, the car didn’t trust my ability to check my surroundings — sidewalks clear, no cars coming, no one coming out of the driveways across the street — because it stopped my car just as the back wheels hit the pavement. Not once. Multiple times. I could not figure out why the car kept braking.

After a few attempts and some careful observation of the backup camera, I discovered the problem: As the car backed out of the driveway and tilted downhill ever so slightly, it cast a shadow on the road. The braking system interpreted the shadow as dangerous and stopped the car. The angle was the problem.

An automatic braking system that stops a car because of its own shadow may not be the most helpful. But, it makes me wish I had the built-in technology to detect my selfish ambitions and prevent me from acting on them. Thankfully, God has given us his Spirit and invites us to cooperate with the Spirit in living for him instead of for ourselves; therefore, I have to examine my motives regularly and pray so I don’t fall into the temptation to make a name for myself and rob the glory due God’s name.

A Way Forward: Sticky Notes

When I examine my motives, I discover that it’s relatively easy for the weight to shift from serving God and neighbor to serving myself. I need regular reminders to seek the glory of God, humble myself before him, and trust him to steward my career and my influence. That’s why I love sticky notes. Whether paper or digital, I can have visual reminders in my workspace to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit” (Phil 2:3). Sticky notes, for me, are the modern version of “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads….Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates…” (Deut 11:18, 20).

On my last laptop, I had a sticky note that said, “Make Jesus’ name great.” I want to make another one that says, “Be a servant of the gospel.” What sorts of reminders do you need to keep selfish ambition at bay so that you can be ambitious for the glory of God?

Topics: Ambition, Christian Life, Issues Facing Workers

About the Author

Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.