Is personal ambition bad for the Christian?

June 15, 2021

Is personal ambition bad for the Christian?

It depends. In certain arenas, one should only start if success is the goal. When someone studies for their entrance exam into law or medical school, I would guess that they have some sort of ambition to become an attorney or a doctor and that they most likely desire a successful practice. The entrepreneur doesn’t launch a business hoping to just break even financially. And as a former church planter, I have never met anyone who sets out to start a church hoping the impact will be minimal. When my friends and I decided to start our church, we had high hopes of reaching a lot of people for Christ and sending church members across the globe to make a worldwide impact. We weren’t aiming for a few friends having a house church.

Motive matters

Pastor Dan Dodds wrote that in Scripture, “The word ambition is employed in both positive and negative contexts. Negatively, James condemns those who have ‘bitter jealousy and selfish ambition’ (James 3:14). Positively, Paul ‘makes it [his] ambition to preach the gospel’ (Rom. 15:20). Clearly, the Bible acknowledges both good and bad ambition. How do we know the difference?”

My friend Matt Smethurst wrote, “One thing that separates biblical Christianity from almost every other religion is its laser-like focus on our hearts. Our Creator cares what we do, to be sure, but most fundamentally he cares how and why we do certain things. He’s interested in those intentions that are hidden from human eyes.” Motives matter. 

When I watch a crime drama, one of the keys to solving the crime is establishing a motive. This can narrow down the search for suspects. When it comes to personal ambition, even in good goals such as growing a ministry or running a thriving business, motive matters to God. As we examine our own hearts, we must launch an investigation to identify our motives.

Direction matters 

Further, our ambitions need proper direction and grounding. Pastor Dave Harvey wrote a helpful book called Rescuing Ambition. I think there are immediate takeaways from the title alone. He didn’t say to avoid ambition or to run full speed ahead in hustle. He said ambition needs to be rescued. There is a good kind and a bad kind, and rather than urge ambitious Christians to suppress all their drive, Dave suggests instead that it needs guardrails.

If you’ve ever driven on mountain roads, you know that guardrails not only protect drivers and passengers, they also make it easier to keep a good speed. My family goes to the North Carolina mountains every summer, and we love to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The winding sections of that drive without guardrails cause me to slow down, take exceeding caution, and (honestly) freak out. But when there are guardrails, I can more comfortably keep a good pace and stay in the lane. Similarly, we can press the gas on ambition a bit more confidently when the proper guardrails are lining the roads, helping us avoid an unhindered, unsafe, and undirected trajectory.

Guardrails for ambition 

So what are these guardrails? The apostle Paul commands: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Do nothing out of selfish ambition. But instead look to the interests of others. So we know our efforts are to be done in humility and for a purpose. We know we are to work to glorify God and serve others. 

Without the guardrails of humility, ambition can quickly redirect Christians from living as servants of God to living as servants of their own desires. This will be a battle for as long as we are on this earth, because “selfish ambition is a sin that always seems to be ‘crouching at the door’ (Genesis 4:7).” In Rescuing Ambitions, Dave Harvey says guardrails keep us on God’s road and move in the direction of His glory. This is the very thing we should be seeking – God’s glory. If you’re into sports, politics, wrestling, or even Star Wars, you know what a rivalry is. Consider this: In our own lives, God’s glory versus our own is the ultimate rivalry. It makes pairings like Alabama vs. Auburn, the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, and Republicans vs. Democrats look like they are holding hands and skipping in a field. We cannot be simultaneously glorifying God and glorifying ourselves. We cannot even aim to blend them just a little bit.

Godly ambition requires the discipline of turning our eyes to Christ and evaluating our own motives. God wants us to think sensibly (Rom. 12:3). This begins by not being conformed to the patterns of the world (Rom. 12:2), being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2), and not thinking of ourselves more highly than we should (Rom. 12:3). Paul modeled this recovering of ambition, resolving, “We make it our aim to be pleasing to him” (2 Cor. 5:9). This was the ambition that consumed Paul. Since Jesus had taken hold of him (Phil. 3:12), Paul’s ambition was to pursue Christ even more.

I once was asked to be the guest speaker for a visiting team at a college football chapel service. The team had a 0-10 record on the season and was about to play a top ten team in the nation. In other words, it was gonna get ugly. They weren’t just going to lose; someone was going to get hurt. In that situation, the typical player’s ambition is making it back home for Christmas break in one piece. I wasn’t sure how many on the team were Christians, but I decided to speak directly to those who knew the Lord. I told them, “You have a reason to play tomorrow. You have motivation to hustle on the field. And you have all you need for purpose going into the game: you are playing for the glory of God. Win or lose, we as Christians have different goals than the world around us. Our goals are aimed at worshiping God and using our opportunities for His glory. You know what? Sometimes that means losing well. 

Excerpted from Getting Over Yourself: Trading Believe-in-Yourself Religion for Christ-Centered Christianity by Dean Inserra (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

Dean Inserra

Dean Inserra is the founding and lead pastor of CITYCHURCH in Tallahassee, where he leads the vision and preaching. Dean graduated from Liberty University and attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds a MA in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is pursuing a D.Min from Southern … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24