"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."
I encourage you to stop and reread these verses a second time. Do you feel the same conviction I do? After urging the church to be “in full accord and of one mind” (verse 2), Paul unveiled the most likely culprits that derail such harmony in a congregation. One might think he would warn against poor theology, as dangerous as that is, or perhaps wrong motives. To be sure, Scripture does warn against such corruption. But, in these verses, Paul intended to uncover the dangers of “selfish ambition” and “conceit.” Desired by the enemy, these self-serving behaviors take root in the heart of countless church leaders and members, destroying unity and hindering kingdom work.
Do nothing from selfish ambition…
When we speak, act, or respond with selfishness, we knowingly fail to walk in the way of wisdom. In fact, James 3:14 addresses this head-on. James cautions, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” Acting with selfish ambition may be a bigger problem than we realize. This way of thinking is condemned as not only abandoning godliness but embracing evil.
We must regularly plead with the Spirit of God to search our hearts so that any selfish ambition might be revealed to us.
You may be quick to assume this warning does not apply to you because, after all, you are in church each Sunday. You serve in the church, help lead the church, and read your Bible each day. Do not become complacent! You must proceed with caution. This same Greek word (translated here as selfish ambition) was used by Paul once before in chapter one. In verse 17, he described the motivation of other men who were preaching out of selfish ambition. These preachers who knew God’s Word, read it, and preached it, were guilty of this very sin, which is often translated as rivalry.
When it comes to ministry, Paul’s words of caution must not be taken lightly. He spoke from personal experience. He had been the recipient of the damage that selfish ambition creates. Yet, though there may be the risk that people would engage in Kingdom work not for the sake of magnifying the name of Christ, but for the purpose of promoting themselves, we must never see another Christ-glorifying believer as our “rival.” To protect ourselves from surrendering to the temptation of greedy aspirations, we must make a daily choice to place ourselves under the leadership of God. Let it be said of us that we did “nothing from selfish ambition,” rather that we credit Christ for any and all fruitful harvest as a result of our labor.
In the Greek language, the word conceit is composed of two words meaning empty and glory. Conceit is, therefore, a façade: quite literally ‘triumph over...nothing.’ Glory is intended for God alone, never for man. If Paul’s warning against selfish ambition is a caution against seeking selfish goals, then his admonition against conceit is a call to avoid the deception of personal glory.
The heart of conceit is a belief that things should be my way. People should share my opinions. Church leaders should scramble to accommodate my preferences. Others should praise my decisions. Imagine if each individual in a church operated this way. The result would be conflict and mass chaos!
How do we avoid engagement in such a petty ambition? Paul gave the answer, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also the interests of others.” We are not to insist upon our preferences but should instead look for ways to serve others and come alongside them as they grow in holiness.
If our true desire is to support others in the pursuit of Christlikeness, that desire will leave no room for selfish ambition and conceit.
Unity among God’s people is absolutely possible, and the expected norm, but it can only be achieved among a people who are far more concerned with growing in godliness than in getting their own way. Man was not created to receive glory but to give it to God!
Look…to the interests of others
The Bible gives us practical, helpful instruction on how to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. Romans 12:15-16 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.” These words, though simple, are greatly beneficial. It is my observation that Christians are more apt to sympathize with the defeated than to celebrate with the triumphant. It is human nature to desire to comfort someone who is grieving, to somehow alleviate their pain. But I am convinced that only in the power of God does one seek to truly rejoice in the blessing of another. It is a virtue that does not come easily for most of us. As Christians, we must choose to live apart from the flesh where ambition and conceit crouches, ready to destroy us.
It seems that every day is a battle of the mind as we grapple with life’s questions: Why did he get the promotion? Why did she get engaged? Why did they receive a blessing...again? Why is it that the good gifts of another cause us to feel slighted? It is difficult to celebrate someone else’s victory if it makes you feel like you lost. It can be painful to be glad for the blessing someone else receives if you think that it should have been you. When we cannot or will not delight in the success of another, we are living the kind of life that the enemy wants for us.
In the end, the primary objective of our lives should be to see Christ magnified in the hearts of His people. Look for ways to encourage others in their relationship with the Lord. When you see signs of spiritual growth in others, rejoice with them. When you become aware of their struggles, help them along. Do not be consumed with your own interests but make it your practice to keep Christ first by putting the needs of others ahead of your own. Be grateful for what you have rather than bemoaning what you don’t. In this way, we set ourselves apart and are witnesses to the power of God in our lives.