Ambition is defined as “an intense drive for success or power; a desire to achieve honor, wealth or fame.” To be ambitious, in the worldly sense, is essentially to be determined to have more than your neighbor. Its motto is “he with the most toys wins”; ambition strives to be number one. However, in the Bible, the word ambition takes on a whole new dimension: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands …” (1 Thessalonians 4:11; cf. Philippians 1:17; Ephesians 5:8-10).
Where the world teaches us to go all out to be the best, to have a bigger house, a fancier car, a larger paycheck than our neighbor, the Bible teaches us the opposite: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3). The apostle Paul tells us, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9 NASB). The Greek word for “ambition,” philotim, means literally “to esteem as an honor.” Being ambitious, in and of itself, is not wrong, it’s what we esteem or honor that can be a problem. The Bible teaches that we should be ambitious, yet the objective is to be accepted by Christ, not by the world. Christ taught us that to be first in the Kingdom is to become a servant (Matthew 20:26-28; Matthew 23:11-12).
Paul once posed an insightful question: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men?” His answer: “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Later, Paul reiterated: “On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Paul is affirming a truth proclaimed by Jesus Himself: “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). We must ask, what is our ambition: to please God or to please man?
Scripture clearly teaches that they who seek honor and esteem from men cannot believe in Jesus (Matthew 6:24; Romans 8:7; James 4:4). Those whose ambition is to be popular with the world cannot be true, faithful servants of Jesus Christ. If our ambition is to seek the things of the world (1 John 2:16; Romans 13:14), in truth, we are self-seeking and denying Christ and His sacrifice (Matthew 10: 33; Matthew 16:24). But if it is our ambition to seek and honor Christ, we are assured of His profound promise: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” (Matthew 6:33; cf. 1 John 2:25).