Selfish ambition is a sin that is warned against throughout Scripture. It involves pursuing one’s own desires and agenda over God’s will and the needs of others. The Bible provides many examples of selfish ambition and its consequences to teach us to avoid it. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore biblical examples of selfish ambition, its characteristics, results, and remedies. We will examine key passages using the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible.
Ambition in itself is not wrong – we are encouraged to be ambitious for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom (1 Corinthians 10:31, Matthew 6:33). However, selfish ambition is driven by pride and self-interest rather than the will of God. It seeks personal gain over the good of others and can lead to disunity, contention, and destruction in families, churches, organizations, and societies. As Christians, we must be on guard against selfish ambition creeping into our hearts and discern it through the light of Scripture.
This post will highlight biblical examples of selfish ambition to help us identify and avoid it. We will study characters from both the Old and New Testaments whose selfish ambition led to their downfall. By examining their motivations and the results of their actions, we can learn to recognize selfish ambition in our own hearts. We will also discuss how to cultivate godly ambition in its place – an ambition focused on eternal rewards rather than temporary selfish gain.
What is Selfish Ambition?
Before exploring examples of selfish ambition, it is important to understand exactly what selfish ambition is. The Greek word translated “selfish ambition” in several New Testament passages is eritheia. It refers to electioneering or canvassing for office, rivalries, and careerism. Eritheia describes self-interest that disregards the welfare of others and even uses others as stepping stones to gain influence or achieve status. Motives stemming from eritheia include pride, envy, jealousy, and contention (James 3:14-16).
Selfish ambition values personal recognition over service, self-glorification over God’s glory, and self-will over God’s will. It is often accompanied by hypocrisy, lies, flattery, or slander as people attempt to climb the ladder of success at any cost. The fruits of selfish ambition are disunity, quarrels, dissensions, and disharmony (Galatians 5:19-21, James 3:16).
While selfish ambition may lead to short-term gains, these successes are fleeting. Its grasp for power, wealth, position, and temporary rewards leads only to destruction and judgment in the end. As Christians, we are called to crucify selfish ambition and instead seek God’s kingdom above all else (Galatians 5:24, Matthew 6:33).
Biblical Examples of Selfish Ambition
The Bible contains many sobering examples of selfish ambition to warn believers against pursuing personal interests over God’s will and the good of others. By examining the motives and outcomes of biblical characters who demonstrated selfish ambition, we can learn to discern and resist this sin in our own hearts.
Cain – Cain’s selfish ambition led him to murder his brother Abel out of jealousy that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected his own:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. (Genesis 4:2-8)
Rather than repenting when God kindly warned him to rule over his sin, Cain’s jealousy and wounded pride drove him to murder his brother. This was one of the first displays of selfish ambition leading to violence and death in Scripture.
Korah – Korah led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, desiring power and recognition for himself:
Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:1-3)
Korah’s selfish ambition led to judgment, as he and his men were swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:31-33).
Absalom – King David’s son Absalom tried to seize his father’s throne out of pride and selfish ambition:
After this it happened that Absalom provided himself with chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him. Now Absalom would rise early and stand beside the way to the gate. So it was, whenever anyone who had a lawsuit came to the king for a decision, that Absalom would call to him and say, “What city are you from?” And he would say, “Your servant is from such and such a tribe of Israel.” Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your case is good and right; but there is no deputy of the king to hear you.” Moreover Absalom would say, “Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice.” (2 Samuel 15:1-4)
Rather than waiting for God’s timing, Absalom took matters into his own hands and drew people away after himself. His rebellion divided Israel and led to civil war and Absalom’s eventual death (2 Samuel 18).
Gehazi – The prophet Elisha’s servant Gehazi selfishly pursued personal gain against his master’s wishes when Naaman offered to pay for his healing:
And Elisha said to him, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him a short distance. But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, “Look, my master has spared Naaman this Syrian, while not receiving from his hands what he brought; but as the Lord lives, I will run after him and take something from him.” So Gehazi pursued Naaman. When Naaman saw him running after him, he got down from the chariot to meet him, and said, “Is all well?” And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me, saying, ‘Indeed, just now two young men of the sons of the prophets have come to me from the mountains of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of garments.’ ” (2 Kings 5:19-22)
As a result, Gehazi was struck with incurable leprosy – the penalty for his selfish gain against God’s purposes (2 Kings 5:25-27).
The New Testament likewise warns believers against selfish ambition through sobering examples:
Judas Iscariot – Judas betrayed Jesus for his own financial gain:
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him. (Matthew 26:14-16)
Judas’s selfish ambition led to Jesus’ crucifixion and Judas’s own suicide.
Diotrephes – Diotrephes sought preeminence and control in the early church:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10)
Euodia and Syntyche – These women had a dispute that threatened to divide the Philippian church due to their selfish ambition:
I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (Philippians 4:2-3)
Diotrephes, Euodia, and Syntyche demonstrate that selfish ambition can divide churches and Christian communities.
Simon the Sorcerer – Simon tried to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit for selfish purposes:
And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! (Acts 8:18-20)
Simon’s motives were exposed and rebuked. Selfish ambition has no place in the kingdom of God.
These examples demonstrate the far-reaching destruction that can result from selfish ambition – destroying relationships, dividing churches, and earning condemnation. As disciples of Christ, we must diligently guard our hearts against selfish ambition that values personal gain over God’s kingdom.
Characteristics of Selfish Ambition
By studying biblical examples, we can identify key characteristics of selfish ambition:
- Pride – Selfish ambition is rooted in pride that disregards both God and others. The selfishly ambitious think they deserve more power, position, or recognition.
- Envy – Cain and Judas were driven by envy of their brother’s blessing and the disciples’ intimacy with Jesus. Selfish ambition is often jealous of the success or influence of others.
- Impatience – Absalom and Simon were unwilling to wait for God’s timing and took matters into their own hands. Selfish ambition demands immediate gratification.
- Independence – Korah, Gehazi, and Diotrephes sought their own will rather than submitting to God-ordained authority. Selfish ambition rebels against God’s order and appointed leaders.
- Greed – Gehazi and Judas were motivated by greed for riches. Selfish ambition uses others for personal gain.
- Disunity – Diotrephes divided the church and Euodia and Syntyche threatened to do the same. Selfish ambition destroys relationships and stirs up quarrels in churches and communities.
When we see these attitudes in our hearts, it is an indicator that selfish ambition may be taking root. Recognizing these characteristics helps us to identify selfish ambition before it bears the rotten fruit of disunity and destruction.
Consequences of Selfish Ambition
The biblical examples also demonstrate the consequences of giving in to selfish ambition. Some results include:
- Strained or broken relationships
- Disharmony, quarrels, contentions in families or churches
- Divided communities
- Disobedience to God-given authority
- Violence or injustice against others
- Loss of influence or opportunity
- Condemnation or judgment from God
Cain was cursed and exiled. Korah was swallowed up by the earth. Absalom met a violent death. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying about their collection (Acts 5:1-11). Judas was filled with remorse and committed suicide.
Allowing selfish ambition leads only to destruction. Its grasping for temporary rewards on earth costs us our heavenly rewards. Jesus warned what profit it is to gain the whole world yet forfeit one’s soul (Mark 8:36). The earthly success achieved by selfish ambition is worthless compared to obeying and honoring God.
Overcoming Selfish Ambition
Thankfully Scripture not only warns against selfish ambition but also shows us how to overcome it. Here are biblical keys to conquering selfish ambition:
- Die to selfish desires daily – Paul urges us to crucify and make no provision for the flesh (Galatians 2:20, Romans 13:14). We must daily put selfish desires to death.
- Focus on glorifying God – Our driving purpose must be to glorify God rather than self (1 Corinthians 10:31, Philippians 1:20). Pursue His praise rather than personal glory.
- Esteem others – Consider others more significant than yourself (Philippians 2:3). Look to their interests first.
- Cultivate servanthood – Be a servant like Jesus, willing to be last and least (Mark 10:43-45). Submit even when you feel you deserve more.
- Ask God to search your heart – Invite God to reveal and cleanse you from selfish ambition (Psalm 139:23-24). Confess it as sin.
- Seek first God’s kingdom – Continually seek God’s will, not your own (Matthew 6:33). His priorities must come before your ambitions.
- Focus on eternal reward – Set your mind on heavenly, not earthly, rewards that last (Colossians 3:2, Matthew 6:19-21).
Ask God each day for grace to walk in humility and surrender rather than selfish ambition. Fixating our eyes on Jesus and seeking only His glory purifies our ambitions and aligns our desires with His.
Selfish ambition can be a subtle sin, but it is deadly. Cain, Korah, Absalom, Ananias & Sapphira, Judas, and other biblical examples demonstrate the destruction selfish ambition causes when unchecked. Common fruits of selfish ambition include strained relationships, disunity, contention, greed, envy, pride, and disobedience. It leads to judgment, not reward.
As Christ-followers, we must regularly examine our hearts and motives to recognize and repent of any selfish ambition lurking there. Determinedly fix your eyes on Jesus, not personal success. Seek to honor God and serve others ahead of yourself. Die to selfish desires daily through the power of the Holy Spirit. When you cultivate godly, eternal ambitions rather than selfish, earthly ones, your life will bear fruit that glorifies God forever.
- Selfish ambition is driven by pride and disregards others’ needs and God’s will to gain influence, power, position, or wealth.
- Cain, Absalom, Korah, Gehazi, Judas, and others demonstrate the destruction selfish ambition causes.
- Characteristics include pride, impatience, envy, greed, disobedience, and disunity.
- It earns only temporary earthly rewards, while costing eternal rewards.
- Overcome it by seeking God’s glory, esteeming others, serving, focusing on eternal rewards, and dying to selfish desires through the Spirit.
 Strong, J. (2009). A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Vol. 2, p. 15). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.