Selfish ambition and vain conceit are dangerous pitfalls that can damage our relationships with God and others. As Christians, we are called to walk in humility, considering others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
In this post, we will explore what the Bible teaches about selfish ambition and vain conceit, the root issues behind them, and practical ways we can overcome them through the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Selfish ambition and vain conceit stem from pride and self-centeredness.
- These mindsets are contrary to the example Christ set of humility and service.
- God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
- We overcome selfish ambition by seeking God’s kingdom first and focusing on others.
- Walking in the Spirit enables us to crucify our fleshly desires and walk in humility.
- Serving one another in love fulfills the law of Christ.
The Dangers of Selfish Ambition
Selfish ambition is the obsessive desire to promote oneself and obtain power, success, status and recognition regardless of the cost. The Greek word translated “selfish ambition” in Galatians 5:20 implies electioneering – attempting to win office at any cost just to satisfy one’s own desire for power and prestige.
James 3:14-16 warns that selfish ambition is earthly, unspiritual and demonic: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Selfish ambition leads to bitter envy, boasting, denial of truth, disorder and other evils. It breeds conflict, division and dissension in the body of Christ. It also squeezes out good spiritual fruit in our lives. As James writes, “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17).
The obsessive self-focus of selfish ambition leaves no room for these Christ-like qualities to grow. Paul warns Timothy that in the last days people will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4). Self-absorption in ambition ultimately leads to separation from God.
As Christians, we are called to follow the example of Christ who humbled Himself, took on the form of a servant and obediently went to the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). Our ambition should not be for self-glorification but to glorify God and serve others.
The Emptiness of Vain Conceit
Closely related to selfish ambition is vain conceit – excessive pride in oneself and feelings of superiority over others. As Galatians 5:26 (NKJV) warns, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
Pride leads to disunity, envy and strife within relationships. The Greek word translated “conceited” literally means “emptied because detached from reality” – in other words, vain. While the proud person thinks they are full of wisdom and self-importance, in reality they are empty, detached from God’s truth and ways.
Proverbs warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). In their illusion of self-sufficiency, the proud spurn God’s wisdom and grace. James 4:6 declares, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Atop the list of seven sins God hates is “haughty eyes” – the prideful, self-exalting look (Proverbs 6:16-17).
The vainly conceited have an inflated sense of self but do not know themselves. Jeremiah 17:9 warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Only through humility and openness to correction can we accurately see ourselves and our need for God’s grace.
The Root Issue – Pride
At the root of selfish ambition and vain conceit is pride – the excessive love of self that seeks to promote self at the expense of others and God. As Augustine wrote, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
The original sin in the Garden of Eden sprang from pride. Satan tempted Eve with the lie that she could “be like God” (Genesis 3:5) – seeking equality with God rather than humbly receiving all from His hand. Proverbs 16:5 says, “The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.”
What drives our pride? Often, unmet core desires for worth, acceptance, affirmation or control. When these are not rooted in God, we seek counterfeits through selfish ambition or vain conceit. But only God can meet our deepest needs. Pride keeps us from intimacy with Him.
As James 4:10 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” God promises grace to the humble but resists the proud. The way UP is DOWN. As we lower ourselves, surrender our wills and acknowledge need for Him, He lifts us up.
Overcoming through Humility and Service
If pride is at the root, humility is the antidote. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less – being God-focused rather than self-focused. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” This is the mindset Paul describes in Philippians 2:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7).
The antidote to selfish ambition is humility – considering others above ourselves and looking out for their interests. This is possible by having the mindset of Christ, who humbled Himself as a servant.
Servanthood is the model Christ gave us. He told His disciples, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45).
Our greatness comes not through self-exaltation but through self-giving service after the pattern of Christ. This is the way of the cross that leads to true life. As Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24).
Walking in the Spirit
Though humility runs counter to our fleshly pride, through the power of the Holy Spirit we can walk in humility and overcome selfish ambition.
Paul exhorts, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:16,22). As we yield control of our lives to the Spirit, He produces His selfless fruit in place of the fleshly desire to promote self.
The Spirit enables us to crucify self-centeredness and live unto God: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:24-25). By prayerfully walking in step with the Spirit each day, He empowers us to overcome selfish impulses and walk in humility and service.
As Romans 12:3 says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” When facing temptations to selfish ambition or pride, we can take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and realign to His humble, others-focused mindset through the Spirit’s power.
Fulfilling the Law of Christ through Serving One Another
While selfish ambition and vain conceit breed division, strife and disunity, choosing to serve one another in humility fulfills the law of Christ – the royal law of love.
Paul writes to the Galatians, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love…The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14). James calls this command to love our neighbors as ourselves “the royal law” and “the law that gives freedom” (James 2:8-12).
As we look out for others’ interests in humility and use our gifts to serve one another, we walk in the freedom and blessing of obeying Christ’s law of love. We must keep our eyes open for those around us in need of encouragement or assistance. As Peter exhorted, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10).
The body of Christ grows unified and fruitful when each part is using its gifts to serve the others. This humility modeled by Jesus and commanded to His followers is the path to true greatness in God’s kingdom.
Selfish ambition and vain conceit are dangerous pitfalls that can severely damage our relationship with God and others. As we yield to the Spirit’s work in our hearts, He enables us to walk in the humility and selfless service modeled by Christ. Our true worth and purpose are found not in worldly status or praise but in fulfilling our unique role in the body of Christ. May we look to build others up, not ourselves, trusting that as we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, He will lift us up and exalt us at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6).