Godly Ambition and Zeal

By Jeffery Kingry

Where does one draw the line between godly ambition and selfish ambition? Is it possible to tell the difference between a zeal that is sincere and one that is bitter? James seemed to think so. When he wrote concerning the wisdom that should characterize the teacher of truth he said, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying (pikros zelos) and strife (eritheia) in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth” (Jas. 3:13,14). Paraphrased another way James was saying, “Who seeks to be known as a wise and understanding teacher? The method is to demonstrate that wisdom by the loveliness of one’s character. Let that character demonstrate that all is prompted by a gentle spirit. But, if your wisdom is characterized by a zeal that is bitter (pikros zelos) and by selfish ambition (eritheia), do not be arrogant of your accomplishments, for you are false to what God’s truth demands of a teacher.”

I make no pretenses at being a Greek scholar, but the scholarly books that are available to all agree that there is a fine line of definition in zelos between “to envy, be jealous” and “to imitate emulously, strive after with zeal” (Thayer, p. 271). Zelos is a word that can and is used to describe a sincere zeal to copy and follow that which is good (cf. 2 Cor. 7:7; Rom. 10:2).

The same thing is true of the word eritheia. It originally meant “To spin wool, work in wool” (Thayer. p. 249. The meaning eventually came to be applied to “one electioneering or intriguing for office–a courting distinction; a desire to put oneself forward” (Thayer, ibid). It is a word that means to work for hire, and that eventually came to be used to describe one who used every base method available to gain selfish ends.

The truth does not lie in semantics, though, as much as it does in human nature. James is warning us of that sharp, bright, and extremely quick “wisdom” that works so hard for the wrong ends, and points out to us how susceptible teachers of truth are to such. There is a fine line between a sincere desire to copy the good in other men, and a jealous, envious, copying of the deeds of other men to attain or surpass the status of the one envied. There is a fine line between praise and pay for a work well done, and working for the praise and pay.

James points out for the teacher’s self-examination that the true wisdom, the true zeal, the true ambition is something that is pure from all selfish motive. The divine wisdom brings men together with each other in God. This wisdom is not jealous of its own rights and self-justification, but offers the same reasonableness to its critics as it would like to receive itself. God’s wisdom is easily approached, far from arrogant or self-inflated. The wisdom from above is sensitive to the needs of others and gives of itself without any partiality or falseness (Jas. 3:17).

But that other kind of zeal, ambition, and knowledge which is selfish seeks worldly prestige, power, and return. It is always characterized by disorder. Instead of producing peace among men, it produces hard feelings, isolation, and a divided mind (Jas. 3:15,16). As long as this` `kind of motivation and attitude prevails, good and happy lives founded in right living can never find fruit. It takes a truely wise man sowing the seeds of right-relationships between men and God to harvest the fruit of righteousness. One cannot reap unity in Christ by sowing selfishness (3:18).

In preaching, teaching, writing, and in our relationships with one another, we would do well to remember James’ admonition. We can teach the truth, and lose our reward because of our attitude or method (Phil. 1:15-16). It is possible to “say it the wrong ay.” To be sure, the responsibility to obey truth, no matter how it is taught, is a responsibility of the hearer. But the fact that we teach truth does not absolve us of using all the wisdom, longsuffering, gentleness, and care we are able to muster as teachers. God judges not only the act, but the thought and the intent of the heart as well. The goal in our teaching is to bring men to truth; not to win a cheap personal victory over another (2 Tim. 2:24-26). We teach truth and oppose error because we wish to see those enslaved by error to come out to the light. We are to use the verbal tool that best fits the job – but one tool does not fit every situation (Jude 22,23).

That kind of teaching that is more concerned with promoting self than truth is damnable-and ought to be. That kind of teacher who puts on a zeal for truth in order to garner prestige as a “killer” in debate is headed straight from hell. That kind of bitter rebuke that is intent on destroying another, rather than restoring, is common with the snarling of beasts of prey. For us to deny that such exists among our brethren is to deny the motivation behind the words of James. The words of the Spirit are not empty admonition, but are directed towards the nature and inclinations of man. We can assure one another by saying that such sins do not affect any of us (1 Jno. 1:8), but we would only be deceiving ourselves. It was not for naught that the Lord warned us, “Be not many of you teachers, knowing we shall receive greater condemnation.”

Truth Magazine, XVIII:44, p. 10
September 12, 1974