You’re Nothing When You Try to Be SomethingBy Dave Harvey
April 10, 2020
Everyone who names Christ as Savior is called to be a servant. Writing to the Philippians, Paul sets up this kind of ambition for others by a call away from “rivalry or conceit” (2:3). “Rivalry” translates the same Greek word that in James is rendered as “selfish ambition” (3:16). Paul’s intent is clear. We’re to “do nothing” to compete with or usurp others, particularly those over us.
Rivalry is what happens when ambitions swell with envy. Someone else is enjoying what we want for ourselves. Envy burns, and it overshadows our many blessings. We don’t have the position, finances, possessions, or gifting of another, so we begrudge them and charge God with inequality. Pretty serious stuff and a far cry from emptying self and considering others better.
King Saul is the biblical poster child for rivalry. The Scriptures tell us he started out small in his own eyes (1 Sam. 10:20–24). When the prophet Samuel went to anoint him as king, he was hidden among the baggage, probably where he belonged.
But once he was king, envy stalked and captured him. Saul began to resent David, the young man who would replace him. This opened the door to suspicion and judgment. Saul began to ascribe evil motives to David. He went from loving David to despising him. Note that he didn’t despise David as a person; he despised him as a rival. The fact of David’s being in Saul’s life exposed Saul’s ambitions. He wasn’t serving the people but was instead protecting his power. David became a threat to his future aspirations, so David had to die. Saul, who was supposed to be a benevolent king, launched a manhunt for one of his subjects.
C. S. Lewis got to the nub of envy’s comparative tyranny:
“Ambition! We must be careful what we mean by it. If it means the desire to get ahead of other people…then it is bad. If it means simply wanting to do a thing well, then it is good. It isn’t wrong for an actor to want to act his part as well as it can possibly be acted, but the wish to have his name in bigger type than the other actors is a bad one….What we call “ambition” usually means the wish to be more conspicuous or more successful than someone else. It is this competitive element in it that is bad. It is perfectly reasonable to want to dance well or to look nice. But when the dominant wish is to dance better or look nicer than the others—when you begin to feel that if the others danced as well as you or looked as nice as you, that would take all the fun out of it—then you are going wrong.” ~C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 55-56.
Saul went wrong. His ambition betrayed him. Promising him satisfaction, it turned and destroyed him. On a battlefield overrun by his enemies, Saul committed suicide by falling on his own sword.
The average Christian’s experience with rivalry won’t end with a person impaled on his own sword. But rivalry does destroy friendships, split churches, undermine testimonies, and make us look no different than the world around us.
Rivalry is serious. Its nature is to subordinate others’ interests and to go to irrational lengths to protect our own interests. It’s an impulse that we’re called and empowered to deny, put off, crucify, kill. But that isn’t the end of Paul’s call. He invites us to a pathway of total liberation from the bitterness and ugliness of rivalry.
This article was adapted from Dave Harvey’s book, Rescuing Ambition. Featured image credit.