I think that there are many who confuse selfish ambition with faith. And I have been one of them.
Years ago, when I first stepped into ministry, it was a very heady experience. I enjoyed the approval of those around me and received praise from my peers. Like a strong intoxicant, I began to crave it more and more – so much so that I found myself in emotional withdrawals if I didn’t get my “fix.” I wanted to be the next great voice for the Kingdom of Christ – not because of Jesus, but because of personal ambition.
You see, I failed to understand what Paul meant when he said: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10, NIV).
It’s that last statement that gripped me: “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I wanted those around me to think well of me, to approve of me. I wanted to be admired by men and this led me down a path where I no longer served the Lord Christ but my own ambition. However, I didn’t see it that way.
I looked upon what I did as advancing the cause of Christ. If I could become well-known, if I could be great in the eyes of men and be accepted as an influential voice, then I could REALLY serve the Lord. I transposed faith with ambition and deceived myself into believing my life was pursuing Christ. It didn’t work. And, let me tell you, the humbling power of God was on the way.
If you are a born-again believer in Jesus, and you have confused faith with selfish ambition, rest assured that God will humble you. Peter reiterates this, saying: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b, NIV). I won’t go into the details of how God humbled me because it will be different for everyone. Suffice it to say, it works.
As I look back, now, on the vanity and pride during the early days of my service to Jesus, I wonder how God could ever have chosen such an arrogant, self-serving person like me. I have learned what Paul meant in the text above. Personal ambition is no substitute for faith. True faith seeks the will of God and the delight of the Savior. True faith is satisfied when service is rendered, even when no applause are forthcoming. And, true faith does not seek to please men but to please God.
In the Gospel of John 5:44 (NIV), the Lord Jesus said this: “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?” The answer is: you can’t.
Let me conclude from the book of James: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:14-16, NIV).
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Okay… that’s not actually true. There is no “miracle cure” that will enliven and uplift your life. In fact, just the opposite is too often true. Men and women searching for that rush of euphoria end up becoming slaves to whatever it is that has captivated them. The cravings for drugs, alcohol, sex, money, power, etc. have a downward spiral that leads to destruction and leaves a crater where once a life used to be.
How do we do it then? How do we find that power to live when life falls apart and our world is failing? You’re not alone in the search. The Apostle Paul had the same struggle. Do you know what God told him? It’s the same thing He will tell us – you need to be empowered by grace. Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and then follow along these next few moments as we explore this text.
First - you must see your present affliction. How is a person afflicted? Often through trials and temptations, with the constant reminder of the failings of the past, will come the enemy of our souls. There are some who think that Paul's "thorn" was his bad eyesight. However, that doesn't agree with the reality that his "thorn" was a messenger of Satan. What does Satan come to do? He is the accuser of the brothers, the tempter, the one who comes to "steal, kill and destroy." This "thorn," by my speculation, was the constant reminder of Paul's failings - his sins. All are afflicted in a similar way and in the midst of it must be empowered by grace.
Second - there is always a plea for deliverance. The afflictions in our lives cause us to cry out – to seek God’s rescue from pain. Jesus did in the garden, Paul does here, and we all want to find deliverance. God's answer, however, may not be deliverance from affliction, but deliverance through affliction. And, ultimately, our cry must be "not my will, but Yours be done."
Third - you come in contact with the power of grace. When you truly know the Grace of Christ and have received it in its abundance, the thorns inflicted upon you will become the points where God’s strength dominates. Instead of finding destruction and despair you will see how much God has done for you, even as the enemy himself stands to accuse you. His accusations will fail because the true Judge has already issued you a pardon through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Fourth - this leads to the promotion of humility. In what do you boast? In this world people often boast over the arrogant successes of men. But God has a higher place for us – and that is the place of humility. When you are empowered by the grace of God you will have no room to boast except in the Lord Jesus Christ. His ways become yours, His life is yours, and His power is your source for all that you are. There is no room for self-boasting in a heart empowered by grace.
Fifth - this brings your pronouncement of faith. It is a declaration of faith to say that you can delight in the sufferings that come as you walk with Christ Jesus. From the inward turmoil to the outward attacks, all things must be seen through the eyes of faith. You will take every experience and tie it together with your relationship to Christ, declaring with certainty that even your afflictions have been God's tools to shape you, until Christ's power, and His power alone, rests on you.