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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

The desire to make a name – Part 4: Accountability

In yesterday’s post we considered Paul’s challenge in Philippians 2 to live in humility and inter-dependence with one another, following the pattern of the trinity and especially of Christ’s incarnation. We concluded that a key part in dealing with our ambition is to serve others, not yourself. Paul was not the only New Testament writer to warn against the dangers of selfish ambition. James, in his characteristically provocative style, wrote:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice (James 3:16).

The context in which this statement is set is a discussion of two kinds of ‘wisdom’. James is really a wisdom writer – I tell my students when I teach them about biblical interpretation that this little book should be classified along with Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (and, incidentally, much of Jesus’ teaching) as ‘wisdom literature’. James says that wisdom is something that will show in our actions and that true wisdom leads to humility. There is a different, kind of ‘wisdom’, which is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil” (he really doesn’t mince his words, this James!), but it consists in jealousy and selfish ambition. True wisdom – the kind that comes from heaven – is radically different. In verse 17 he describes it as: “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere”. Each of those qualities deserves its own post (maybe I’ll do that some day!), but I think you get the idea. This is the kind of wisdom we need to see in action when we make decisions as individuals and, especially, as churches or Christian organisations.

Now, I have been involved in many Christian organisations and churches, but I worry when I read what James says. What principles really operate when we make decisions? What motivations are really guiding us in what we say? I don’t wish to sound like an inquisitor and I certainly don’t want to judge the motives of others (that is not our prerogative, but God’s), but I do want to encourage godly wisdom in our ways of working.

The fact is that we don’t talk often enough about motivations and we don’t open ourselves sufficiently to being challenged. Sometimes we are so afraid of causing offence and losing relationships that we don’t ask the tough questions, but we need to be challenged and, if our desire is to be faithful to the Lord, then we should welcome it. When a group or team discusses issues, unless we confess the fact that our motives may be mixed and seek to acknowledge where our personal interests lie, we are in danger of disguising our selfish ambition (the real reason why we support this particular course of action) behind other arguments. In so doing we may even deceive ourselves. I believe we would be more likely to discern the Lord’s will if we included in our discussions the question: ‘In what ways might jealousy or selfish ambition be motivating us?’ That might help us to be more honest about our struggles, more ready to submit to one another and less likely to act competitively in relation to other churches and organisations. It might help us do what we surely want to do, to sacrifice our empire building for the sake of Kingdom growth.

The third principle for dealing with our ambitions that I see implicit in James is to submit in accountability to others. We should be honest with one another – at least with one or two trusted brothers or sisters (ideally mature Christians, perhaps an elder or pastor) – about the temptations we struggle with. I don’t mean a blow-by-blow account of every thought or feeling – that is often not edifying – but at least an openness to be challenged about our motivations. It is wise to have some close advisors to whom you give ‘permission’ to question your motivation when significant decisions need to be made. The worst that can happen is that the say they think you are in error, but then “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death” (James 5:20). Don’t we want to avoid the ways of death? Don’t we want to rescue one another? If they get it wrong, they will be open to your explanation. Even if you step down and yield to someone else’s idea because of the advice you receive and even if that other person is acting out of an unchecked selfish motivation, you have done what is right and you can trust that God will vindicate you. Philippians – our inspiration for yesterday’s post – also contains this idea – Paul was content and even rejoiced that Christ was being preached even if by some whose motives were wrong (Philippians 1:15-18). We would do well to spend much more of our energy in examining ourselves and seeking God’s guidance (in the spirit of Psalm 139:23-24) and much less in judging others.

In summary, we began this series on Palm Sunday by considering the self-giving example of Christ. we thought of Abraham trusting God to make his name great and bring blessing through him. We looked at Philippians 2 and the example of Jesus again. Finally, we have heard the challenge of James. we discovered three principles that can help us in dealing with ambition:

1) Seek God’s glory, not your own

2) Serve others, not yourself

3) Submit in accountability to others

So, if you find yourself tempted by the desire to make a name, as I suspect many of us do (preaching to self here!), then commit yourself to seeking God’s glory, to serving others and to submitting in accountability to godly people.

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