Like soldiers in the trojan horse, selfish ambition and a desire for glory is often smuggled into a young person’s life through pious expressions like “I want to do something BIG for God!” or even “I want to serve God in ministry.” I’ve had these sinful desires within me revealed recently. It’s led me to think about how common this must be among young Christians, especially aspiring future leaders.
I’ve been trying to unearth some of the roots of this in my own life, and one of the things that blows me away about the apostle Paul is how deeply he identified with Christ. Let me explain. He writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” And in Philippians 1:20, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Paul’s personal ambitions seem to have suffered a decisive death-blow: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.” And in place of his own personal ambitions are what we might call his Christ-ambitions: “I expect and hope that I won’t be ashamed, but that Christ will be honored.”
Paul had such a profound sense of his union with Christ. A sense that I certainly lack. My struggle reveals to me that I have not fully clued into the fact that my personal ambition for ministry success and recognition died with Christ at the moment I was born-again. And I suspect that I am not alone. Jack Miller told a young missionary, “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work alone has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there” (p.44). But I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of young Christian leaders feel like they do have something to prove.
Tim Keller insightfully points out that for many young pastors, the underlying subtext to their preaching is a desire for affirmation and approval, communicated very subtly in an almost imperceptible nervousness. Behind the words that they are saying, and in their heart, the message is “Do you like me? Do you think I’m a good preacher? Do you think I’m really called to ministry?”
Paul had a deep and humble union with Christ. The interests of Christ are my interests. The sufferings of Christ are my sufferings. The ambitions of Christ in the spread of the gospel for His glory are my ambitions.
Young people like me lack that. A lot of the time my heart sounds more like this: My interests will be furthered by adopting the interests of Christ for a while. My ambitions will be furthered by a willingness to suffer for Christ, if it’s noticed. My ambition for the spread of my name, for admiration and glory will be furthered by a commitment to spreading the gospel in a prominent way. Young people like me are likely tempted to see ministry as the place to distinguish ourselves and make our mark, as opposed to the place to crucify our selfish ambitions in order to further the purpose and message of Christ, who loved us and died for us.
In light of all this, the words of Peter to “young people” at the tail end of his first epistle have hit home like never before.
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:5-7).
Young man or woman, you and I need to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand like this. We need to daily repent of and put to death our desire for adulation, applause, and recognition, and be “asking the Spirit daily for the faith and humility to do Christ’s work Christ’s way.”