Is ambition a good thing or a bad thing? It was not so long ago I viewed ambition as a virtue. Making a name for yourself, rising above your peers, achieving the American dream, these are ambitious goals. And, according to the wisdom of our world, such ambition is, indeed, a good thing. We are taught in school to dream big dreams, to make audacious goals, while never letting anyone stand in your way. It is this last line—that we should never let anyone stand in our way—which exposes the problem with being ambitious. It is utterly selfish.
If we want to see a concentrated experiment in “ambition” we need to look no further than reality television. Now, I will be honest, I do not watch reality TV anymore, but I remember getting caught up in the hype of shows like “Survivor” or “The Bachelor” (okay, full disclosure, I have never seen The Bachelor and would like to keep it that way). These shows offered people a great deal of money, or the love of some rich, young hunk. But they had to compete to win. The ambitious goal of victory did not come easy or cheap. Quite often, you had to sabotage others to get what you wanted. I remember watching the most, ahem, virtuous of these shows, “The Biggest Loser,” in which people competed to see who could lose the most weight, establish a healthy lifestyle, and win a lot of money. Friendships were created and then destroyed as contestants used each other to reach their goals. At the end of one episode, one contestant was found to have betrayed someone who had trusted them, only to respond, “I didn’t come here to make friends. I came here to win.”
This is the wisdom of the world James speaks of today. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). It is one thing to see such an attitude in a faux-reality competition show, but it is quite another when it comes to our daily lives. How often do we hear phrases like, “It is only business,” or, “All is fair in love and war,” or some such sentiment? Such selfish attitudes breed success in the eyes of the world: “She did all she could to achieve her goals and now look at her success, even if she had to lose friends along the way!” This worldly wisdom comes from an idolatry of the world’s pleasures, what James calls, “Friendship with the world” (4:4). It is a covetousness that produces quarrels, fights, and even murder (4:1-2)! And, it has no place in the heart of the Christian.
God calls His Church to a different sort of wisdom altogether. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13). “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (3:17). When is the last time you heard of anyone pursuing the American dream extol meekness? Gentle, peaceable, reasonable people do not make it in Washington or on Wall Street. Sincerity is fine, so long as it sells. The wisdom from Heaven, lived out perfectly in the life of Jesus, finds no friends in this world.
The wisdom from Heaven, lived out perfectly in the life of Jesus, finds no friends in this world.
James calls us today to repent of our selfish ambition and pursuit of friendship with the world. “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you” (4:9-10). James preaches in such a manner so we would turn from selfish pursuits and the lustful temptations of pushed, back-alley addictions by that wayward friend, the world. Be turned from friendship with the world, it leads to death, and “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (4:8). After all, selfish ambition ruins you and everyone around you. “But he gives more grace” (4:6). It is from this God, the Wisdom from Heaven who came down in our flesh to befriend sinners, you will learn true wisdom.
This is a rather long reading with a lot of potential themes: Worldly wisdom vs. Heavenly wisdom, friendship with the world, repentance. You might want to stick with preaching either 3:13-18 or 4:1-10. Above, I have attempted to tie together the two themes of worldly wisdom and friendship with the world by demonstrating how aspiring to the world’s friendship is foolish in the eyes of God. Using old reality TV shows may or may not be the most effective illustration, but you should not be too hard pressed to find illustrations for selfish aspirations.
The Cause/Effect structure will work well with this text. After defining or describing wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” (3:15), you can demonstrate how such wisdom (cause) results in (effect 1) bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (3:14) or the desire to befriend the world (4:4). This, then, leads to (effect 2) quarrels, fighting, murder (4:1-2) and enmity with God (4:4). Then, contrast that with what happens when we receive the wisdom from above (3:17). Wisdom from above (3:15) refers us back to the God who gives more grace (4:6) by sending Jesus, the Wisdom who comes down to humble us (4:6) and purchase our forgiveness with His blood. This work of Christ (cause) leads to (effect 1) repentance and restoration (4:8-10), followed by (effect 2) a new sort of wisdom that is (effect 3) exercised in good works (3:13) and a harvest of righteousness (3:18).
The structure would look something like this:
Part 1: Cause: Worldly Wisdom >>> Effect 1: Bitter Jealousy/Selfish Ambition >>> Effect 2: Broken Relationships with God and Neighbor
Part 2: Cause: Christ Our Wisdom Comes Down >>> Effect 1: Repentance and Restoration >>> Effect 2: Renewed Mind with Heavenly Wisdom >>> Effect 3: Good Works and a Harvest of Righteousness
Christ in the Text
Christ is the Wisdom from above (3:17). The way of the world that is so focused on self-preservation, selfish ambitions, and vain pursuits of glory contrasts utterly with the way of Christ, who set aside His glory to take up a cross for the sake of others (see also Philippians 2:5-11). The idea of worshipping a Jewish man whose ministry resulted in His crucifixion is foolish to the world, as are the virtues which flow from such a God: Mercy, meekness, gentleness, and so on. Christ’s only ambition was death on the cross for sinners. So, He now calls us His friends. Unlike our reality TV stars, Jesus did come here to make friends! Not with the world, but He befriends us sinners so captivated by this world, that He might rescue us and reconcile us to God. He is the God James calls us to draw near to, for He draws near to us (4:8).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in James 3:13-4:10
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach James 3:13-4:10
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through James 3:13-4:10.