Today is a joyful day for us. It’s the official book launch day for the book that I (Rick) wrote entitled The Heart of the Preacher. (The best price right now is from Christian Book Distributors, but you can also order from Amazon)
The book deals with some of the personal, internal challenges that test the hearts of preachers and teachers. Challenges like dealing with ambition, comparision, insignificance, laziness, boasting, and a sense of failure. The book concludes with ten habits of the heart that can strengthen us to face these tests well.
I’m praying God will use the book to stretch and strengthen the hearts of those who have the joyful responsibility of preaching and teaching God’s Word.
Here’s a sample chapter on dealing with ambition.
The Test of Ambition
One of my favorite preacher jokes would be a lot funnier if it weren’t so convicting.
A pastor and his wife were driving home after the morning service. “Do you know what Mrs. Peterson told me today? She said I was one of the great expositors of our time.” His wife remained quiet, eyes straight ahead. After a few moments of silence, he continued, “I wonder how many great expositors there are in our day?” Without a pause, she answered: “I don’t know. But there’s one less than you think.”
Most of us aren’t likely to be named one of the great expositors of our time. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t appreciate being nominated. Like the pastor in the joke, we can have our own secret exposition ambitions. Some days we daydream of greatness. Even if we can’t be a legend in our own time, we can at least be a legend in our own minds. Even if we aren’t one of the great expositors of our day, there will be days when our hearts are tested by the pull of ambition.
Ambition is defined as the strong desire to achieve something. This is a tricky topic for us as preachers, as ambition can be godly or fleshly. Strong ambition can drive us to improve, but it can also drive us crazy.
Godly ambition can fuel a passion to proclaim Christ to people who have yet to hear the gospel. This worked for the apostle Paul: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). But where godly ambition motivates us to preach the message, fleshly ambition messes with our motives. We end up preaching for the wrong reasons.
Godly ambition turns fleshly when it becomes selfish ambition—something the Bible repeatedly condemns: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (Philippians 2:3). God knows that when ambition turns selfish, ministry turns sour: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16).
A challenge we face as preachers comes in discerning whether our ambition is God-honoring or self-promoting. Honest, accurate assessment is complicated by our vulnerability to self-deception in matters of the heart. We tend to assume the best about ourselves and overlook the worst.
Ever hear the name Salmon P. Chase? You may be familiar with Chase bank, a financial institution that bears his name. His story is woven into historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller Team of Rivals.
Chase ran unsuccessfully against Abraham Lincoln in the Republican primary of 1860. Still, Lincoln selected Chase as his Secretary of the Treasury, considering him the best man for the job. Unfortunately, Chase continued to believe he was the best man for Lincoln’s job. He remained ambitious to replace Lincoln even while serving in his cabinet, undercutting him to prop up his chances of replacing him.
While this kind of maneuvering is rather common in political circles, two aspects of Chase’s ambition caught my attention in a way that hit closer to home. First, Chase was a churchgoing, Bible-believing, morally upright man. He read Scripture and prayed daily. He faithfully attended an evangelical church. In many ways, he qualified as one of the “good guys.”
Second, Chase somehow remained clueless about his own selfish ambition. In his journals and letters, he repeatedly casts his actions in noble, virtuous terms. He was convinced that he sought the good of the nation while he ardently pursued his own selfish ends. Sadly, he could never seem to smell the foul odor of his own selfish ambition, but everyone else could.
As Goodwin notes, “Chase could not separate his own ambition from the cause he championed. The most calculating decisions designed to forward his political career were justified by the advancement of the cause.” Or in the words of historian Stephen Mazlish, “Chase could join his passion for personal advancement to the demands of his religious convictions. … ‘Fame’s proud temple’ could be his and he need feel no guilt in its pursuit.”
Chase’s life serves as a cautionary tale for preachers: selfish ambition can infect the heart of those who show signs of genuine spiritual life. We can remain in the dark about the dark side of our own ambition. It’s dangerously easy to convince ourselves we are pursuing Christ’s glory while advancing our own selfish ends.
So what should a preacher do to guard against selfish ambition? Some might argue the safest course of action involves the total abolition of ambition. But Paul shows us a better way.
From candid comments recorded in his letters, we get the sense that Paul was naturally ambitious. As a young man, he desired to excel. He understood his personal trajectory as headed upward toward prominence. As he wrote to the Galatians, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). Like Salmon Chase, Paul blended his personal ambition with his spiritual commitments. He sought to make a difference for his cause and make a name for himself.
Being captured and captivated by Christ brought a radical change to Paul’s life, including a change to his ambitions. Paul didn’t discard his desire to make a difference. Neither did he lose his drive or tireless work ethic (1 Corinthians 15:9–10—“I worked harder than all of them”). Instead, he lost his need to promote himself or impress other people. His selfish ambition took a big hit.
We see the change in Paul’s ambition when the Christians in Corinth put him in an awkward situation. The believers in the church in Corinth had a nasty tendency to rank ministers and promote their favorite (1 Corinthians 1:12). While some preferred Paul, others were big fans of Apollos (a capable, captivating preacher, Acts 18:24–28) or Peter (the recognized leader of the apostles).
Paul could have easily felt threatened and insecure. Fleshly ambition could have driven him toward self-promotion or ministerial competition. But Paul would have none of it. His response to the Corinthians reveals how Christ had supernaturally reoriented his natural ambition. In 1 Corinthians 4:1–5, Paul highlights four truths that, if we hold on to them, will keep us from drifting toward selfish ambition.
We are servants and stewards—not celebrities. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (4:1). Paul saw himself as a servant of Christ and a steward of his message; he encouraged others to view him that way as well. He fought against the tendency to turn ministers into celebrities. To combat fleshly ambition, I must consciously adopt the identity of a servant and steward, resisting the dark desire to be seen as a semi-celebrity.
We must test our own hearts, but not fully trust our own tests. “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted” (4:4). Paul understood that self-examination was essential for a minister. We should test the motives of our hearts and seek to live with a clear conscience. But, like Paul, we must remember our own assessment isn’t foolproof. Our self-appraisals may not be fully accurate. We may fail to detect the odor of selfish ambition that others can smell, so we need to make a habit of listening to others’ evaluations of our actions.
Christ will evaluate our motives and not just our actions. “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (4:4b–5a). Paul envisioned a day when Christ would evaluate the hidden purposes of his heart. He knew that Christ knew his motives. He might be able to fool others, or even fool himself; however, he could never fool the Lord Jesus. This truth sobers me and moves me to intentionally invite the Lord to search my heart and know my thoughts (Psalm 139:23). I don’t want to be painfully surprised on judgment day.
God will commend us for faithful ministry. “Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (4:5b). We should be sobered by the thought of Christ doing an audit of our ministry motives. However, we don’t have to be terrified. Paul makes it clear that God’s desire is to find something in us to commend! In his eyes, faithfulness is success: “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (4:2). As we seek to faithfully serve Christ and regularly bring our hearts into the light of his presence, we can anticipate his commendation on the final day.
This side of heaven, we will always need God’s supervision over our ambition. Our motives will become mixed at times. We will need to regularly allow God’s Spirit to redeem and reorder our ambition as preachers. Still, we can serve with a sense of anticipation and joy. The Lord Jesus redeemed Paul’s natural ambition, and he can do the same in us.
 Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 109.
 Stephen Mazlish, quoted in Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 109.