Selfish Ambition and Vain Conceit

It was the second half of 2005. I was 19, had just arrived at my first duty-station of Alaska, and had some big plans. First of all, I was going to sign up to go to the Air Force Academy. I had made this decision because, after listening to multiple general officers tell their stories, I realized that the Academy was my best shot at making general. I figured I would give the Air Force 30 or so years before retiring and figuring out what I wanted to conquer next. If I had to pick one word to describe myself, it would have been ambitious. I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I was successful in my military career.

It was about then that I first read Philippians 2:3, which says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Uh oh. I had the sudden and horrifying realization that all my plans were nothing more than “selfish ambition.” Truly, at that point the only thing that motivated me was “vain conceit.” I was selfish and conceited; and I knew it. But, truth be told, I wasn’t really sure what else to do or how else to be.

But then it got worse! I made the mistake of joining a Bible study group that happened to be working through 1 John and I ran across this: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:17).” Not only had I realized that all I cared about was myself, but now I realized that all my goals and plans were ultimately pointless because they were unlikely to outlive even my short life. I would never leave a legacy because I would never actually devote myself to a lasting cause. So what did I have to live for? What could be my purpose?

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, God delivered the death-blow to my pride when I decided to start reading through the Gospels for myself and was pierced by this arrow: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).” I realized that I had a choice: either build up God’s eternal Kingdom, or pour my life into building a castle of sand that would quickly be washed away by the waves of time.

My motives: selfish and conceited.
My plans: pointless and ephemeral.
My ‘kingdom’: short-lived and pitiful.

It all came to a head one night. It was a Saturday night in the Fall of 2005 and I was just a little drunk. I was looking at the second half of my strongly made Jack & Coke—mostly Jack with a dash of Coke, really—and I was trying to calculate how much of it I could drink and still be sober for choir practice the next morning (yup, you read that right). If I finished the drink, they’d probably be able to smell the alcohol on my breath and either way I would definitely feel terrible. So there I sat, 19 years old—which meant I was drinking underage, by the way—trying to figure out how drunk I should get when the Holy Spirit whispered three words in my ears. They were three words I’d ignored for at least 3-4 years up until that point but deep down inside I knew them to be true. In fact, those three words had bothered me ever since I started going to church in high school and claiming to be a Christian while still smoking pot, popping pills, drinking alcohol, cussing like a sailor, and messing around with girls. Those three words: “you’re a hypocrite.” Somehow I had managed to ignore those words while I pursued idol after idol: an Air Force career, impure dating relationships, worldly success. But at last, the Holy Spirit convicted me; I was “cut to the heart” as Luke said in Acts 2:37. I realized that I was on a path that would never lead me to an intimate relationship with God; I was on a path that would never make me the man I always wanted to be. I was pursuing idols, not God. It was time to try something else.

And so I did. And I haven’t looked back since. So what’s holding you back? Are you building your own short-lived kingdom or are you devoting your life to an eternal Kingdom? Are your plans eternal or vaporous? Are your motives selfish or selfless? I can’t answer those questions for you, but I promise you one thing: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2)

  • James R

    There are elements of your story that remind me of my own. I spent several more years in resistance before I finally was also ‘cut to the heart’, three years ago next month.
    Matthew 6:33-34 was also a key Scripture for me, among others. The Lord has been firm, yet loving with me and I’m so grateful He has poured out His patience and grace upon this undeserving sinner!
    May He continue to bless you, and keep you.
    -JR-