Sunday, September 04, 2022

Ambition and Acclaim

“Learn to grapple with souls. Aim at the conscience. Exalt Christ. Use a sharp knife with yourself. Say little, serve all, pass on.

This is true greatness, to serve unnoticed and work unseen.

Oh, the joy of having nothing and being nothing, seeing but a living Christ in glory, and being careful for nothing but His interests down here.”

— J.N. Darby

As a young believer, I was being asked to go here or there, preach or give counsel to others, and seemed to be on the rise and gaining some sense of purpose from it all. I was encouraged to put a high value on doing “the Lord’s work”. I had yet to learn that, for most believers, this will mean in a kitchen, in a barn, on the factory floor, or behind the desk in a conglomerate. All my activity made me to think I should pursue a path that would make any gift I had received from God of benefit to more people.

J.N. Darby pointed us all in the right direction though; that of being uninterested in, and unaffected by, present acclaim or absence of it.

Self-Seeking is Insidious

The scriptures offer motivation for diligence in pursuit of a worthy goal (for example, “Train yourself for godliness” or “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord”). But any self-seeking in the service of the one who was meek and lowly of heart is to be avoided like the plague. C.H. Spurgeon was once urged to accept an offer to increase his spiritual influence to his advantage. God’s word to Jeremiah in 45:5 was different to that faced by Spurgeon, but it provided him and all of us with a maxim of wide application, “Do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them.”

Self-seeking will worm its way into our holiest moments and noblest desires. We may start out with a passionate longing to achieve spiritually or to be the best we can be for the Lord only to find ourselves wanting to be recognized for our selfless devotion! Or, we begin by admiring the way a friend is approved and given opportunities we secretly craved, and the esteem which we had for him turns to envy. As long as we are climbing — trying to achieve some status in our own eyes or in the eyes of others — we are wrongly focused. Matthew 23:12 reads, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

True Greatness

Moses is a fine example of lack of interest in his own honor. He might be accused by others of taking on himself more than he should, but God saw him as the meekest of men. Being free of concern for his own name, he was jealous for the honor of the Lord.

That was true of another self-effacing saint. “What do you say about yourself?”, they asked the Baptist. He made it clear he was nothing but “a voice”, and when told that Jesus had a following larger than his herald, replied, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In putting it this way, was he not implying that the more he truly ‘succeeded’ in his service to Christ, the less the herald would be noticed?

Am I prepared for that?

I am not suggesting that all the Christian ‘stars’ whose opportunities and gifts cause the media to pay attention to their influence have really failed. I am saying that sooner or later all those seeking to serve our Lord’s interests come to realize that another stream may be flowing alongside the river of their desire to live only for Christ. The thin wall between the two may easily turn to mud and divert the intended course of the main river. One of those streams might be …

Striving for Recognition

The kind of greatness commended by Darby is only true of us when “serving unnoticed and working unseen”. That is not what we were trained to seek when I was growing up. Public recognition was the main emphasis and a large part of the reward the world had to offer.

At 18 years of age I was converted. One stanza of “Just as I am, young, strong and free, to be the best that I can be, for truth and righteousness and thee, Lord of my life, I come” expressed what I thought should be my grateful response. But I found that the “for thee” of the poet is easily lost sight of, and “for me” easily blends into the river of any grateful devotion and diverts it.

Three case histories follow:

  • Martha, who downplays the praise she received for her selfless service to her local church, yet is pleased that there were so many present at the annual meeting to hear about it;
  • Tim, who no longer attends the youth group in which he had been most active last year; the girl he wants to impress doesn’t seem to know he exists; and
  • Edwin, an elder at Barnfield, who has taken early retirement from a managerial role at the factory and decides to devote more of his time to “Food for the Famished”; they appreciate his input.

True Excellence

In whose eyes do we really want to excel? Frances Havergal wrote:

Only for Jesus, Lord, keep it forever,
Sealed on my heart and engraved on my life,
Pulse of gladness and nerve of endeavor;
Secret of rest, and strength for our strife.

— Colin Anderson, “Christian Ambition”, December 2016

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