“I would have all lazy students drummed out of the college, and all lazy ministers out of the Assembly…I would have laziness held to be the one unpardonable sin in all our students and in all our ministers” (The Life of Alexander Whyte, by G. F. Barbour, p. 282).
So spoke the esteemed Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte (1837-1921), who himself could never be accused of being lazy. An early riser, he diligently studied the Bible for his own nourishment and in preparation for preaching and lecturing; and yet his people often saw him walking the streets of Edinburgh in all kind of weather, that he might visit and care for his people. A model pastor, preacher and scholar, Whyte knew how to work and how to allow the Spirit to work in and through him.
But at the same time, he knew how to get away from the busy city for rest and to allow the Lord to refresh him and teach him. He worked hard from Advent to Easter and then took a “holiday” for a few weeks out in the beautiful Scottish countryside. He would take daily walks, always thinking, always meditating on the Word, and carefully observing the scenes before him.
Our Lord was a busy man with serious work to do. Yet He said to His disciples, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31 KJV). Vance Havner used to warn us, “If you don’t come apart and rest, you will just come apart.”
This kind of balanced life is especially difficult for ministers serving in the United States, a nation that from its birth has emphasized breaking records and winning prizes. On certain special days, we recognize our official motto “In God We Trust,” but the rest of the time we worship at the shrine of “rugged individualism” and our motto is really “Can Do.” Of course, there’s nothing sinful about responding wholeheartedly to a challenge, getting the job done right and making progress, so long as we remember what Moses told the people of Israel: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deut. 8:18).
But there are two kinds of ambition: selfish ambition that unmercifully uses people and events as stepping stones to personal recognition and reward, and godly ambition that works with others to reach goals that are mutually beneficial and bring glory to God. Selfish ambition is listed with the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:22) and is basically dictatorship, while true leadership is a gift of the Spirit to the saints (Rom. 12:8). Throughout the centuries, God has used dedicated men and women to accomplish His will on earth, and we need to imitate them.
Let’s begin with the root sin that always destroys godly ambition and cripples lives and ministries00sloth, or laziness, one of the “seven deadly sins.” In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), the master called his unfaithful servant “wicked” because he did nothing with the money except to hind it (v. 26). His was a sin of omission, staying “on the safe side” because he didn’t have the courage to act, and he ended up losing everything. Romans 12:11 is a good admonition for that kind of person: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” This sounds like Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you…” Goodspeed translates “keep your spiritual fervor” as “be on fire with the Spirit.” That’s a much better condition than being lukewarm like the Laodicean church (Rev. 3:14-18).
According to Proverbs 6:9-11, laziness leads to scarcity and poverty, and sleeping during the harvest brings disgrace (Prov. 10:5). Lazy people can appear to be very busy when actually it’s all motion without progress. “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed” (Prov. 26:14). Lazy people are adept at making excuses. “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside!’ or, ‘I will be murdered in the streets!’” (Prov 22:13, and see 26:13 and 16). People who are good at making excuses are rarely good at making anything else, especially progress. If you have ever been associated with people who are always making excuse but never doing their share of the work, you know how irritating they can be and how much they hinder God’s work.
Our English word “ambition” comes from a Latin word that means “to go around soliciting support.” It pictures the politician going from person to person and canvassing for votes, pretending to be a friend who is anxious to help them with their problems. David’s son Absalom perfectly pictures selfish ambition (2 Sam. 15). But selfish ambition is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20) and it usually leads to division and dissention. Paul calls it “self-seeking” (Rom. 2:8) and warns that people who practice it end up rejecting the truth and following evil. He reported that some believers in Rome were preaching from selfish ambition and dividing the churches (Phil. 1:12-18). Paul was magnanimous enough to rejoice because at least Christ was being preached, but it still didn’t make for a happy situation. He warned his friend in Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit…” (Phil. 2:3).
The philosophy of the world says, “Get to the top and be important, no matter how many people are hurt in the process,” but that isn’t Christ’s approach to success. Scripture warns us that the wisdom of the world is usually opposite the wisdom that the Lord gives us. To “harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in [our] hearts” is to deny the truth and open the way to “disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:13-16). This kind of “wisdom” is actually earthly, unspiritual and of the devil—the world, the flesh and the devil.
In my years of ministry, I have seen families, classes, church staffs, congregations and parachurch ministries damaged and sometimes destroyed by people who wanted to be recognized as “the greatest.” Our Lord’s disciples fell into this trap (Mark 9:33-37), and James and John even asked for thrones right next to Jesus’ throne in the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-28). I wonder how these two brothers felt when, in the upper room, Jesus put on a towel and washed their feet. Dr. William Sangster used to pray, “Lord, we don’t care who is second so long as Jesus is first!” John the Baptist had the right idea: “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30).
(Copyright Warren W. Wiersbe, 2008. All rights reserved. Not to be reprinted.)
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).