The book of James is like an unexpected spray of cold water because it shocks our sensibilities (in a helpful way). A truth hard to accept begins today’s discourse: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3:16). Note above the word selfish, used as an adjective to modify the noun ambition. This means that selfishness is more of the problem than ambition. Indeed, without ambition there would be little to motivate us toward achievement. Ambition becomes a problem when it consumes a person and drives an insatiable appetite to consume everything and everyone in its path (and this is surely what God denounces).
Selfish ambition is bad. It pollutes the earth into oblivion, denies justice and mercy, and leaves a trail of death and destruction. Some political pundits and cultural cheerleaders react by saying that selfish ambition drives our free market, capitalist system. While that is always up for debate, the moral consequences of selfish ambition (e.g., insatiable greed) are too risky, no matter how many dollars it pumps into an economy. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (James 4:1). So it is not about socialism versus capitalism, or of any political ideology of the Right against the Left. No, the problem here is what drives you, what motivates your choices and priorities. When selfish ambition trumps loving your neighbor then there’s a problem with your spiritual health.
James’ writing refreshes the spirit and helps align our priorities. The gist is that economic prosperity does not guarantee moral richness. Wealth accumulation and all the selfish ambition driving it conflict with moral goodness. What else would we expect the Bible to say? Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly condemn materialism and insatiable greed. The problem isn’t so much with the nature of money as it is with what people do to get it. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2). If greed and selfish ambition control us then we will invite judgment. God cares about the victims. Divine justice will annihilate those who stack bodies in order to build their financial empire. Amassing a fortune or placating Wall Street expectations does not exempt us from God’s scrutiny. Those who ignore the peril of wealth-worship have their soul as the first casualty.
Today’s advice is to examine yourself and determine what it is that moves you forward. God wants us to pursue light and life with all our might. You may get rich by doing good, but the good who are rich also contribute to the common good. This is more than simply skimming a fraction of wealth for some charitable foundation. God wants us to give out of the measure of our abundance (and both rich and not-so-rich are held to this standard). God wants us to do more than donate from guilt or because we crave notoriety and reputation preservation. We might ask ourselves if we are leaving the earth a better place than when we found it. We can aspire to do even more than this, which is helping people connect with God and thereby increase soul abundance for all humanity
The amount of wealth you accumulate on the way isn’t the problem. It’s how you do it and how much you are attached to it. God’s Spirit repeatedly warns humans to avoid addiction to more and more. The problem is compounded when selfish ambition burns both the earth and its people. Go and do all you can to realize your dreams. Just make sure you aren’t simultaneously creating a nightmare for others. Move onward and upward and derive blessings from your prosperity. But remember this: you can’t take it with you. Love will be your most enduring legacy. Selfishness is never right when it robs us of God’s goodness and impoverishes the soul. –Reverend Hoxey