The great Baptist minister, Charles H. Spurgeon, began preaching at a little thatched chapel in Waterbeach, England—a village about 6 miles north of Cambridge in the district of Cambridgeshire—at the age of 16. He was a mere youth who had no advantages of a college education. Thus, he was strongly advised to go to the Baptist College at Stepney (later called Regent’s Park College) which was in the East End of London. The tutor of the Baptist College, Joseph Angus, was scheduled to visit Cambridge and it was arranged for Spurgeon to meet him at the home of Daniel MacMillan, co-founder of MacMillan Publishers. Having prayed about this matter, Spurgeon showed up at the MacMillan house at the appointed time and was ushered into a sitting room by the maid. Regrettably, Mr. Angus was ushered into another room by mistake and waited as long as he could for the appointed meeting before having to leave without ever interviewing the young Spurgeon. When Spurgeon learned of the mistake, his spirit was crushed. Later that day, as he was walking, the vivid words from Scripture came to him in an intense degree, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not!” (Jeremiah 45:5). Thereafter, Spurgeon never applied to any college, but simply focused on tending the lambs God had placed under his care. Of course, Spurgeon is the exception—rather than the rule—in the matter of a theological education. There really was nothing that any college or seminary could have taught him as his prodigious writings and powerful ministry evidenced. Yet, the importance of denying ourselves and of refusing to seek great things for ourselves is the lesson we learn from this example out of the life of the Prince of Preachers.
There are many things that cause problems for the Savior’s Church—the attacks of the evil one, heresies, but especially selfish ambition. James 3:14 says, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.” Ministers must engage in self-examination to search every corner of the heart to make sure that their motives are pure. We must never do anything out of bitter jealousy or selfish ambition. How can we tell the difference between our will and God’s will, though? How can we make sure that we are truly zealous for God and not selfishly ambitious? The words of Robert Murray McCheyne, the nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterian minister in Dundee, set the boundaries for us: “It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plans with regard to myself, well assured as I am, that the place where the Saviour sees meet to place me must ever be the best place for me.” McCheyne saw that the only way to deny selfish ambition is to have no ambitions for ourselves—no plans for ourselves. Only by submitting our wills to the will of our Master can we deny ourselves and turn away from selfish ambition.
As I was giving this devotion at the Annual Board Meeting of Church Planting International (an indigenous missionary organization founded by Don Dunkerley) last Friday, June 17th, one of the board members asked, “Why does the ministry attract so many men who are selfishly ambitious?” I think it is because there are too many men who are like Diotrephes, about whom the Beloved disciple wrote, “who loves to be preeminent” (3 John 9) and who, therefore, will not accept the truth. The desire for preeminence is an unholy desire closely connected with selfish ambition. In Luke 14:7-11, Jesus gave a parable on The Wedding Guests. In verses 8 and 10, He said, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you might have been invited by him. . . But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you.” Diotrephes wanted to be preeminent. Jesus counsels just the opposite. He tells us to take the lowest place. If the Lord wants to elevate us, that is His choice. We are not to seek great things for ourselves, though. Our goal is to serve the Lord where He has placed us. Like the people who helped Nehemiah rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, we must be engaged in repairing the broken walls in front of us. Our lives are to be spent in service to Christ and for others—not in erecting monuments to ourselves.
When people eagerly seek after preeminence or engage in self-promotion, they forget that all true promotions come from Christ—they are dispensed by His divine appointment. As Paul asked the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7b). We have nothing in ourselves. The Lord has given us everything—our talents, our roots, our possessions, our physical characteristics, our brains, etc. We owe everything to the Lord. That is why all efforts to be preeminent and to engage in selfish ambition are doomed to failure. Such things simply will not last. Having read the above account of Spurgeon and the words of McCheyne while I was still in seminary, I determined by God’s grace that I would follow their worthy examples. Like McCheyne, I made it my aim and prayer to have no plans concerning myself. In these latter years of my life, I can honestly say before the Lord that anything and everything that I am involved in today or have ever done are things that were thrust on me by the Lord. In every instance, the Lord opened the door and either pushed me through it or pulled me though it. There were a myriad of ways that He called me to every position I have ever held. I could go through each instance and recount the providences of God in leading me to do one thing or another. I have never been worthy of any position in which the Lord has ever placed me, but I tried to do one thing everywhere—be faithful to the One who called me. That is what the Lord wants out of all of us.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
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