What's the Difference Between Godly Initiative and Fleshly Ambition?

Peter the Apostle – Acts 1:15

By Floyd McClung

Peter was by definition a leader who did not wait for someone else to lead. In Acts 1:15, there is an example of Peter taking initiative to find a replacement for Judas. Some would say that the man who replaced Judas, Matthias, was never heard of again, therefore it was wrong of Peter to take the lead the way he did. But that is an argument from silence. There is no basis of confirming that view in Scripture. What we do know from Scripture is that people who wait for others are not leaders, but followers. Peter demonstrated initiative. He was a leader. Initiative like what Peter had requires faith, foresight, risk, boldness, courage and the willingness to experience rejection.

Peter showed initiative when he stepped out of the boat and walked on water to Jesus. While others waited, Peter acted, and he experienced God. During his lifetime, he healed a lame men, brought the gospel to the Gentiles, and preached to multitudes. Why? Because Peter took initiative in making decisions. Initiative is the earmark of a true leader.

John Maxwell comments in The Maxwell Leadership Bible that it is easier to run from a challenge than to step out and take a risk (page 1085). Peter was the man who stepped out of the boat and walked on water. It’s true that he made big mistakes and sometimes acted or spoke before he thought things through, but at least he acted while others watched and waited. Jesus encouraged such initiative in Peter by affirming his faith: “Upon this rock”, Jesus said, “I will build my church”.

There is a huge difference between fleshly ambition and godly initiative. Fleshly ambition is based on an inner motivation to prove ourselves, to gain acceptance or approval, to avoid rejection and to maintain control. Fleshly ambition can be based on a performance mentality of "doing the right thing". However, one can be busy without being spiritual. Fleshly ambition may start off as godly initiative, but if one does not stay close to Jesus, what “begins in the Spirit can end in the flesh” (Galatians 3:3). Fleshly ambition can come from believing we have to make something happen, that we are responsible for getting things done or that we are responsible for taking care of people. Fleshly ambition is not always about trying to be famous; it’s more often about an unreasonable need to be responsible.

Godly initiative, on the other hand, is the fruit of responding to revelation from God about what He wants us to do, and then doing it in faith. Godly initiative is done in faith that God will move on the hearts of people to do their part. Godly initiative is born in faith as an act of obedience to God, and then trusting God in others. True enough, there are times when our motive is honorable but our behavior is in the flesh… our motives are right, but we try too hard to “get it right”. At it’s root, Godly initiative is motivated by trust: trust in God, trust in the holy Spirit to do what only He can do, and trust in others to listen and obey God. Fleshly ambition occurs when we try too hard: we end up micro-managing people and circumstances to make sure things are done right. Even though our hearts can be right right, our actions will be wrong not if we don’t act in faith.

Lack of initiative, or passivity, is a result of a low sense of security, a paralyzed will, believing lies about ourselves and God, poor self-esteem, and low self-confidence. Low self-confidence is more often low Holy Spirit-confidence.

When Peter got out of the boat and walked to Jesus on water (Matthew 14:29), he was taking initiative. When he did that, Peter showed these qualities of initiative:

  1. He knew what he wanted – to walk to Jesus
  2. He stirred himself to act – and before he could talk himself out of it, he did it
  3. He took risks – and he was willing to fail in front of others
  4. He made more mistakes by taking initiative – but he showed more faith and boldness
  5. He went with his gut instinct – and learned discernment on the journey

To be passive is safe but being safe is not always to be wise or Godly. SAFE theology can mean:

  • S – Self-protection
  • A – Avoidance of danger
  • F – Financial security
  • E – Escape from difficult circumstances

If God is stirring your heart, step out of the boat like Peter! Take some risks and learn as you do so. There is no failure with God if your desire is to please God, only learning and growing in God.