It was the elephant in the room. One just can’t write a book on ambition without facing the hulking presence of humility. In the historical stare-down, humility always won. Why not just campaign for greed? … or theft? But what I discovered in studying scripture and the experience of people pursuing ambition—some historic, some quietly heroic—really grabbed me. Here’s a snapshot: The greatest ambitions are realized on the path of humility. In this short series of posts, I want to explore the goal of ambition found on the path of humility. But first, a little history lesson.
Salmon Chase is a name that likely means little to you unless you’re an avid Civil War reader, which pretty much eliminates me. He served as the Treasury Secretary in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Salmon Chase had a nasty job. He had to find money for a nearly bankrupt government in an economic crisis to finance a war nobody really wanted to fight. Chase was smart, strategic and thrived on tackling problems, which was good because with a name like Salmon you better bring some game. Hand-picked by President Lincoln, Chase was aggressively recruited for his role. And he performed brilliantly.
But there were problems. Though exceptionally gifted, Chase didn’t play well with others. He had to be top dog. In fact, Salmon Chase performed best as a team of one. A colleague once described him as possessing “inordinate ambition, intense selfishness for official distinction … and considerable vanity.” Consider this little vanity project: as Treasury Secretary, Chase was responsible for printing money. So guess who’s picture graced the corner of every one dollar bill? As one historian commented, “[Chase] had deliberately chosen to place his picture on the ubiquitous one-dollar bill rather than a bill of a higher denomination, knowing that his image would thus reach the greatest number of people.”
When Salmon Chase is discussed in retrospect, it’s often in reference to his ravenous passion for his own name. The very drive that positioned him to make a difference betrayed him, leaving a legacy no man desires. Salmon Chase had a world class combination of talent and ambition. What he lacked was a track to keep the engine of ambition churning forward. The track for ambition is humility.
What do I mean when I say “humility?” In his book Humility, my friend C.J. Mahaney offers a very simple but helpful definition, “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” C.J. goes on to create an inseparable connection between humility and the cross.
What I like about this definition is that the focus is Godward, not me-ward. Yes I’ve got to look at myself, but only in comparison to the Holy God who became man and suffered as our substitute. Ponder that and it’ll make you humble! But notice something else. There’s nothing about humility that means we don’t dream, aspire and plan for great things. In fact, humility, biblically understood, should stoke great ambitions for new ways to bring God glory.
If only Salmon Chase had applied the simple advice of James: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). He never imagined the glory that matters most could only be achieved through humility.
Opportunities for godly ambition are everywhere—let’s not make the same mistake.