1896: True Ambition


Brethren Of The Graduating Class :—Many years ago, in a time of mental depression, when life seemed hardly worth the living, I was greatly inspirited by the exhortation of a friend not to give up my ambition. I had been tempted to passive acquiescence; he taught me that it was my duty to use my will. Charles Kingsley said well that the central idea of ancient tragedy was, Man conquered by circumstance, but that the central idea of modern tragedy is Man conquering circumstance. There is such a thing as a true ambition. It is made possible by Christ. It is the duty of the minister of Christ. On this last night of your Seminary course, instead of saying to you, "I charge thee, Cromwell, fling away ambition," I say rather: Cherish the highest ambition, and never let it go.


There is a false ambition and against it I would be quick to warn you. "Seekest thou great things for thyself?" said the prophet; "seek them not." Seeking great things in order that we may be great, is to reverse all right rules, and to put ourselves in the place of Christ. Away with such self-deification and idolatry! But we are nowhere forbidden to seek great things for Christ, that we may bring them to his feet, and that he may have the glory. On the other hand we are to covet earnestly the best gifts; there is a lawful striving even after masteries; faithfulness in a few things is to be rewarded by promotion to rulership over many things. And this is only to say that we owe to Christ the utmost we can do and attain; we are bound to make the most of ourselves for him; let this brief life be crowded with the best and highest services.

The true ambition is an unselfish ambition. It is such ambition as Jesus had, who pleased not himself, and whose meat and drink it was to do the will of God. It is the ambition to be like God in character, to be holy as he is holy. "Be ambitious to be quiet," says Paul to the Thessalonians. They were in danger of being diverted from the common duties of life; they must make it their first study to perform well their ordinary tasks. True ambition does not grudge the present toil, nor undervalue the present place, nor neglect the present opportunity. It rather aspires to make present service great by the thoroughness and devotion with which it is done. It welcomes sacrifice and humiliation when they come, not as mere ascetic exercises, but in the order of God's providence as needful means of promoting piety and of advancing Christ's


kingdom. As our Lord could say: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished," so many a minister of Christ has been impelled by a sacred ambition that gave him no rest till he had planted the banner of the cross on heathen shores, or had worn out his life in conflict with unbelief and wickedness at home.

Such ambition as this reconciles the conflicting claims of love and self-love, of conscience and culture, of principle and advantage. We are endowed by nature with the love of power. The greatest men have most of it. God appeals to it in his word. He that overcomes is to sit down with Christ upon his throne. But then, this love of power is to be exercised and gratified only in subordination to God's will. It is power for Christ and in Christ that we should seek. And here is the possibility of temptation and of sin. Christ himself had a greater love for power than any one of us ever can have. Satan made it the avenue of his seduction, when he offered him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. But the price—that was the bowing of the knee to the Evil One and the recognition of his lordship over all. Power was a great thing, but God was greater, and Jesus renounced himself and sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

So he urges us to do only what he has himself done before us. And this is wisdom,—for wisdom is the choice of the highest end, together with the choice of the best means for its attainment. A true ambition chooses God instead of self, because God is the highest end, and then it chooses the best way of honoring God and of promoting his kingdom in ourselves and in the

world. In this choice of right means comes the test of our sincerity. How may I best serve Christ? A true ambition will seek great things for Christ. But what are great things? Are they the things the world calls great,—wealth, luxury, honor, fame, early matrimony, a large library, a commanding pulpit, wide knowledge, influence in politics, reputation as a lecturer? Or are the great things rather things of the Spirit,—meekness, patience, self-denial, much of faith and love, much of sacrifice for the ignorant, the heathen, the lost? I think we cannot doubt that these latter things are the things which in the sight of God are of great price, and the things which are to be sought first. The former are to be sought only so far as they are consistent with and helpful to the latter.

Who but the wise Spirit of God can give us the wisdom which belongs to a true ambition, that we may esteem the things of time at their proper value, and use them as not abusing them! Christian ministers err at times in both directions. Some are too worldly wise. In their zeal for comfort and place and popularity and learning and influence they put self before Christ and bring reproach upon Christ's cause. But there are others who lack all worldly wisdom, have no forethought, live like the sparrows, and tempt Providence by expecting God to care for them. They forget that the minister of the gospel is to be a man as well as a minister. He is to have common sense as well as the Spirit of God, and more than ordinary common sense because he has the Spirit of God. Christ did not repeal the laws of nature nor the book of Proverbs. It is not wrong to desire a measure of comfort or popularity or learning, provided the comfort, the popularity, the learning, are all sought and held solely for the glory of God and the relief of man's estate.

I have no great fear that you will not care sufficiently for the things of this life, and I will not specially exhort you with regard to that. What I am concerned about is only that you may be ambitious for spiritual results. I have seen men who no sooner got fairly settled in the ministry than they seemed incapable of movement afterward. Past attainments in the way of knowledge of the Bible completely satisfied them; the last demand upon them for recitation in the Seminary seemed to mark the limit of their mental progress; they never grew afterward. And their highest aim in the church seemed to be to keep things up to their old level. Indolence and dry rot got hold of them, and at the end of five years the cause of Christ in the community was just where it was at the beginning. I charge you to-night to let no such laziness get possession of you. For when our mental and spiritual state does not improve, it surely deteriorates. The church that does not go forward, goes backward; like the bicycle, if you do not go on, you go over. In taking your first pastorate, resolve that that church shall feel your influence; that the town shall know that a man of God is there; that you will never leave your post till the cause of Christ is permanently advanced in that place. The old prayer that God will enable us to leave the world better than we found it, expresses what I urge upon you as the substance of a true ambition on the part of a minister of Jesus Christ.

Since only God's Spirit can either give us this ambi

tion or can keep it pure and true, the thing we ought first to desire is that we may have much of the Spirit of God. But even here let me warn you that it is possible to aspire to great gifts of the Spirit in a merely selfish way. We may ask for the Holy Spirit, in order that we may use him, and make him our tool and instrument. How insulting to God are such prayers! The only prayer for the Holy Spirit that is ever answered is the prayer that the Holy Spirit may use us, as unresisting, active, glad executors of his will. He is sovereign, let us follow his lead; he is almighty, let us be the vehicles and channels of his power! We receive the Holy Spirit, only when we exalt him to the throne, give him the glory, become nothing ourselves that he may be all in all.

Dear brethren, it is with sorrow that we part from you, for you have one and all commended yourselves to us by your qualities of mind and heart. We predict for you large and blessed service in the ministry of Christ. We urge you to cherish a high and noble ambition; to be content with no mean standard of attainment or of success. Seek great things for Christ,— things such as Christ sought, things that will seem great at the last great day. If those great things include the cross of suffering, remember that, if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him. But whether our ministry be one of gladness or of sorrow, let us go forward unflinchingly to fulfill it, running with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the forerunner and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross and is now set clown at the right hand of God.