Have you ever wondered where the phrase, “he sure has a chip on his shoulder” comes from? Well according to my Google research the shipwrights in the Royal Navy Dockyards were allowed to take scrap lumber home as part of their compensation. Naturally the workers stared taking big pieces of lumber that had to be hauled out of the shipyard on their shoulder. In 1756, the Navy Board realized that this practice was costing the taxpayers a lot of money so they decided that the workers could only take small bundles of wood that could be carried under their arm and not on their shoulder. As you can imagine that did not sit very well with the workers, especially with a man named John Miller.
” This day at twelve of the clock some few of the workmen about one hundred and fifty came up first to the gate without any chips, afterwards about twenty more came and lowered their chips agreeable to the Board’s warrant. Then came John Miller, shipwright, about thirty feet before the main body of the people, on which the Master Shipwright ordered him to lower his chips. He answered he would not, with that the Master Shipwright took hold of him, and said he should. He, the said Miller replied, ‘Are not the chips mine? I will not lower them.’ Immediately the main body pushed on with their chips on their shoulders, crowded and forced the Master Shipwright and the First Assistant through the gateway, and when out of the yard give three huzzas.” (1)
This phrase also became common in the early 19th century. For instance, on May 20, 1830 the Long Island Telegraph apparently reported that “when two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off as his peril.”
As I have been thinking about that phrase this past week I came to the realization that it may not always be a bad thing to have a chip on your shoulder. In fact, if you stop to think about it, we all carry around chips from our past on our shoulders. You will know it is a chip because they are vivid (often hurtful) memories. These chips can either motivate you or hold you down depending on what you do with them.
When I was a little boy I was short, chubby and slow. I still am. Because of this fact, I always wanted to be one of the “captains” of the neighborhood backyard games so that I wouldn’t be picked last. In fact, if we had an odd number of kids, and I wasn’t one of the captains, I was always the last boy left. The two captains would argue over who had to take me because I was a handicap to their team. Chip, chip, chip….
I graduated from college without a major. I had a triple minor in chemistry, physics and biology because I switched from pre-med to teaching when I fell in love with a sweet little elementary education major named Ann. Upon graduating, I started looking for a high school teaching job. Early into my job search I received a call from a head-hunter out “of the blue” about working in the labs at Dow Chemical. I loved science class, but I hated the labs, so I almost said no until they told me that it paid 18K which was a lot of money back in 1988. I got the job but when I told my college science chair about my good fortune and that I was going to switch from teaching to research he was furious. He said that I was not “deep” enough in chemistry and that I would fail in a career as a research scientist. Chip, chip, chip…
I have many other chips that have been placed on my shoulder over the years and sometimes I feel their weight. I am very thankful that I had parents, a wife, kids and friends who have always loved and supported me and told me not to listen to the doubters. God used them to give me the courage wear my chips proudly, like shipwright John Miller, to push through the self-hate and self-doubt to become the man that God wanted me to be.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29 says,” Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
I love those verses. Are you too short, chubby and too slow to be picked first? Good! God chose you. Do you have the wrong degree for that job that you know in your heart was meant for you? Good! God chose you. Are you the wrong sex, color or age for that opportunity that makes your heart soar just thinking about it? Good! God chose you. Do you have a physical handicap that make it harder for you to compete with those who are blessed with perfect health? Good! God chose you. Have you made big-time mistakes that have made your life difficult and you desperately want a second chance to pursue your God-given dreams? Good! God chose you.
Chips hurt. But chips can motivate you toward achieving great things if you wear them proudly and ask for God’s strength to carry them. We serve a God who values the foolish, lowly, and despised. In fact, He is the sort of Captain who values the heart over intelligence, physical beauty and strength. The Bible is full of examples of God picking the overlooked and underwhelming to accomplish His greatest tasks. Jesus said that in His Kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first. (Matthew 20:16)
So how about it? What chips are you carrying around on your shoulder? Are you putting more hurtful chips on the shoulders of others or are you trying to lighten the load of your brothers and sisters who have slumped shoulders full of hurtful chips? It’s up to you. Are you going to let these chips motivate you or hold you back? Chip or dip?
(1) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, ADM/B/153: Admiralty In-Letters, transcribed in Hattendorf, J.B. et al., British Naval Documents(London, Naval Records Society, 1993), pp. 528-529