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Abraham Lincoln, Wrestler

Cover of LINCOLN'S BATTLE WITH GOD

 

Amid the greatest difficulties of my administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right.

Abraham Lincoln, October 24, 1863

Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler. With his impressive heigh and long arms, perfect for wrapping his opponents, Lincoln was renown in his teens and early 20’s for his unmatched strength and keen mind. Record has it that Abe was defeated only once in nearly 300 matches. He was scrappy.

But did you know that Lincoln also wrestled  with God? 

Lincoln’s Battle With God

Anyone who would put Lincoln’s faith in a neat, Christian box would do well to read Stephen Mansfield’s, Lincoln’s Battle With God.  Lincoln’s faith won’t be contained in box, because it was in constant motion.

Many of us are familiar with Lincoln’s nods to Almighty God and the biblical language in his speeches. But as a young man, Abraham Lincoln distanced himself from organized Christianity,  but not from grappling with God.

Lincoln struggled with a God who let his dear mother die a painful death before his nine-year-old eyes and would take his only sibling Sarah ten years later. As if that weren’t enough, God allowed pretty, vivacious Ann Rutledge-the light of his 20-something eyes- to die.

Trash Talking

Lincoln’s struggle with God was probably rooted in his father’s faith as much as his loss and pain.  “He had only known the religious of the haughty, self-assured hyper-Calvinist or the exuberant camp meeting extremes.” Mansfield  explains, “He had found both wanting.” (p. 40)

So when he moved to New Salem, he soaked up the Christless rationalism of Volney and Paine.  It’s no surprise that it was in 1835, the same year that Ann Rutledge died, that Lincoln wrote a “little book on Infidelity.” In it, he reasoned that the Bible was uninspired, that Jesus Christ was not divine and that the Christian church was a lie. Lincoln had God on the mat.

Mansfield writes, “It may be that he was actually living out the inner duplicity of the atheist’s confession: ‘There is no God-and I hate him.’ (p. 45) Whatever the case, during his early Springfield years, Lincoln continued to call Christ a ‘ba__,” to speak of a churched society as “priest ridden,” and to call Christianity a myth. (p. 61)

That might sound more  like Lincoln pinning God than an ongoing match. But mostly it was trash talk. Kind of like when he told the New Salem stags, “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.” None of the guys tried.

But God didn’t back down so fast.

Always Wrestling 

Mansfield traces the wrestling match from smack talk in New Salem, to the fervent seeking in Springfield to the gritty drawing in his gripping account. He traces a man who “was always wrestling spiritually, always in transition, and was always unwilling to appear otherwise.” (p. 100)

Mansfield’s conclusion, after all that tracing?

If during our Civil War, a White House dressmaker finds Lincoln reading the book of Job and a congressman recalls a discussion of divine destiny with the President, and Lincoln’s own written reflections reveal a man wrestling with God’s purposes, and a clergy man confirms that Lincoln sat in on prayer meetings, and if Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is more sermon than a political speech — then certainly there is room to consider that Lincoln in the White House was not the Lincoln of New Salem or Springfield. The evidence- not the myth- demands this conclusion. (p. 191)   

Lincoln’s own words lead us to the same conclusion: “Through all, I groped my way until I found a stronger and higher grasp of thought, one that reached beyond this life with a clearness and satisfaction I had never known before. The Scriptures unfolded before me with a deeper and more logical appeal than anything else I could find to turn to, or ever before had found in them.” 

What I love about Lincoln is that he never left the mat. He groped and grappled and struggled and wrestled. Which means, he stayed engaged with God and studied his Word.. 

Looking Up

Some people wear their unchanged position as a badge of honor. As if it’s a virtue to say, “I’ve always believed this. I’ve never changed my mind.” They would say change is a sign of weakness rather than a mark of humble faith. Lincoln’s life stands in stark contrast. Lincoln changed his mind about God. 

My heroes are the ones who keep changing and growing. Lincoln is a real hero for that. Because real heroes are not static. They wrestle and change and grow. Where it mattered most, Lincoln did those. 

Sometime after his son Willie’s death, he told Rev. Miner, an old friend from Springfield, 

If I were not sustained by the prayers of God’s people, I could not endure this constant pressure. … It has pleased Almighty God to place me in my present position and looking up to Him for wisdom and divine guidance I must work my destiny as best I can.

Lincoln stayed on the mat with God. Early in the match he may have thought he had God pinned. But at the end he found himself prevailing on God, looking up for help- right where God wanted him to be.

Which means, I think, that God doesn’t mind a good grapple. 

And a man wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 

Genesis 32:24-28

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MLK on Engaging Suffering and Unearned Pain

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Did you remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today?

Maybe you liked some MLK quotes on Facebook. I did that. Then I enjoyed King’s voice in his Mountaintop speech (“Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”) and these voices singing We Shall Overcome. After that I took notes on this podcast. In it, author Collin Hansen interviews Mika Edmondson on how King handled “unearned pain.”

The podcast is a gem for all of us who face “unearned pain.”

For all of us.

Hansen: How did King account for this suffering that he pursued but did not deserve?

Edmundson: He believed that it could be engaged for good. Suffering is an evil that can be engaged in such a way so that the Lord could work to bring about his good purposes. It must be engaged with love. Then it can be redemptive. The Messiah did not revile when he was reviled.

MLK grappled with the question of why an all-good, all-powerful God would allow African-Americans to suffer so much in America…He believed that Jesus showed the way to engage suffering redemptively, and that God had especially and providentially prepared African-Americans to bear suffering as a witness to the overcoming power of the Gospel in America and as a witness of what the Gospel is and can be…

God has a purpose in allowing his people to engage suffering to the glory of God. This is not to say suffering is good or that somehow God smiled about slavery. I am not saying that at all. It is a terrible, horrible thing and yet God is sovereignly and graciously able to uphold his people so that their oppression does not have the final say; just like at the cross, where injustice and the worst oppression coming upon the Messiah.

But the Resurrection proves that oppression and injustice do not have the final say.

Hansen: Why didn’t this view lead to passivity?

Edmundson: King’s theodicy [his answer to the question of why a good, powerful God allows suffering] did not lead to passivity because he understood that God works through means. He knew that God works through the faith and energy and efforts of God’s people. We don’t just sit and wait passively for the Lord to bring this about. He will bring it about through his people.

King understood divine concurrence: that we can be at work and at the same time God is at work. Christianity holds out for us hope…that even if we don’t win in our lifetime, we will win. Even if we don’t see the ultimate victory, we know we are part of the winning cause…. There’s something about being a part of a hopeful cause that goes beyond ourselves.

Jesus did not shrink back, nor did he respond with violence. His life was not taken from him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. redemptively engaged in suffering to the glory of God. Responding ‘agapically’ to unjust suffering is… identifying with Christ and knowing that he is at work and that ultimately we will have victory. It does not guarantee physical safety or financial success, but neither does the Gospel.

Hansen: As a black man, what does it mean to trust the Lord through your tears?

Edmundson: It means that Christ will not allow me to suffer in vain and…that everything that he allows to come my way has a redemptive purpose around it. It means ultimately I am swept up in his purpose and I’m swept up in his victory and it means that I have hope.

Practically, it means that there is there is no room for despair and no room for bitterness and hatred. It means that I am not ultimately defined by my oppression but I am defined by Christ’s victory and by his victory in and through me to overcome the instances of suffering that come my way.

King’s theodicy affirms the dignity of those in the crucible of oppression. They are not just victims, they are overcomers

For everyone born of God overcomes the world.

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.

1 John 5:4

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

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Thirsty and Satisfied and Thirstier Still

Water bottle being handed to a desperate hand


When was the last time you were thirsty? I mean lips-parched, throat-ablaze, tongue-stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth thirsty. I mean all- consuming, dyingfor-a-drink thirsty?

Have you ever been that thirsty?

Thirsty For Water

One day last July I came close.

I had a good podcast to feed my mind and green fields my eyes. I pedaled away as was my custom on hot summer days. A few miles out, I grabbed my water bottle. Groped, actually. Because I had no water bottle.

How could I forget? I chided myself. Should I head back? But the glutton for punishment part of me said, Finish the 18-mile course. How bad it be? I kept on.

When I felt the thirst, I’d swallow hard and lick my lips. That worked for a few miles- until cottonmouth hit and my tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Strange, I thought, how fierce thirst and sheer force of habit have me groping again and again for a water bottle that’s not here.

Before long I grew deaf to podcast and blind to the scenery. All I could think of was water, maybe a lick from that trickle in the ditch. I was consumed with thirst. The last kick up the driveway was more glorious an ending for me than ever a Tour de France win could be.

But in this CamelBak-Contigo-HydroFlask crazed culture, that kind of thirst is unfamiliar to most of us. My thirst was partly self-imposed. I could have turned around and been thirsty for the 3 miles rather than 15.

But I’m glad for that thirst. Because it taught me a lot about thirst.

Thirsty For God

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1

Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and thirsty soul too. Every single one of us is thirsty for love and searching for significance. Each soul longs to feel its worth. But the thirst for God himself is a thirst is peculiar to Christians.

The 19th-century English minister Alexander MacLaren wrote,

Blessed are they who know where the fountain is…and can go on to say, ‘My soul thirsts for God!’ That is religion. There is a great deal more in Christianity than longing, but there is no Christianity worth the name without it...

Dear friends! if you have found out that God is your supreme good, see to it that you live in the good, see to it that you live in the constant attitude of longing for more of that good which alone will slake [satisfy] your appetite.

See to it. Long for that good. Quench your thirst and thirst again.

Cultivate The Thirst

We can cultivate the thirst. In fact, to stay thirsty, we must cultivate the thirst for God and suppress lesser desires. If we don’t, MacLaren says, the desire will break off into a thousand little channels. We won’t feel thirsty.

But, dear friends! let us not forget that these higher aspirations after the uncreated and personal good which is God have to be cultivated… with great persistence, throughout all our changing lives, or they will soon die out, and leave us…

A man who lets all his longings go unchecked and untamed after earthly good has none left towards heaven. If you break up a river into a multitude of channels, and lead off much of it to irrigate many little gardens, there will be no force in its current…and it will never reach the great ocean…

So, if we fritter away and divide up our desires among all the.. partial blessings of earth, then we shall but feebly long, and feebly longing, shall but faintly enjoy, the cool, clear, exhaustless gush from the fountain of life-’My soul thirsts for God!’

The soul who thirst for God and his righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Then that self-same soul immediately renews its quest.

At once he is thirsty for God and satisfied in Him.

Thirsty and Satisfied…

I’m at Day 25 of a 40-day sugar fast. It’s helped me see how sugar is like a drug. A brownie sliver from the edge of the pan can become a slab and then a whole pan. A little is not enough. For better and worse, we crave more.

MacLaren again, on how a thirsting for God is like that, but different:

You have to increase the dose of the narcotic, and as you increase the dose, it loses its power, and the less you can do without it the less it does for you. But to drink into the one God slakes all thirsts, and because He is infinite, and our capacity for receiving Him may be indefinitely expanded; therefore…the more we have of God, the more we long for Him, and the more we long for Him the more we possess Him.

That helps me understand Psalm 63. It helps me wrap my mind around the thirsty soul in verse 1 which is the satisfied soul in verse 5. My soul thirsts for you. My soul is satisfied with you, the Psalmist cries to God.

The more we have of him, the more we long for Him. But really, isn’t this how it is with the best of lovers and friends?

…And Thirstier Still

Can’t we can spend time with loved ones and both be satisfied and have be “thirstier” for more sweet times together? To be with best of friends both quenches and kindles, satisfies and makes us thirst for more.

When will we get together again? is how time with my best friends ends. That helps me “get” what David felt for God on the run in the wilderness. He thirsted for God and God quenched his thirst so that his soul was more satisfied than even the most lavish feast. What then?

David grew thirstier still. Beg your pardon for quoting MacLaren one last time,

The two things come together, longing and fruition [satisfaction] … Fruition begets longing, and there is swift and blessed alternation, or rather co-existence of the two.

This is a blessed back and forth of thirst and satisfaction, a co-existence of the two.

God Intends To Keep You Thirsting

I love how Eric Alexander ends his message, “Thirsting For God,”

God in his great mercy by every conceivable means is going to set to work in our souls to set us thirsting after him. Sometimes that may mean…depriving you of the comforts and blessings of life sometimes even a conscious awareness of his blessing upon you, as with David. You might find yourself brought into a desert place, barren, wilderness.

But you know the one thing you can keep hold on and be absolutely certain of is that God intends to keep you thirsting for his glory.

David wrote Psalm 63 when he was in the wilderness fleeing for his life from a rebellious son who would take his life and steal his kingdom. And it was there that David’s soul thirsted so.

This is why barren places are blessed. Jon Bloom says,

They teach us both to want most and to seek most what we need most. This is a painful gift of priceless worth, because it drives us like nothing else to the only fountain that will quench our soul-thirst.

Water and water only could satisfy my thirst that July day. Our loving Lord wants us desperate and thirsty for him. For him alone.

But he might take us into a wilderness to get us thirsty for him.

Are You In The Wilderness?

For months, a dear friend has had some serious sleep trouble. She sleeps for 2 or 3 hours and then she’s awake the rest of the night. She’s tried all the secrets. But still- 2 or 3 hours. She told me how hard it is to be a good mom and a good wife and wondered, Why wouldn’t God grant me sleep for them?

I don’t know why.

But we prayed and after Amen, with wet eyes and head bowed low, she said, Maybe better than a rested mom, God wants me here. Dependent and desperate for him.

The wilderness is not comfortable. But God sends his dear children to the dry, barren place. His Beloved Son with whom he was well pleased? Off to the wilderness (Mark 1:11-12).

Adulterous Israel? Off to the wilderness. Hosea 2:14: “Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.”

Judah, his people, the apple of his eye? Exiled in Babylon. But, they found grace in the wilderness (Jeremiah 31:2). I think he also means for us to feel his goodness in the dry, sleepless wilderness.

Being thirsty isn’t comfortable. My hot summer ride drove that home. It’s a desperate place. But comfort is overrated, so that’s good. Because God wants us thirsty. Desperately thirsty for Him.

Once upon a time Jesus said, “I thirst.” And he was in excruciating pain when he did. But he drank the cup of God’s wrath that we can have eternal, thirst quenching relationship with him. As Isaiah wrote, Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.

That is our Suffering Servant. Because he thirsted and was satisfied, we too thirst and are satisfied. And grow thirstier still.

Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine;
Oh, languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth;
Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine —
For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth. 

Frederick Faber

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”

John 7:37


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7 Takeaways: 14 Days into the 40-Day Sugar Fast

Spoon and Fork imprints in sugar.

Today is day 14 of the 40-day sugar fast. The last post explained why I’m fasting. This post is about how. 

 

Fasting By Faith & For Faith

Yesterday a friend who’s fasting with me asked, What’s one thing you’re learning? In typical Abigail fashion, I proceeded to give her five. Then I thought of two more. They’re not profound or super-spiritual, nor are they universal. They may not be true for you. But still I’d like to share. 
 
Because this fast was borne of faith. Faith that God does indeed satisfy the hungry soul with good things (Psalm 107:9). And that whoever comes to Jesus will not hunger, and whoever believes in him will not thirst (John 6:35). But that sugar sates my flesh so my spirit doesn’t hunger, and that I go to sweets (and salty treats and Facebook feeds) to fill hunger that Christ wants to fill and he alone can satisfy.  
 
This fast was from faith, but pray it also leads to greater faith. I’m sharing these with so that you will be encouraged that God can use the loaves and fish you offer up- our desserts and sweets- to nourish others. That we may be strengthened and mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:12).
 
So, please consider sharing your experience, whether mundane or triumphant. Your comment is most welcome.
 

7 Lessons, 14 Days In

1. It’s easier to fast when food is out of reach.

The word *easier makes me wince a little because fasting isn’t supposed to be easy. Maybe possible is the right word. Because the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Therefore watch and pray. (Matthew 26:41)
 
Some temptations we fight head on. We take up the shield of faith and wield the sword of the Word. But other passions- we flee. The end of 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. Purging chocolate from the house has made this easier possible. It’s been a way out. So don’t expect to see me at Dairy Queen in the next few weeks. 
 

2. Old habits die hard.

I knew this. But I’m learning it in a new way, a really physical way. When a surprise batch of my mother-in-law’s frosted sugar cookies appeared in front of me last week, I grabbed one and on autopilot, took a bite, completely forgetting I was on Day 10 of a sugar fast.
 
The second the frosting hit my tongue, I remembered, humbled. Romans 7:15 popped into my head, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Not at all that I hate the cookies- the opposite is true. But it’s not the season. Only that my response to seeing them was to take and eat, without thought, and without thanks. But there is grace for that.
 

3. Substitutes don’t force me to deal with my heart. 

And my heart is what this fast is all about. I think we know this, about substitutes. Because we trade obsessions, and compulsive eating is more common than we may think.

I just heard about a heroin addict who broke free of that evil and got hooked on cupcakes and candy instead. He never learned to handle the pain inside and now all the sugar is ballooning his waistline and seriously hurting his heart. That’s why I won’t let Stevia sweetened pecans replace my dark chocolate almonds. But truth be told, peanuts and popcorn keep trying to fill void. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, or with sugar. All things are lawful, but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Cor. 6:12). I get trading obsessions. But I need to take my hungry hollowness to God. 

4. I anticipate the feast more because of the fast.

For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven, the Teacher said and the Byrds sang. Jesus Christ did both. He explained in Matthew 9:15 that while his disciples weren’t fasting when he was with them, they would fast when He, the Bridegroom, was taken away.
 
It is time for a 40-day sugar fast, but the season for feasting will come. And when it does, it will be that much more of a treat. I admit, I’m really looking forward to breaking fast on February 10th. How much more we should we be looking to the return of Bridegroom and the marriage supper of the Lamb?

 

5. Rich food is more satisfying. 

Jim and I redeemed a gift certificate last week to a local bistro. It was more gourmet than our dining out norm. Roasted olives, sourdough with salted butter, lobster bisque, and blackened salmon hit the spot.
Usually I crave ice cream after a dinner out, but the richness of our meal made the sweetness- and the after-dinner snacking- easy to forgo. That made me think of a fighter verse my friend quotes when she’s tempted by food, My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. When we fill up on the rich food, we won’t crave fillers as much. 
 

6. Hunger pangs can be pleasant pain. 

Romans 12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Part of our mind renewal, I think, is to learn to reframe the pain. Because we know that to grow strong- physically or spiritually- we must recognize good pain, by which I mean productive pain. Hunger pains become good pains when I face them with faith that God is producing good in me through them.
 
Here’s what I mean: Not caving to my sugar craving tears down the idol of food as comforter. It makes space that the God of all comfort will fill (2 Cor 1:3). Then He gets the glory. But when ice cream soothed my after-dinner unease or chocolate bars got me through writing difficult IEP’s, ice cream and chocolate got the credit, the glory. Sweets were my refuge and retreat.

 

7. Fasting from sugar helps me pray. 

I’ve written before about how prayer can be more like a spare tire than a steering wheel. I don’t want it to be. Fasting helps me this way.
 
When that emptiness or antsy-ness or hunger pains come and I go to God first and say, Fill me, help me, He does. When that happens the Giver, Living Bread, and the God of Comfort get the glory. That’s what I meant, in #6 by pleasant pain: hunger pangs can be productive. 

So how’s this 40-day sugar fast going?

There are still 25 days to go. But this morning I did something new when my stomach growled at me. Two weeks ago I would have grabbed a few chocolate almonds and last week some peanuts. But today, I let the rumbling be a quiet call to pray. 

I didn’t drop to my knees or fall prostrate. I just closed my eyes for five seconds and prayed, Lord, I want to know you more. Please fill me.
 
That’s it. Then I did the laundry. But I did it a little more full of Christ and a little more happy in Jesus.
 
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled. 
Matthew 5:6