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Abraham Lincoln, Overcomer: Why Our 16th President Would Have Worn Nikes

Abraham Lincoln, Overcomer
Lincoln, at age 48. “The picture…is, I think, a very true one; though my wife, and many other do not.” Lincoln wrote. “My impression is that their objection arises from the disordered condition of the hair.” (Lincoln: A Photobiography, p. 40, R. Freedman)

On this day, 210 years ago, an overcomer was born. And, for the record, to be an overcomer, you’ve got to overcome. There’s no easier way.

Abraham Lincoln overcame.

By these three character traits our 16th President became more than a conqueror and overcame. It was not despite, but because of the constant barrage of criticism, confusion, and conflict that he did.

There are plenty more, but here are three traits that reveal how Lincoln overcame:

  1. Patience- Exhibit A: How he persevered and embraced marriage to a very trying Mary Todd Lincoln.
  2. Kindness- Exhibit B: How he looked hard for any excuse to pardon a deserter named Henry M. Luckett. 
  3. Humility- Exhibit C: How he wrote a letter admitting I was wrong, you were right to General U.S. Grant.

Patience, kindness and humility served Lincoln- and our united nation- well. Since I’ve already written about them, I thought I might forgo the Lincoln post this year.

Then I heard what Stanton said.

Gorilla Warfare

Edwin, “Mars,” Stanton was President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Stanton was a sharp, biting critic of Lincoln early in the war.

He called Lincoln a “gorilla.”

Yes. He did.

Stanton publicly declared that it was foolish to go to Africa in search of a gorilla when “the original gorilla” could be found in Springfield, Illinois! Then, six months before he was appointed to the Lincoln’s Cabinet, Stanton wrote former President Buchanan:

“The dreadful disaster of Sunday [Battle of Bull Run] can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this administration has culminated in that catastrophe, and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”

Scathing words, those.

But somehow Stanton transformed into a strong supporter of the President.

If Stanton Said I Was…

But Lincoln took this “gorilla warfare” all in stride, and, because he felt that Stanton was the most qualified for the office, and in 1862 appointed him Secretary of War.

This proves that overcomers aren’t enslaved by what others say about them and that they’re not above correction. Overcomers look long and hard for the kernel of truth in the criticism, even if it’s stuck on a cob of misunderstanding or lies. And once they find it, they don’t let pride prevent them from changing course and turning.

I just read about a little incident that perfectly, if crassly, reveals that part of overcoming. It also involves Stanton.

This exchange came after some “Western men,” led by Congressman Lovejoy, procured an order from Lincoln to switch out their soldiers for easter soldiers.

When Lovejoy explained the plan to Secretary of War Stanton, it was rejected.

‘But we have the President’s order sir,’ said Lovejoy.
‘Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?’ said Stanton.
‘He did, sir.’
‘Then he is a d—d fool,’ said the irate Secretary.
“Do you mean to say the President is a d—d fool?’ asked Lovejoy, in amazement.
‘Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that.’
The bewildered Congressman from Illinois betook himself at once to the President, and related the result of his conference.
‘Did Stanton say I was a d–d fool?’ Asked Lincoln at the close of the recital.
‘He did, sir; and repeated it.’
After a moment’s pause, and looking up, the President said:
‘If Stanton said I was a d–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.’

And so our meek President did not retaliate. Instead he deferred to the same one who called his administration imbecilic and himself a gorilla.

Not Overcome By Evil 

Lincoln’s response to Lovejoy reminds me of 18th-century, British preacher George Whitefield. In response to a vicious, accusatory letter to him, Whitefield wrote,

I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.

With love in Christ,

George Whitefield

Lincoln could have penned those words just as well as Whitefield. It was Lincoln’s meekness and restraint in returning good for evil that proved too great a weapon for Stanton.

Do I not destroy my enemies, Lincoln asked, when I make them my friends?

Lincoln Would Have Worn Nikes

Had they been invented a hundred years earlier, he’d have worn them. Not because he was 6’4″ and headed for the court, but because Lincoln was an overcomer.

Turns out the Greek word translated “overcomer” is from the word nikao (níke) and it means to get the victory, overcome, conquer or subdue. Overcomers wear Nikes.

And they don’t return evil for evil. Any fool can do that. But to return good for evil is supernatural. Overcomers aren’t enslaved by others’ evil. They don’t take revenge. They have One Lord and Master and are, “disciples of him, who died for his enemies.”

George Washington Carver once said, “I will never let another man ruin my life by making me hate him.” Empowered by the Spirit, Carver would not allow evil to conquer him. Instead he lived out Romans 12:21, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

John Piper fleshes this out for us,

In the context, coming right after saying be good to your enemy, I think he means “Don’t let your enemy’s hostility produce hostility in you. But let your love triumph over his hostility.” Don’t be overcome by evil means, Don’t be overcome by his evil…

Don’t let another person’s evil provoke you to evil thoughts or evil attitudes or evil deeds. Don’t give them that kind of power. You don’t have to. Christ is your king. Christ is your leader, your champion, your treasure. Christ governs your life, not those who do evil.

Lincoln was not overcome by evil. He didn’t let the evil of his enemies control him. He returned good for evil and that makes friends of enemies.

Stanton was overcome by Lincoln’s good.

The Most Perfect Ruler Of Men

In fact, Stanton tried to keep Lincoln from going to the theater that fateful night by ordering one of his subordinates, Major Thomas Eckert, not to accompany the Lincolns.

It was Stanton who organized the response to Lincoln’s assassination, the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, and the prosecution of the assassination conspiracists. It was Stanton who wept bitter tears beside the bed as Lincoln breathed his last.

And it was Stanton who, according to eyewitnesses, announced: “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.

Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote this in a letter to Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death.  “Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you, and how vain were all efforts to shake that trust and confidence, not lightly given and never withdrawn.”

And as Lincoln to Stanton, even more our Lord Jesus to us.

His love for us will never be withdrawn. Through faith in Him we overcome.

Everyone born of God overcomes the world.

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

1 John 5:4

 

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The Kindest Man

Kindness is the only service that will stand the storm of life and not wash out.

Abraham Lincoln

I’ve learned a lot from Lincoln.

I’ve written before about his amazing humility. About how freely Lincoln admitted mistakes. How, as a congressman, he gently declined the title of “Hon,” as in “Honorable,” and later, as our 16th President, delicately refused a “supply of elephants” from the King of Siam.

He also taught me about the best ways to give and receive criticism. That we’d best not criticize unless we have a heart to help and to always look for the kernel of truth.

Lincoln’s endurance in difficult relationships is legendary. Abraham Lincoln embraced the pain in both his private and public life. I’ve learned about persevering and pressing on from Lincoln.

Over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.” (Tony Reinke, Learning from Lincoln’s Flawed Marriage)

But there’s an important part of kindness that I’ve been learning from Lincoln lately.

Any Excuse to Pardon a Man

A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself. Proverbs 11:17

Journalist David Locke has noted,

No man on earth hated blood as Lincoln did, and he seized eagerly upon any excuse to pardon a man when the charge could possibly justify it. The generals always wanted an execution carried out before it could possibly be brought before the President.

It is kind when creatures with incomplete knowledge assume the best about fellow creatures who falter and fail us. Kindness reminds us that everyone is fighting a hard battle.

Lincoln embodied such kindness in pardoning deserters, men whose “cowardly legs…couldn’t help running away,”

“If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned,” President Lincoln said about one case of desertion.

Then there was the case of Henry M. Luckett. When his daughter came to beg pardon, Lincoln asked,

Did you say he was to be shot day after to-morrow? No, no! There will be no shooting nor hanging in this case. Henry M. Luckett! There must be something wrong with him, or he wouldn’t be in such a scrape as this. I don’t know what more I can do for him, but you can rest assured, my child,’ turning to Mrs. Bullitt, ‘that your father’s life is safe.’

There must be something wrong with him, or he wouldn’t be in such a scrape as this.

It is kindness when we creatures assume the best of fellow flawed and fallen creatures.

Do you give the benefit of the doubt?

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

Do you assume the best about others? Or are you more likely to presume the worst and presuppose ill intent?

When your friend is 20 minutes late for a date, what pops in your head? Is it more like, She’s so selfish (or careless) with her time? Or, Something must have come up with the kids or God forbid, something bad happened on the road. 

Are the people in your life more often innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent? Do you ever actually try to find a way to excuse another when they fail and or let you down?

Do you, as Matthew Henry put it centuries ago,

[H]ave your ear always open to the first proposals and overtures of satisfaction, submission, and reconciliation? He that is of a meek spirit will be forward to forgive injuries, and to put up with affronts, and has some excuses or other ready wherewith to extenuate and qualify the provocation which an angry man will industriously aggravate. 

Here are a few questions I’ve been asking myself lately. Honestly as I do, I keep coming back to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

  1. Is my “ear always open to overtures of reconciliation? Even if the offending party doesn’t express it exactly how I would, am I responsive at the first sign of repentance and regret?
  2. Am I “forward to forgive injuries”? In other words, am I eager to be restored to relationship, to cover the fault and move on?
  3. Do I “extenuate and qualify” the word or action that provoked me? Do I assume bad motive or give the benefit of the doubt?

Henry wrote this more than a century before Abraham Lincoln was born, but his description of a meek man reads like a line from a Lincoln biography. “There is no great harm done, or, if there be, there was none intended… and so the offense…is easily past by.”

A.W. Tozer tells about a time when an advisor came to Lincoln as he sat staring out the window and over the lawn below, “Mr. President,” the man said, “you seem very serious today.”

“Yes,” he said, “today is ‘butcher day.’ They’re going to shoot a lot of boys today in the army for retreating under fire or doing something else in wartime. I don’t blame those boys; they weren’t cowards. Their legs did it.” Over his tears he said, “I’m going over the list, and I’m going to save every one that I can.”

Tozer concludes,”That’s why we love Lincoln, not just because he freed the slaves or saved the Union, but because he had a big heart.”

Kind to the Wicked and Ungrateful

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)

Kindness means useful and profitable. It’s more than sentiment. It’s a quality of being helpful and beneficial, of seeking to improve and bless others. Even wicked and ungrateful others.

In Titus 2 verse 3, we read about what we all were before we knew Christ. We were foolish, disobedient, led astray, salves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. That’s what we were: wicked and ungrateful, you could safely say.

We had made our bed.

But in his love and kindness, God said we said we didn’t have to lie in it.

The Kindest Man

But when the loving kindness of God our Savior appeared… he saved us. Titus 3:4

Not that we were so distressed about our sinfulness that we longed after Him, but because God in infinite kindness reached down to where we were. “The love of God our Saviour toward man,” is literally, “the philanthropy of God.”

God is a lover of men, and because He so loved He sent His Son to save us from our sins. God was moved by his own kindness at the sight of man’s misery and wretchedness.

Matthew Henry, commenting on Titus 3:4, explains

Sin bringing that misery, wrath might have issued out rather than compassion- but God, knowing how to adjust all with his own honour and perfections, would pity and save rather than destroy.

This divine kindness to miserable, condemned rebels actually sounds a lot like President Lincoln pardoning the deserters whose legs had run off. 

It’s not at all surprising then, that Tozer once wrote, I suppose one of the kindest men in America was Lincoln.  For it is kind indeed when we creatures assume the best of fellow, fallen creatures without knowing, for sure, their worst.

But it is the pinnacle of kindness when the Creator offers us his best- his only Beloved Son- to pardon us, when He knows full well our very worst.

The Lord is righteous in all his ways
    and kind in all his works.

Psalm 145:17

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Humble Uncle Abe

I

You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; 

you stoop down to make me great. 

Psalm 18:35

The truly great go low. They go low and exalt others.

Our Lord took on the nature of a servant. He humbled himself. Lincoln did too.

His humility only began in a Kentucky log cabin. For Abe, success bred humility. From farm and flatboat to law and orator-and peaking as President- Lincoln lived it. The way up is down.

Honest Abe was also Humble Abe. You don’t have to mine long or deep to find proof. He declined titles and elephants gently. He said thanks and sorry freely. Proud people don’t say either.

The following quotations are taken largely from Harold Holzer’s, Abraham Lincoln The Writer

In April 1848, in Washington as an Illinois Congressman, Lincoln wrote home to Mary:

Suppose you do not prefix the “Hon” to the address on your letters to me any more.  I like the letters very much, but I would rather they should not have that upon them.  It is not necessary, as I suppose you have thought, to have them to come free. 

Lincoln left Springfield for Washington in February 11, 1861. He was not to see his hometown again. From the back of the train, with friends and neighbors standing before him, he gave this farewell address.

My friends-No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried…Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him [Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will be well. To his care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell[.]

On July 4, 1863 Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant. This letter was sent a few days later.

 My dear General

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further…I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson…I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours very truly, A. LINCOLN 

This letter from Lincoln to the king of Siam exudes grace and goodwill. It was Lincoln’s response to two letters from Siam’s king. Two letters addressed not to Lincoln, but to President James Buchanan. 

Despite being hard pressed within and without-by month’s end his son William would die of typhoid fever-Lincoln took precious time to reply to an obscure dictator in a far-away kingdom. 

I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce. 

I shall have occasion at no distant day to transmit to Your Majesty some token of indication of the high sense which this Government entertains of Your Majesty’s friendship.  

Meantime, wishing for Your Majesty a long and happy life, and for the generous and emulous People of Siam the highest possible prosperity, I commend both to the blessing of Almighty God. 

Your Good Friend, ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
Washington, February 3, 1862.

Finally, on the verge of Union victory and mere weeks before his death, President Lincoln spoke these words in his second inaugural address:

Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: 

The judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. 

Proud people don’t say thank you. Proud people don’t say sorry. They don’t stoop low for foolish, little people. And, meekness missing, proud people don’t bow before God and his righteous judgments.

Lincoln could, and did. Strong, he stooped low and preserved a nation.

Ten-score and six years ago today, at just the right time, God brought forth Abe Lincoln. Uncle Abe. Our Humble Uncle Abe.

And I am so very thankful He did.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:5