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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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The Coffeepot Note & How Strong Moms Keep On

Dear Mom I love you note, found on the coffeepot. This note is why strong moms endure.

The note said without saying, Thanks for holding your ground, Mom. You were right not to give in to me. And I love you so much.

It was taped to the coffeepot Saturday morning. He said he put it there because he knew I’d find it.

Now I’m putting it here so you don’t give up or give in.

Because the night before I found the note, Tall One and I were in a tussle and I almost quit.

Strong Ones Don’t Give Up

Aw, Mom, why can’t we just play Brawl Stars? He brought his iPad too. C’mon. That’s what we want!

We had very different ideas about how our Friday fun night should look. When a new 6th grade boy visited, Tall One pushed hard for screen time, alone. Mom held out for tacos at the table and real games- board games- after dinner, together.

And I asked myself what I sometimes ask my husband, Why am I surprised parenting is so strenuous and effortful and just plain hard ?

Unlimited screentime would have been so much easier.

Strong Ones Stand On Promises

Honestly, had it not been for these verses swirling around my mind, I’d have given in.

  • And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9
  • For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. Hebrews 10:36
  • Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58

They’re a few of my go-to, keep-on promises from God. And you know what they say about what makes strong ones strong, don’t you?

They stand on the promises. They don’t sit on the premises.

Strong Ones Endure

Strength can be measured, physically and spiritually, by what will make us stop. What will make us throw in the towel, cry “Uncle!” or just be done?

But God strengthened me with his promises that night. I endured Tall One’s onslaught and stood my ground when the 12 year-old lashed out against the good. This mom endured that pain.

Because I’m learning that strong ones reframe their pain and so renew their minds (Romans 12:2). Strong ones know that it’s trials and pain that build endurance- the ability to stand up under a burden (picture big dudes gripping bendy barbells)- and that it’s endurance that makes them mature and complete, lacking nothing (James 1:2-4).

Add that to your go-to promises.

Strong Ones Rest

But, to be sure, strong ones rest. Athletes build rest days into their training plans. God rested the seventh day and commanded that we rest, for our good. You might even say, so that we can better endure.

I love how Timothy Keller explains this, and, fair warning, if you’re a driver like me, this might be hard to read:

Anyone who cannot obey God’s command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don’t have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom. It means you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities… In the long run, of course, a deeply rested people are far more productive.

Yes, rest. In freedom, rest. By grace through faith, rest in the God who supplies all our needs (Philippians 4:19) and freely gives us all things (Romans 8:32).

Let the record reflect that three games of Mexican Train, twelve hands of Apples to Apples (Tall One’s friend wanted more!) and five dirty taco bowls later, I did rest.

Strong Ones Know Their Real Home

But in this pilgrim life, rest is not the norm. The norm is work and work out. The norm is get up and press on. Strong ones know that comfort is overrated and don’t expect full satisfaction this side of heaven. They know that expecting comfort and ease now tends toward anxiety and disappointment and, well, being dissatisfied.

Knowing that truth is the only reason that this weary mom could hold her ground against Tall One’s barrage coming home Friday night after a very long work week.

Because even Friday night at home, I’m learning, is not really home.

The settled happiness and security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Strong ones know their real home. They know they are pilgrims on a narrow way. They enjoy fun times but they know such times are just “pleasant inns.” And they don’t demand the inn every Friday night.

The Strong Know God Knows

Pilgrims were sturdy souls. They were focused and strong. The hundred who settled Plymouth 400 years ago had every reason to quit.

But they were strong ones and strong ones don’t look for excuses because they know spiritual strength comes from endurance, and endurance must finish its work. So they push back against pressure to quit because their eyes are on the prize (James 1:12), even when it’s invisible to naked eyes (2 Corinthians 4:18). Oh, yes! Strong ones see that victor’s crown that awaits enduring saints and jubilate.

So whether your pressure is long term or short term, whether a difficult job or a strong-willed kid, whether it’s aches in your body or strains on your mind- please keep on. Will you join me and stand on the promises? Our labor is not in vain, we will reap and there will come God’s reward. God will strengthen us (1 Peter 5:10) to endure.

You might not be gifted with a note from a Tall One taped to your coffeepot like I was.

But you can know that God knows when you bear up for his sake. So keep on.

I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.

Revelation 2:3

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What Is The Purpose For Grace?

Hitcher, By Hitch Hiking, Road, Man

Not all quotes can make the cut. This one didn’t quite.

So you won’t hear me share it as I speak at the first annual Empowered Women’s Retreat, but boy, did it speak to my heart. I hope it encourages you too.  

It’s from a chapter called, “These Inward Trials,” in J.I. Packer’s, KNOWING GOD (IVP, 1973). Spacing, bolding and italics mine. 

What is grace?

In the New Testament grace means God’s love in action towards people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty one might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. “(God) made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

What is the purpose of grace?

Primarily, it is to restore man’s relationship with God. When God lays the foundation of this restored relationship, by forgiving our sins as we trust His Son, He does so in order that henceforth we and He may live in fellowship, and what He does in renewing our nature is intended to make us capable of, and actually to lead us into, the exercise of love, trust, delight, hope and obedience Godward- those acts which from our side, made of the reality of fellowship with God, who is constantly making Himself known to us. This is what all the work of grace aims at- an even deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself.

How does grace prosecute [go about] this purpose?

Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from the burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor by shielding us from the troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all those things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to Him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another- it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.

The reason why the Bible spends so much time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defence, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of His time bringing to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road. When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him.

Why is life rough and perplexing? 

And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing so that we may learn thankfully to lean on Him. Therefore He takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in Himself- in the classical biblical phrase for the secret of the godly man’s life, “to wait on the Lord.”

One of the most startling applications of this truth is that God actually uses our sins and mistakes to this end. He employs the educative discipline of failures and mistakes very frequently. It is striking to see how much of the Bible deals with men of God making mistakes, and God chastening them for it. Abraham losing patience and begets Ishmael… Moses killing an Egyptian…David seducing Bathsheba and getting Uriah killed… Jonah running away from God’s call… So we might go on.

But the point to stress is that the human mistake, and the immediate divine displeasure was in no case the end of the story…God can bring good out of the extremes of our folly; God can restore the years that the locust has eaten.

You know what they say about those who never make mistakes? 

They say that those who never make mistakes never make anything; certainly these men made mistakes, but through their mistakes God taught them to know His grace, and to cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise. 

Is your trouble a sense of failure? The knowledge of having made some horrible mistake? Go to God, his restoring grace waits for you.

By the way, ladies, if you’re in the Waterford, WI area this weekend, I’d love to meet you at the retreat. It’s about how to count it all joy

And, guess what? It goes right back to knowing our good God.

If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.

Psalm 130:3-7

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Your Struggle is Good, His Grace is Strong

Woman with Cross Fit Exercise bar on her shoulders

One of my writing goals is to normalize struggle. Another is to energize grace.

Struggle Is Good

What I mean by the first is this: I want my readers and friends to know that struggling with bad stuff is good. That struggle is both normal and good.

In fact, I expect and solemnly hope that there’s some fight in me until the day I die. Because my sin is ever before me and I know too well my proneness to pride and impatience, to gluttony and envy– to name a few.

And because there is a “mean, violent streak” in every vibrant Christian life. In one of those sermons I keep going back to, John Piper explains that this violence is never against other people. Rather,

It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. A violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality. It’s a violence against all lust in ourselves, and enslaving desires for food or… alcohol or pornography or money or the praise of men and the approval of others or power or fame…

Christianity is not a settle-in-and-live-at-peace-with-this-world-the-way-it-is kind of religion. If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.

If you’ve read JoyPrO for any length of time these two goals won’t surprise you in the least. I’ve written about how comfort is overrated and faith is a muscle that must strain to grow and even why, for a time, I kissed ice cream good-bye.

For Strong-in-the-Lord Superconquerors

Recently I spent some time exploring what Paul meant in Romans 8:37 when he called us “more than conquerors.” Because to be a conqueror is one thing, but to be a “superconquerors”- well, in this tempted and tried flesh of mine, that is, to quote from The Princess Bride, nearly “inconceivable.”

The word in Greek that is translated “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 is only used once in the whole Bible. It’s one compound Greek word that takes two- super conquerors– or three of ours- more than conquerors– to express.

Albert Barnes explains what this strong man term means.

That is, they have not power to subdue us; to alienate our love and confidence; to make us lose our faith. We are the victors, not they. Our faith is not destroyed, our love is not diminished, our hope is not blasted.

But it is not simple victory; … it is more than simple triumph; it augments our faith, increases our strength, expands our love to Christ.

Think of it this way: borne by faith, the weight of trials and temptations are transformed from burdens slumping our backs to CrossFit bars squaring our shoulders. Same weight, different results.

This is more than simple triumph.

But Not Without Struggle

In, “The Law of Antagonism,” Oswald Chambers explains that super-conqueror status doesn’t come without struggle.

Life without war is impossible either in nature or in grace. The basis of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism. This is the open fact of life.

Health…is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside…Things which keep me going when I am alive, disintegrate me when I am dead. If I have enough fighting power, I produce the balance of health.

The same is true of the mental life. If I want to maintain a vigorous mental life, I have to fight, and in that way the mental balance called thought is produced. Morally it is the same… No man is virtuous because he cannot help it; virtue is acquired.

And spiritually it is the same. Jesus said — “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” i.e., everything that is not spiritual makes for my undoing, but — “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

I have to learn to score off the things that come against me, and in that way produce the balance of holiness; then it becomes a delight to meet opposition.

No man, or woman, is spiritually strong because he cannot help it. Strength is acquired. Strength only comes through struggle.

Why It Matters

You must know beyond the shadow of a doubt that struggle is normal, healthy, and good for you, Christian. This knowledge matters immensely because too many Christians think something is wrong with them- or worse, that God does not love them- when they’re tempted again and again. That if they were “really a Christian,” struggle and temptation would be done.

It matters because, honestly, if you see struggle with as the exception rather than the rule for the saint, “as if something strange were happening to you,” it will weaken you. I’ve seen too many friends give up, give in and quit.

I don’t know where that idea comes from, but it is definitely not from God’s Word. The Bible says the opposite. Over and over, we read that the Christian life is effortful and vigorous and full of struggle.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13, “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” And Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”

We must know this or the next time we crave the other sleeve of cookies, or another glass of wine or feel the urge to look at something we shouldn’t or the say words we’ll wish we wouldn’t have- because if we’re not prepared for the struggle, we’ll probably succumb.

And over time, giving in to sin gets demoralizing. Seeing the empty jar or empty sleeve or reliving the words that wounded or that image on the screen can sap the life right out of you.

Struggling (With Help) Makes You Strong

But when you know that struggle is normal and, in fact, the exact means God has chosen to grow you up and make you strong, well, then, you’ll be more likely to rise to the challenge and less likely to give in to temptation.

You’ll be more likely to plug in to a very great and precious promise to escape the temptation (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). You’ll be more likely to send out an SOS text to your comrades in arms. That is what should be normal.

Texting a friend to say: Please pray that I’ll be self-controlled and satisfied in God and listen well at the party tonight. I know I’ll be tempted to overeat.

Or messaging your prayer warriors at 12:45 am to ask, What promise can I cling to right now when fear is freezing me out? I can’t latch onto a single truth to break in on my catastrophizing dreams.

Or calling a sister to say, Can we please talk NOW? I am feeling paralyzed by anxiety and I need help.

We’re Needed and Needy (Both)

Those are real. Those came through from faithful struggling saints last week. Real people. And God’s grace was strong to meet their needs.

But remember that God uses means. He uses us- his needed and needy children- to strengthen his other needed and needy children.

So why does knowing that struggle is normal matter so much? That, in fact, if you didn’t struggle against besetting sins, that would be a problem.

It matters because if you don’t know that trials will come but God’s grace is strong you might be overcome. You might end up like seed sown on rocky ground, that sprang up fast but wilted away as soon as tribulation came (Mark 4:12). Do not be surprised, Peter wrote, when fiery trials come to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

No, struggle is not strange. It’s normal.

And Grace Is Strong

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul told Timothy. Since God designed the good fight of faith to be normal till the day we die, it’s no surprise that he gives more grace. “Grace,” John Piper says, “is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to work for holiness.”

Grace is strong. Good struggle and strong grace go hand in hand. Do you see that? Grace, I think, is less a safety net for hang-loose living, than the stabilizing bar that helps us cross the wire.

Biblical grace is also more than the gift of the kids sleeping in on a rainy days and picking strawberries sunny days and the power that keeps illness away. Grace is that- unmerited favor. But it’s so much more. It’s power.

God’s undeserved favor also comes in the form of strength to call out for help, and power to fight. To take up the struggle like a strongman hoists a barbell. This also is grace.

Daily Struggle + Strong Grace = Freedom

Freedom is not so much a destination that we reach as it is a daily choice that we make by our actions. Matt Fradd, author of The Porn Myth, said that in an interview with Janet Parshall.

The freedom Fradd mentioned doesn’t only apply to the porn problem. It applies to our struggle with other temptations. Fradd says,

We need to think of struggle as a daily battle. Whether it’s losing our temper or eating too much, succumbing to anxious thoughts or shutting off our screens, it’s not realistic to simply say, I’m done. I’ll never do that again. Rather than thinking of it as an all or nothing battle, we should think of it as a daily battle. Rather than think of this as one and done, we need to think of it as a daily decision to live free.

Struggle is a daily battle, a daily decision, to live free. And the struggle is made possible only by God’s strong grace. Strong enough to get you through, to help you beat up under, every single struggle you face. Not just somehow, but victoriously.

Having a free will, John Piper says, means doing what you want to do and not regretting it in a thousand years.

Such freedom, I think, will only come as we see struggle as good and embrace God’s strong grace.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

-Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:10

When through fiery trials our pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be your supply.

-John Rippon, “How Firm A Foundation