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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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Don’t (Dash from a ) Dish and Dash

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He has the right to criticize, who has the heart to help.

I’ve always loved those words of Lincoln.* He knew the sting that criticism brings. Abraham Lincoln lived-and died-a target. He had more enemies than all of us combined, I’d bet. And he knew how to dish: stand-by-me friendship style.

In a “Temperance Address” he said, It is an old and true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. And a soft tongue will break a bone.

When Criticism Comes Without a Heart to Help

I totally did not see it coming. I was broadsided, then they stung. Her words were very personal, strongly worded, and cut me to the core.

Not that those are bad, by the way. But it was dish and dash. The words were served up and she was gone.

In days and weeks that followed, I stretched and asked if we could talk, and try to work things out. But she didn’t reach back. Bitterness tempted me.

I did pray a lot. For me, for her, for pure hearts, for God to get glory out of this mess. And for power to practice what I preach about not being so thin-skinned that we crumble- or lash out-when criticism comes.

And I looked for the kernel.

Look for the Kernel of Truth

Since most criticism has a kernel of truth and we’d best sift to find it, not write it off or explain it away. So I sat and prayed on that a while.

And I sought out a kernel and found it. I asked a few friends if they’d seen what she’d seen. Now that you mention it, one said.

Around then, Marshall Segal’s “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” challenged me big. Try this, he said,

Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. I’m not saying respond as if you’re guilty. Don’t immediately plead guilty. But put on a posture of faith-filled, no-condemnation deference, and be willing to test whatever questions or accusations they bring to or against you. 

The Bible tells us to consistently test ourselves anyway, regardless of what others think or say (2 Corinthians 13:5). Don’t assume you are in the right. Ask yourself serious, probing questions about your faith and life. “[God] leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Why not, then, also use others’ critical comments as an opportunity to truly search yourself for anything out of step with the gospel? “Test [every potentially prophetic word against you]; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). With your Bible open, and your heart humble, try their words on, and see if they fit after all.

Best Practice: Serve it up with Love

If dish you must, be sure to serve it up with love.

Priscilla and Aquila didn’t dish and dash on Apollos when he was preaching wrong (Acts 18:18-28).

Paul didn’t dish and dash on the Corinthians. He wrote hard things (1 Corinthians 3, 2 Corinthians 2, 13), then came to be with them (Acts 20:2-3).

Jesus didn’t dish and dash on Peter. He said, “Get behind me, Satan,” then six days later he was one of three Jesus called up to see him transfigured (Mark 8:33-9:8).

God doesn’t discipline and convict and dish then dash on us. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit promise to be with us, never to leave us (2 Corinthians 13:11, Matthew. 28:20, John 14:16, respectively).

So let’s don’t dish and dash. Because, says Christopher Abel, criticism is best tethered to a helpful heart. 

Criticism alone is distasteful at best. It’s lazy. It’s an easy way to make you feel better about your own life. But criticism tethered to a helpful heart is how the world is changed. 

Critique the world. Challenge the status quo. Hold people to a higher standard. But don’t stop there. Have a heart to help.

A heart like Jan’s. She has a heart to help. She’s the friend who confirmed, when I asked, an hard truth in the criticism. And Jan stuck around. Her presence beside me is a tribute to God’s grace and a reminder to apply that kernel I found.

The Least Defensive People on the Planet 

And if it’s all true about God never never leaving and no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus, then we should, as Segal says, be the least defensive people on the planet, because the gavel has fallen once for all and we are free. 

Instead of being defensive or angry we should test every criticism offered, whether it’s served dish and dash or stand-by-me friendship style. Because, as Marshall Segal concludes,

Ultimately, there’s only one judgment that matters, and it’s not the courtroom of your friends’ opinion. Through Christ, God has already ruled decisively and eternally on your behalf and in your favor.

*   *   *

One hundred fifty years ago Lincoln saw the “storm coming.” He was bitterly attacked for his stance on slavery. In the face of critics on the right and left, Lincoln said

If He has a place and a work for me- and I think He has- I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything.

He has the right to criticize, who has the heart to help, is great. But, I am nothing, truth is everything, that might be better. At least when you’re the receiver.

Criticism is one of God’s gifts to conform us to Christ, and this gift won’t always come sweetly. But being conformed to the image of the Truth Himself is way more important than how the criticism was served.

Because I-my image, ego, I- am nothing. And Truth, who loves me and will never leave me, is everything.

Finally, brothers, rejoice.

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace;

And the God of love and peace will be with you.

2 Corinthians 13:11

Abraham Lincoln

*The quote is, however, “spurious.” Still I love it. And Lincoln.