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 eastern 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 end 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. Jesus 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


Is that you there? No, not the boxer. I mean the bag

It’s not about how you pack your punch, but what happens when you’re struck. Do you absorb the blows? Because the happy, blessed -the meek of the earth- they do.

The meek take their blows-steady, upheld, composed. They don’t jab back. They’re soft when struck. They feel the heat and yield. And these blessed meek-they’re mixed right in among us.

The ones who roll with the punches are a marvel to behold.

The Meek and the Rest

Meekness gives and yields. Lots of times, it covers. When the meek are hit or pressed, they don’t erupt in rage or crack. They don’t shatter like porcelain or snap like a brittle branch. They don’t get defensive when they’re criticized or lash out when they’re attacked.

Instead, the meek absorb an uppercut. The impact stops on them. They don’t kick the dog. 

The meek commit their ways, their misunderstood hearts and motives to the meek and lowly One who alone knows every heart. They refrain from anger and turn from wrath and don’t fret when evil comes. They are steady and tethered. They know who holds them up and the One who’s got their back. For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints

There are the meek among us and they are a sight to behold.

While the rest retreat or lash out-passive or aggressive-the meek absorb the blow. It’s the way the blessed take their wounds. The meek can take the heat. The rest recoil or boil, sullen or harsh, defensive or attack right back.

But the meek are soft when they are struck. Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote,

[W]hen you strike something soft it makes no noise, but if you strike a hard thing it makes a noise; so with the hearts of men who are full of themselves and hardened with self-love. If they receive a stroke they make a noise, but a self-denying Christian yields to God’s hand, and makes no noise.

Spirit-filled meek resist the urge to vindicate themselves. They trust God and wait patiently for the Lord. That’s how they absorb blows big and small. How they stay soft in pain and failure, in the midst of harsh words and foiled plans and when good motives are misunderstood.

They do it because they know that there is a future for the man of peace. And that those blessed by the Lord will inherit the landAre you among these blessed meek?

This kind of meekness might seem fictional, impossible, unreal.

Not Up For The Fight?

Maybe you’re saying to yourself what my friend Marie said to me the other day,

I’m just sick of being dumped-on. Everyone takes their problems out on me. I’m done.

Can you relate? Marie went on to mention some hurtful jabs from her teen-aged daughter and a hook she took from an insensitive friend. Add the couple undercuts she took at work and Marie had had enough.

Now, they’ll hear what’s really up, and not from Mrs. Meek.

How about you? Are you soft when struck? Or do you make a lot of noise? Do you absorb-soak affliction up? Or do you let it leak all over others?

If messy spills seep out of you like a less-than-Brawny towel, and, like me, when things go wrong you make some noise, I ask, Do you want to be more meek? If so, don’t fret, just get back in the ring. There’s always another round. Until the day we die, blows will abound.

Way back, another Puritan named Thomas Watson wondered how to grow more meek. This is his prescription. It comes with no expiration date. 

1. Often look upon the meekness of Christ. The scholar that would write well, has his eye often upon the copy.

So we read the Scriptures and see him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so you don’t grow weary and lose heartRemember the One who did not revile when reviled and when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to him who judges justlyWe look a lot on that.

2. Pray earnestly that God will meeken your spirit. God is called ‘the God of all grace’ (1 Peter 5:10). He has all the graces to give. Ask him for this grace of meekness. Mercy comes in at the door of prayer. 

I’ll add this third, like the first, on to Watson’s script: Flee to Jesus. When you’re feeling hit-hard and heavy-laden like Marie, take his yoke upon you- get hitched to himFor he is meek and lowly in heartand you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29). 

Wearing his yoke means sharing his yoke and that means he’s right beside you. He knows your pain and suffered, too. David knew this well. He knew real spears thrust at him and betrayal and uppercuts from friends. And David sang about his Savior who was right here with him, and who daily bears our burdens

So if you’re feeling burdened or on the verge of punching back, pray to God to “meeken” you up. Then look upon the Lion who is also the Lamb. Flee to Jesus. Here’s there to be found in his Word.

Then, after that you might see them

The Meek Among Us

In big and little ways last weekend, I saw meekness on display.

When motives were misjudged and criticism and correction and milkshakes came, meekness was right there to absorb them like a punching bag or Brawny.

  • When one spoke hurtful words comparing her kids to another’s, He’s nothing like your Jake, my John, meekness wasn’t perfect. But the mom took a breath, then steered the conversation with grace, instead of getting mad. 
  • When one was splashed with milkshake thrown from a speeding Lexus, this one (I know her well) remembered the helter-skelter merge just then. So she shrugged and nodded while the wipers whoosh-whooshed the shake away.
  • When one whose pure, helpful motives were misunderstood she swallowed hard and held her peace and rolled the injustice and hurt onto her Lord. She didn’t lash out. She didn’t defend. She soaked up the rash, unkind words instead. 
  • When one who’s fast fading into glory was chided for resisting her meds earlier in the day, Grandma made no defense. She simply said, Yes, I guess you’re right. Then she swallowed those dreaded pills down with all her might.
  • When one was criticized for his choice of a wife and his own siblings’ lies landed hard on him, he took the rebuke and left his defense to God. God soon showed up, took the grumblers to task and called him the meekest man on earth. 

Yes, they are among us, right there to be seen. Maybe with these glimpses, it’ll be easier for you to pick them out. Because you do know this sort of person.

They’re delightfully refreshing and easy to be around.

Well, mostly. 

Sometimes, it’s true, their rock-solid trust can unnerve us. The way they leave room for God’s wrath and give the last word, sure, that might convict us. It’s sort of otherworldly, really, how they do this.

Yes. It is. 

That shouldn’t come as a shock. Because God’s kingdom is, after all, an upside-down kingdom. The first will be last and the servant is greatest and die to yourself and live.

And one day-those blessed, happy meek among us-they will inherit the whole-wide, upside-down world. The wait will be over, the punches done, when at last the final bell is rung.

Then some of us might be among them, delighting in the abundant peace of that land.

Commit your way to the LORD; 
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, 
over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger and forsake wrath! 
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off, 
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

In just a little while the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Psalm 37:5-11

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:5