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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 Solution to Pollution is Dilution

When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.

And there was one question I was not ready for.   

Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?

I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.

But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.

But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls it spiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feel that genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change. 

A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.

How’s your soil?

“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.

With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow. 

Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasingnote: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good. 

Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield, wild, or dry? 

The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.

Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.

What about contaminated soil?

What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those? 

Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this. 

Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots? 

What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?

The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.

Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.

Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.

To go back to the garden metaphor, it means if you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.

Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.

But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.

Change what you can change.

We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.

But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.

We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.

It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.

But there will come a day. 

But there will come a day when we won’t have to deal with toxic people and debilitating diseases, with polluted water and contaminated land. All mysterious will be bright at last.

All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit. 

But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face…

Revelation 22:1-4a