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.
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.
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.
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..
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.”
Maybe it’s a high hope that came smashing down with an injury, a breakup, a loss. Or maybe it was a noble dream- for healing, for children, for peace- that has slowly fizzled out.
I had some disappointment last week when some grand plans I had for myself and my family didn’t pan out. The details don’t matter. What matters infinitely more is that I learn to do disappointment well.
But the third is new- or maybe it’s just a new spin on the first two.
See God’s Hand in the Crooked Path
In my disappointment, Ecclesiastes 7:14 gives me pause: Consider the work of God, for who can make straight what God has made crooked?
Thomas Boston wrote a book on that one verse. It’s called The Crook in the Lot. Crook is short for crooked and lot is as in one’s “lot in life.”
I am now meeting only what has been determined by his eternal plan. I know not what is the “reason” why it was appointed; but I see that God had resolved to do it, and that it is vain to resist him.”
When we are disappointed, can we say the same thing? That it’s not by chance or accident, but by His appointment?
It is much, when we are afflicted, to be able to make this reflection. I had rather be afflicted, feeling that it is “the appointment of God,” than feeling that it is “by chance” or “hap-hazard.”
It speaks comfort to the afflicted children of God to consider that whatever the crook in your lot is, it is of God’s making and therefore you may look upon it kindly since it is your Father who made it for you. Question not but that there is a favorable design in it toward you.
And by some miracle of grace, that’s what saints do with their disappointment. They trust that there is a favorable design in their disappointment.
Because God makes no mistakes.
Too Wise and Too Loving to Err
John Paton and his pregnant wife Mary left Scotland to be missionaries to the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific on April 16, 1858. They arrived on November 5th. In March 1859, his wife and newborn son died.
Talk about a bitter taste and a crook in the lot.
After Paton buried his beloved wife and infant son, he said,
I felt her loss beyond all conception or description, in that dark land. It was very difficult to be resigned, left alone, and in sorrowful circumstances; but feeling immovably assured that my God and father was too wise and loving to err in anything that he does or permits, I looked up to the Lord for help, and struggled on in His work…
I do not pretend to see through the mystery of such visitations – wherein God calls away the young, the promising, and those sorely needed for his service here; but this I do know and feel, that, in the light of such dispensations, it becomes us all to love and serve our blessed Lord Jesus so that we may be ready at his call for death and eternity.
It does. In our disappointment, it becomes us all to rest assured of our God’s wisdom and love.
Love Leads in the Opposite Direction
I’ve been camping in the land Exodus lately and was greatly impacted by Tim Keller’s sermon on chapter 19.
The Israelites are three months out of Egypt but further from the Promised Land than they were before they left.
God, for kind reasons of his own (Ex. 13:17), led the people in nearly the opposite direction of their destination and he took them into a desert. A mountainous, barren desert. A land far worse than Egypt.
I love how Keller explains this “history of grace,”
God says I’m going to take you over here, but I’m going to take you by way of a place that is farther from Egypt and a land that is worse than Egypt.And that’s where he meets them. And it is often so…
If you admit it, you’re further away from the the things you thought God would be giving you than you were when you trusted him and it seems like God is taking you in the opposite direction.
So often the history of grace in our lives follows this same path. God seems to be taking us away from where we thought we were going, but he’s still leading us to the Promised Land.
In other words, our disappointment is God’s appointment. That’s how God’s grace often comes.
Disappointment, His Appointment
It just so happens that the very same day I wept myself dry, I ran across this poem.
“Disappointment — His Appointment” Change one letter, then I see
That the thwarting of my purpose
Is God’s better choice for me.
His appointment must be blessing,
Tho’ it may come in disguise,
For the end from the beginning
Open to His wisdom lies.
“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Whose? The Lord, who loves me best,
Understands and knows me fully,
Who my faith and love would test;
For, like loving earthly parent,
He rejoices when He knows
That His child accepts, UNQUESTIONED,
All that from His wisdom flows.
“Disappointment — His Appointment”
“No good thing will He withhold,”
From denials oft we gather
Treasures of His love untold,
Well He knows each broken purpose
Leads to fuller, deeper trust,
And the end of all His dealings
Proves our God is wise and just.
“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Lord, I take it, then, as such.
Like the clay in hands of potter,
Yielding wholly to Thy touch.
All my life’s plan in Thy moulding,
Not one single choice be mine;
Let me answer, unrepining —
“Father, not my will, but Thine.”
-Edith Lillian Young
No sugarcoating: “doing” disappointment this way is both a bitter pill and a sweet remedy. I cried hard last week. Coping with disappointment this way hurts my flesh. But as it does, it heals my soul.
Even when I don’t know why, I’m learning to change that one letter and see that His appointment is a better choice for me.
Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them…
And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.
Numbers 20:8, 11-12
Do you ever wonder at how God doles out discipline? Like when He stopped his meekest man Moses from entering the Promised Land simply because he struck a rock? How sometimes divine judgement seems too severe for the crime?
Moses had been told to strike a rock before (Ex. 17:1-7). And God himself had called his people rebels. I’ve written about these rebels before. So what’s so wrong with Moses doing the same?
After all, Psalm 106 tells us that the people sorely provoked Moses. They angered God too. And it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips.
Can we really blame Moses for lashing out?
Who Can Blame Moses?
Moses was God’s servant, His pick among all the men on earth to lead His people out of slavery. The “Man of God”- as Psalm 90 calls him- brought the Israelites out of Egypt through the Sea and for 40 years led them through the wilderness. You’d expect that Moses would be the one to bring them to the Promised Land.
He was not. Because God did blame Moses. He found fault in Moses and held him responsible. That’s what blame means.
Numbers 20:12 makes that clear: Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. The offense was serious enough in God’s eyes to ban Moses from leading Israel into Canaan Land.
But you’re in good company if you’ve struggled with this. Scholars have called it “one of the most difficult problems in the Old Testament.” Articles have been written to explain. Nineteenth-century pastor Alexander MacLaren asked “Was his momentary failure not far too severely punished?”
Like banning dessert for a year because a son stole a cookie. Or denying a week at camp for a minute of sassy talk.
If you are hotheaded and tempestuous before you were saved, you’ll have that same tendency to burn up, to be hotheaded after you are saved…
Moses was a tempestuous man. He had a fiery and a burning spirit… Moses had it back there in the land of Egypt when he saw that Egyptian wronging that Israelite slave, and he killed him with his bare fists [Exodus 2:11-12]. And it comes out again here.
Now what happens to you when you’re saved is by the side of that burning spirit, God will put a spirit of grace and intercession by which you’re able to command and to control that volatile spirit. But you’ve still got it…And on the inside of our souls there goes civil war all the time, a’fighting, and a’struggling all the days of your life.
Now it comes out again here in Moses. Moses had…such high hopes for the [next generation] that when they fell back into that old way of their fathers, of murmuring, and finding fault with God- Moses was irritated. His spirit burned within him.
To us it seems so forgivable. To us it seems a harsh punishment for a weakness in Moses’ temperament.
I ask again. Why this divine decision?
Why Was God So Hard On Moses?
Because instead of doing what God said- “Speak to the rock, and water will gush out” [Numbers 20:8]-Moses dishonored God and disobeyed. “He lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock,” [Numbers 20:11].
Let’s don’t miss God’s mercy in his judgment: Despite the people’s grumbling, despite the disobedience of Moses, God gave water abundantly, to his rebel people and their animals.
Still came the consequence: “Because you did not believe in Me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them,” [Numbers 20:12].
God barred Moses from entering the land because he did not believe the Lord or uphold the Lord as holy.
Moses overtly disobeyed God [Numbers 20:8, 11]. That was the first sin.
His second sin was disbelief. “Because you did not believe in me,” God said. Just speaking to the rock wasn’t enough. Moses took matters into his own hands. He took his rod and struck twice. He didn’t believe that to speak to it was good enough.
But there’s one more layer that helps me understand why this particular sin, striking the rock twice, was so offensive to God.
God has great care for his types. (And that Rock was Christ.)
If I read one commentary on Numbers 20, I read a dozen, and every one brought out this point home:
When Moses struck the rock, he “broke the type.”
That might sound confusing. Let me explain.
Do you remember God’s direction to Moses? “See that you make every thing according to the pattern showed to you on the mount” [Exodus 25:9, 40; Hebrews 8:5; 9:23]. When the tabernacle was erected, did you hear the refrain?
It went like this, “Moses did as the LORD had commanded him.” The curtains and veil and lampstand and altar and basin and table- all were to be “just so,” as the God commanded. Because each of these things had a meaning that extended past itself.
They were types, or pictures of the person or the thing represented or prefigured. So when God barred his meekest man Moses from entering the Promised Land it wasn’t simply for striking a rock.
It was for striking the Rock. Because the rock was a type. The Rock was a picture of Christ.
Struck Only Once
God had told Moses to strike the Rock once before [Exodus 17:6]. But he was not to strike it again. Because the Rock represents God’s beloved Son, the Suffering Servant, our Jesus Christ.
Christ was struck once. He died once [Hebrews 9:27-28], never to die again. Scripture is so clear on this point.
Hebrews 9:28, “So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.”
1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust.”
Hebrews 10:10, “[W]e are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Hebrews 10:12, “But Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins…”
There is an infinite difference between the painful things that come into our lives and discipline us—designed for our good that we may share God’s holiness as loved children—and that terrible experience of pure retribution where we simply bear what we deserve and experience God’s justice forever.
I think the lady at my table did what many of us do.
She conflated- combined- two ideas into one that really are not the same. She joined the false idea- that God’s children will never suffer on earth because of their sin- with the glorious truth that God’s children will never- here or hereafter– never suffer the wrath of God.
Jesus took that- He was struck for that- once and for all. He bore our sins in His body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). The record of our debt was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:15). There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Hallelujah and amen!
But this incident with Moses shows us in heart-achingly, vivid color that this side of glory, sin still has consequences.
For Our Instruction, That We Might Have Hope
When Canaan was so close Moses could taste it- it’s gargantuan grapes and pomegranates and figs-Moses pled with God to reconsider. So he could just to cross the Jordan.
This was a bitter disappointment to Moses. He begged God to let him cross the river so that he, too, could see the longed-for promised land. God did not give Moses what he asked for. “Be satisfied with what I have decided,” God said to him. “Do not speak about this any more. Climb this mountain, and I will show you the land. Then you are to die here on this mountain. For you are not to cross the river.” (Deuteronomy 3:26)
Remember too, how David could not build the temple because he had shed so much blood? How his first child with Bathsheba died?
I think we’re supposed to learn from Moses-and David-to take heed lest we fall, because even for God’s blood-bought children, sin still has consequences in this life.
But even their examples, Scriptures says, are meant to give us hope.
The Good Lord does not forget His saints. There’s more to the Moses story.
God had some better thing for [Moses], and He has some better thing for you, in God’s will, in God’s time, in God’s purpose. He may interdict it now, maybe take it away from us now, maybe the dregs of bitter disappointment we drink in the cup now, but some day, some time, some hour, somewhere, God has some better thing for us [Hebrews 11:40] as He had some better thing for Moses [Matthew 17:1-3].
Moses bore God’s discipline for his sin. Rather than speak to Rock he disbelieved and disobeyed and struck the Rock- representing Christ- not once but twice.
Though he was sorely provoked, Moses wasn’t given a pass. He died on the Mountain. He did not enter the Promised Land.
But when the-Rock-who-was-Christ walked this earth and was transfigured on the mountain, you do know who was granted the privilege of standing with him in His glory, don’t you?
Because some day, some time, some hour, somewhere...
And all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness…
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
God will take you where you do not want to go to produce in you what you cannot achieve on your own. –Paul Tripp
Inefficiency. Futility. Wasted time. Those are villains in my kingdom, three of my greatest foes. And they all piled into the van with me yesterday
9:30- The dew was still on the clovers and we-Cream Puff vouchers in hand- were off, like barn clothes after chores. State Fair was one of a handful of “non-negotiables” on our summer calendar; a taste of good Midwestern fun for our Korean exchange son, Ki-Bum.
State Fair or Bust.
9:45- KER-PFUMP, KER-PFUMP, KER-PFUMP, KER-PFUMP. So our right rear tire unceremoniously gave up its ghost. And the van came to rest along a lovely bachelor button-ed strand of I-43.
Rare, declared Ki-Bum knowingly. I nodded.
Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials…
Thankfully, Jim picked up the phone. We have roadside assistance, he assured, Can you find the card?
I did. And was soon informed that help would arrive within the hour. A little while. Various trials.
Hey Mom, can we watch some Get Smart? Gabe piped up, as his fearful tears dried. I brought them along, just in case. And Agents 86 and 99 and the old “Spy in the dog suit, phone in the tie” tricks passed three boys’ time. Now I can get a jump on those email.
11:00- A Nissan pickup stopped behind us. Never mind that the tow truck was on another call or the four larger towns with towing services closer than this town. Not this guy’s fault.
These older vans with spares underneath- they can be a bear to release, Scott explained as he turned the giant screw driver round and round. But the spare wouldn’t drop. So he jacked us up and worked below while I worked that stubborn screw from above.
Well, I’m sorry. Scott finally said. If I had the tow truck, I could probably break it loose, but the cable’s corroded. And maybe this time ask for Rhode’s when you call. They’re just right up the road.
11:20- Scott rode off in his rugged Pathfinder.
…So that the tested genuineness of your faith-
As Agent 99 assisted 86, an agent three states away assisted me. I calmly described the first failed attempt to put on the spare. And maybe Rhode’s Service this time? I heard they’re in your network and just a a mile or two up the road.
May I put you on hold? she asked.
Ms. Wallace? We have located roadside service for you. It’s the same shop as the first, but this time they’ll come with a tow truck. They should arrive in 45 minutes.
11:30- Here’s where my faith faltered: Really? Really? You can’t find anyone closer? East Troy? Elkhorn? Waterfod? Burlington? Rhode’s is right up the road! I’ve been here almost two hours and there’s a town with a towing service a mile away. Scott-who you sent first -told me.
Yes, Ms. Wallace. Your service should arrive within 45 minutes. They’ll be able to tow your vehicle, but you’ll need to secure a ride home.
-More precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-
Tow it back? I just have a flat. The spare is right here. Their shop is 30 minutes south. We’re headed 30 minutes north- to the fair. And I’m supposed to secure a ride?
Yes. I’m sorry, Ms. Wallace. Your tow should be there in 45 minutes. Is there anything else I can do for you?
Images of cream puffs and jersey cows and racing rabbits danced out of my head. Unlikely, I said.
11:40- What to my wondering eyes should appear but a Rhode’s tow truck behind me right here! Forget 45- this took 10! I leapt from my seat to meet the Ken. He glanced at the flat, then down at his phone, Oh wait. You’re not the red ’05 Escape, are you?
That’s probably the one up there, I said, pointing to the SUV that stopped on the shoulder a half hour after we had.
Sorry, ma’am. That’s the one I came for. Maybe I’ll check in with you after. And Ken inched his truck up to the red ’05 Escape just ahead.
…May be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Chaos agents had captured Maxwell Smart and 99.
11:45- Jim, This is crazy. I’m waiting for the same towing service that couldn’t help me to come back as I watch a tow truck from a garage 2 minutes away helping a a vehicle 300 yards ahead. And Rhode’s does partner with our roadside assistance- Scott and Ken both told me so and how do I find a ride when they tow the van?
Hon. I’ll see what I can do. Maybe Merten’s can tow you back to town. Sorry about the fair.
God will take you where you do not want to go – or stall you where you do not want to stay- to produce in you what you cannot achieve on your own.
12:00- I paused my pity-party just long enough to see Ken’s truck backing toward us.
12:05 -Bring ‘er on up, Ken urged. So I eased the van onto the flatbed and all five of us crammed into the cab. Rare,I told Ki-Bum. And before Ken and I could connect all the dots around my Uncle Kevin who had been Ken’s friend, we were stopped in Rhode’s lot.
12:30- On the road again. State Fair or Bust. Or whatever’s necessary.
Why Trials Come
I wish I could say that Paul Tripp quote guided me through the flat. But I absolutely cannot.
But thank God, I can see it in the rear-view. I can see the grumbling, ungrateful, proud, impatient dross that tarnished my faith and needed boiling off. It was necessary.
So God allowed the blow-out. Then he sent Scott, without a tow truck, and Ken to the red ’05 SUV in front of us. He held off Rhode’s from up the road. All of it was in his good plan, to purify the precious faith He loves so much, a faith of greater worth than gold.
So why do trials come? I’ll answer that one with three more from Paul Tripp:
What kind of Messiah do you want? Do you want a Messiah that will deliver to you your ever-morphing definition of what would make you happy? Do you want your Messiah to make your kingdom work or do you want a Messiah to welcome you to a better kingdom?
I don’t know about you, but I want Him to welcome me to a better kingdom than my own efficient, productive, no-wasted-time little kingdom. More even than an idyllic morning at my beloved State-Fair kingdom. Way, way more.
A Sure Sign Of His Love
So I’m with Tripp: We’d better quit naming our trials and difficulties as a sign of God’s unfaithfulness and inattention. In the life of a believer those trials are a sure sign of His faithful, persevering, redemptive love. And with the Getty’s too: When trials will come, no longer fear, For in the pain our God draws near, To fire a faith worth more than gold, And there His faithfulness is told.
God will trouble and shake us and allow trials that boil our faith, not because he’s mean and capricious but because he loves us and wants to welcome us to a more glorious kingdom. But it might feel dangerous, because he won’t relent until our faith is refined. Until we glisten with the image of His beloved Son.
Waiting in the van, I heard the Chief of Control say,Max, you realize that you’ll be facing every kind of danger imaginable?Max replied, And loving it.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor.