About two years ago, after sharing appreciation for my friend Jeff Wiggins’ reading choices, Jennifer found and purchased for me a first edition of H. Jack Lane’s volume The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Essentially, it’s a varied collection of Lincoln’s personal letters to friends and colleagues, speeches, war dispatches, and the like. It is by no means Lincoln’s entire repertoire. But at 124 documents in all, it offers wonderful insight into who Lincoln was when hidden.
Being an admirer of Lincoln, as I’m sure so many are, I visit with this volume from time to time. It’s his way with words I appreciate most. He’s skillful. And the skill is inspiring. I haven’t read the book straight through, but instead, I jump around from scribbling to scribbling. Having done so this past Monday, I happened upon a letter Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed, a prominent newspaper publisher in New York. On Tuesday morning, I carried the book through the hallways of the school to my theology class where I shared this particular letter with the 7th and 8th grade students. We spent the whole hour considering it.
Essentially, Lincoln wrote the short epistle to thank Weed for complimenting his second inaugural address, which, if you ever have a chance to read the speech, you’ll see is more than influenced by the Word of God. The speech is in Lane’s book, and on its title page, he notes that Dr. Louis Warren, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford during Lincoln’s time, observed that “267 of the 702 words were direct quotations from the Bible and words of application made to them.”
Interesting, but not surprising. Lincoln was a devout Christian man, despite how progressive historians have tried to recast him otherwise—as they continually try to do with so many of our nation’s forefathers. He was a friend of and attentive listener to the preaching of his pastor, Reverend Phineas Gurley, the man who would be by his side into and through nearly every challenge he’d face as president, even the moment Lincoln breathed his last breath.
I share this so you know that no matter how Lincoln’s legacy is currently being retooled, he was no part-time believer, and he was committed to governing as he could answer to God. I’m glad for this, and you should be, too.
What caught my attention in the letter to Weed (and what I took time to examine with the students) was Lincoln’s opening sentence followed by his own explanation of the address. He began the letter very plainly with, “Everyone likes a compliment,” and then a little further in, he wrote contrastingly:
“I believe [the inaugural address] is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”
In one sense, very little analysis was necessary here. Lincoln stated a simple truth that’s easily observable in the world. While everyone likes to be told they’ve done something right, few appreciate being told their wrong, namely, that they’re on the wrong side of righteousness. This is innate to the Sin-nature. Lincoln knew that. And yet, even beneath the safe assumption that his listening audience was composed primarily of God-fearing Christian citizens, he felt the need to communicate it. Why? Because when it comes to believers, we, too, have a difficult time being told we’re wrong, even though we ought to be the ones most concerned for and able to hear that we’ve stepped out of alignment with the One in whom we’ve staked our faith.
Lincoln took a chance and brought this very accusation.
In the actual speech, he inquired of the people of a divided nation who “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” should any on either side expect this same God to be in conflict with Himself? Lincoln answered his own question, first by saying with resoluteness, “The prayers of both could not be answered.” And then he capped his position rhetorically by asking, “Shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
No. God is immutable (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 46:9-11; Ezekiel 24:14; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8). He does not change, nor does He operate in ways that contradict His nature. As a result, He cannot be for and against something at the same time.
Lincoln was making the theological point that anyone seeking something contrary to God’s will should not expect His blessing, but instead, His resistance and correction. Being the mindful theologian he was, I get the sense Lincoln was familiar with Romans 1:18-32, which includes the frightful warning from Saint Paul that God does not tolerate people opposed to His will indefinitely, but rather, eventually He abandons them to their own will leading to destruction and eternal condemnation. Lincoln didn’t lift anything from this portion of Paul, but he did quote Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:7. Doing so, he took a chance at suggesting that the dreadful Civil War was a just due given to those through whom the offense of slavery came and was sustained in America. And he didn’t just mean the South. He meant the North, too. He aimed his comment at the whole nation—a nation of people not only comprised of slavery’s supporters, but of those who were complicit because they did nothing for far too long. In the end, all were responsible. Even Lincoln himself.
Another gem to be mined from Lincoln’s thoughts is an elementary “something” many of us do all we can to avoid admitting: God does choose sides.
Now, I don’t mean God has a favorite football team (Romans 2:11). Although, I suppose an argument could be made that He certainly appears to prefer any team but the Detroit Lions. I’m also not implying the horrible doctrine of Double Predestination, which claims God chooses some for salvation and others for condemnation. When it comes to rescuing mankind from Sin, Death, and Satan, God is on all our sides (John 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23; Matthew 23:37). What I am saying is pretty uncomplicated.
God is against evil.
This is not a complicated premise. God is not on the side of Christians who support abortion. He is not on the side of politicians who restrict the Gospel. Could ever be found rejoicing when a serial killer murders a family on their way to worship? Of course not. We more than learn this from the Scriptures. It’s all over the place in the Old Testament. With each depiction, in turn, His people are expected to join Him in opposition to evil (Psalm 1:6; Joshua 24:14-15; Deuteronomy 30:15-20). We see Jesus doing the same thing in the New Testament. For example, He takes sides in the situation of divorce in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. He takes the side of the woman about to be stoned by the Pharisees in John 8:1-11. In Matthew 12:30, He says straightforwardly that whoever is not with Him is against Him. In Luke 11:28, Jesus proclaims as blessed those who side with the Word of God, that is, those who hear and hold to it as their most precious possession for salvation. Saint Paul is no stranger to the discussion, either. He’s the one who wrote by divine inspiration to God’s people, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Later on in 1 Corinthians 11:18, he makes a rather startling remark about God choosing sides in a congregation divided over the practice of the Lord’s Supper, writing that while some among them have God’s approval, others do not. He wrote:
“For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
The word used in the text for “genuine” is δόκιμοι. This word can also be rendered “approved” or “judged as worthy.” So, who’s the one approving or judging as worthy? God. By this, He’s choosing a side. He’s saying who’s right and who’s wrong. One side is holding to His mandate. The other is not. Subsequently, one side is blessed by the benefits of what’s promised in the Lord’s Supper. The other receives the judgment mentioned in verse 29. This may be an elementary way of thinking this through. Nevertheless, it is what it is.
Coming back around to where I started, I think part of what makes Lincoln’s point sting so much is that it revealed an evil comfortably hidden beneath the guise of righteousness. I think another sting is felt when we realize there will always be folks who aren’t genuinely interested in something being good or bad, just so long as whatever happens in relation to it doesn’t disrupt their interests.
“Sure, abortion is terrible, and I’d never choose it for myself. But I don’t think it’s right to restrict someone else’s right to choose one.”
If this is your position, understand that God is not on your side.
Lincoln was willing to speak these uncomfortable truths to a nation, even though, as he admitted to Weed, he knew his words would not be popular.
Lincoln ended his letter with the following:
“To deny [the difference in purpose between God and evil], however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told, and, as whatever humiliation there is in it falls directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.”
Again, he’s right. When you hold fast to wrongness and resist acknowledging you’ve stepped beyond the boundaries of faithfulness, you not only deny the just governance of God (because what you’re suggesting is that you’re right and He’s wrong), but you also teeter at the edge of denying His existence completely. Both are an affront to the First Commandment, and they’re nothing short of putting oneself in the place of God.
No one likes to be told they’re out of step with God’s will. And yet, for as piercing as such news might be, the penitent believer in Christ has been changed by the Gospel for receiving such a warning as an extension of God’s loving kindness. It’s a good thing that God tells us when we’re dangerously close to unfaithfulness, or that we’ve strayed from faithfulness altogether. Thankfully, Lincoln had clarity in this regard. Imagine if we had more people in the public square with the same clarity as Lincoln—people willing to call Sin what it is, and to speak courageously of Christ as the only side that rescues. Imagine if we still enjoyed the comforts of a populace with ears to hear such a message.