By Pastor Glenn Pease
The one subject that is appropriate for every Christian holiday, and for the season of lent, and for the recognition of Washington and Lincoln, and for the Valentine season is the subject of love. It is not only the greatest of the Christian virtues, but is the most universally relevant subject there is. Love not only makes the world go round, it makes the trip more exciting. All of us need to give and receive love.
Nevertheless, there are those who feel you can be too loving, and they urge moderation even in mercy. Lincoln was accused of being to soft during the Civil War. He was so merciful that he went out of his way to pardon people that he knew were guilty. One young soldier had gone to sleep at his post, and he was court marshaled and condemned to be shot. Lincoln intervened and gave this defense: "I could not think of going into eternity with the blood of that poor young man on my skirts. It is not wondered at that a boy raised on a farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep. And I cannot consent to shoot him for such an act." There was no question about his guilt, but he was granted the blessing of hearing the words of love-you are forgiven.
On another occasion 24 deserters were to be shot. Warrants for their execution were sent to Lincoln to be signed. A General urged Lincoln to sign them to make these men an example to the rest. In spite of the forceful argument Lincoln replied, "There are already too many weeping widows in the United States. For God's sake don't ask me to add to the number, for I won't do it." With complete knowledge of their guilt he pardoned them, and he spoke the words of love-you are forgiven.
Amazing grace indeed, but no where near as amazing as the words of love we hear from the central cross on Golgatha. Here we see the King of the Jews-the Lord Jesus, being unjustly crucified with criminals. It was the greatest sin against God ever committed on this planet. No words can describe the depth to which man had fallen in killing the only perfect man whoever lived. But there are no words of cursing coming from that cross. There are no words of revenge, but unbelievably we hear words of love, and words of pardon, for Jesus said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."
Murder mysteries are famous for surprising endings, but you never see a more surprising ending than this. Here are the guilty standing before God as their judge, and who is their defense attorney? It is none other than the very victim of their dastardly crime. And what does he plead? He does not plead not guilty, for they are guilty as sin. But he pleads the mercy of the court in saying, "Father forgive them." These are the greatest words of love ever spoken on this earth. For if Jesus had not forgiven those who crucified Him, there would be no plan of salvation, for the sins of all mankind took Jesus to the cross, and without His words of pardon no one could be saved.
These words of love represent God's pardon for a world of rebels who have defied His will. There is no doubt about their guilt, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Nevertheless, with full knowledge of their guilt Jesus pardoned the guilty and made it possible for every sinner to become a child of God. Jesus died for all sin, and that included the sin of causing Him to die. The result is that no one ever has to pay the penalty for the greatest sin ever. And if that sin is forgiven, then Jesus stands ready at all times to forgive any sin and to speak these words of love to any who come to Him-"Father forgive them."
In 1973 a bank robber got caught in the act in Stockholm, Sweden. He took three women and a man as hostages for 131 hours. There was no way he could escape, and so in frustration he terrorized his hostages. He shot off his assault weapon to scare them. He threatened their lives and just made them miserable. When it was all over one of the women became his fiancée. Woe! you say. What is that again? That's right, it is no mistake, and one of the women fell in love with this jerk. To add to the surprise, the other hostages refused to testify against him. The crazy thing about it is that this is not an isolated incident. It is just one example of a pattern which has come to be called by the FBI the Stockholm Syndrome.
It is that mysterious magic that makes a dangerous enemy a person you like and want to help. Thousand of hostages have been studied, and after their crisis they feel a closeness to their captor, and they do not want to see them punished. They take his side and try to protect him. Studies show that a sort of intimacy develops when people share a crisis together, and they feel they know each other. The victim grows to know the problems and weaknesses of their captor, and they feel they have a sense of intimacy with them.
As crazy as it sounds, it is real, and it fits what we see at the cross. These men have taken Jesus by force and have illegally railroaded him into capital punishment. He is their captive, and they are violently taking his life, and yet Jesus is sympathetic and is pleading for them not to be judged as they deserve, but to be forgiven. It is not the Stockholm Syndrome but the Calvary Syndrome, or the Savior Syndrome. It is the desire to love and save even those who do not deserve it, but who deserve only anger and judgment.
Our heritage as Christians revolves around this spirit of grace and these words of love from the cross. But, our heritage as Americans does also, for it was this very spirit of Christ that made the greatest presidents in the history of our nation the instruments of God that they were. Lincoln's birthday was Feb. 12 and Washington's birthday is on Feb. 22. It is providential that February, the month of focus on love, is the month in which we celebrate the birthdays of these two great men. They were great because they heard the words of love from Christ, they received these words of love as their own heritage, and then passed on these words of love by their talk and their walk. It was their love of people, truth, and liberty that made them great.
Abraham Lincoln was a great man because he knew how to love. He loved the truth and he loved what was right, but he loved people even when they fought the truth and did not know what was right. Lincoln knew how to love his enemies as few leaders ever have. When General Lee was about to surrender and end the Civil War, the Northern officials were making preparation for a triumphal entry into Richmond. Lincoln put his foot down and said, "There shall be no triumphal entry into Richmond." Lincoln went alone into Richmond and walked through the Southern capital with his head bowed. When he reached the home of Jefferson Davis, the president of the South, he sat with Davis and wept. It was one of the greatest victories of the Civil War, and many felt that Lincoln's sympathetic heart saved the Union and enabled the South to be bound together with the North.
Lincoln was one of the few great leaders in history who had the honestly to admit that both sides in a war were sinners, and both sides had godly people of faith. He said, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." Lincoln loved people even when he hated their convictions. Lincoln was able to do what we all know is the biblical ideal, but have a hard time doing it. He hated slavery, but loved the slave owner, and recognized that they could be good and godly men who were blinded by their heritage and environment.
Most leaders of a nation at war try to portray the enemy as the essence of evil. Lincoln portrayed the enemy as just pathetically mistaken. But he did not pretend the North was a holy haven of saints. He admitted that God had not fully answered their prayers either, and that they too were suffering part of the judgment of God on a nation that supported depriving others of their liberty. In his famous second inaugural address he said, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two-hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3000 years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous all together."
Lincoln never had a "holier than thou" spirit, but one of humility, and that is why he could love his enemies and recognize they were not to be treated with contempt, but with mercy. In that same great message he expressed his spirit toward the South: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in...." And what was that work? To heal and lift the nation so that it would be united in the common cause of fulfilling the purpose of God. This is why you will find the name Lincoln on almost every list of the greatest men whoever lived. He wrote no great books, and produced no great art or music, and he led no armies himself. He was quite homely, and had a long list of failures in his life. How does a man with so many failures and handicaps become great?
He had a difficult childhood.
He had less than one year of formal schooling.
He failed in business in 1831.
He was defeated for the legislature in 1832.
Again he failed in business in 1833.
His fiancée died in 1835.
He was defeated for the Speaker in 1838.
He was defeated for Elector in 1840.
Only one of his four sons lived past age 18.
He was defeated for congress in 1846.
He was defeated for congress again in 1848.
He was defeated for the senate in 1855.
He was defeated for vice-president in 1856.
He was defeated for the senate again in 1858.
After all of this defeat he finally won to become President in 1860.
Lincoln became great because he never let failure stop him from trying. He cared about people and people knew it. It was love that lifted Lincoln to the level of greatness. Someone said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Where did he learn this spirit of love for people, for truth, and for freedom? He learned it as a child. He only had a handful of books as a child. The Bible was one of them, and the life of Washington was another, and Washington became his hero. Then he had the famous Christian classic Pilgrim's Progress, and besides these all he had was a History of the United States, Aesop's Fables, and Robinson Crusoe. But these few resources were all he needed to develop a God-like attitude, and a value system pleasing to God.
Had Lincoln had trash to read rather than these few great treasures of literature and God's Word, the whole history of our nation could have been radically different. What a child reads can change the history of the world. If you want a child to grow up and be part of the answer rather than part of the problem, make sure they read the best there is. If you love people, you will get children to read books of love, and the greatest of these is the Bible. Daniel Webster said, "If religious books are not widely circulated among the masses in this country, I do not know what is going to become of us as a nation. If truth be not diffused, error will be; if God and His Word are not known and received, the devil and his works will gain the ascendancy; if the evangelical volume does not reach every hamlet, the pages of a corrupt and licentious literature will; if the power of the Gospel is not felt throughout the length and breadth of the land, anarchy and misrule, degradation and misery, corruption and darkness, will reign without mitigation or end." (1823)
Lincoln said, "I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good from the Savior of the world is communicated to us through this book. I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." Lincoln had a godly mother who taught him to love God's Word. Her pastor rode on horseback all the way from Kentucky to their new home in Indiana for her funeral service in 1818. Lincoln was deeply impressed by his mother's love for Christ and His Word. He acknowledge he was what he was by her influence. The love of a mother for her Lord and her son produced one of the great lovers of history. Lincoln was a great lover, and love is the greatest of the virtues, and so those who are great in love are the greatest of all.
Lincoln knew that without the providence of God there was no way the outcome of the war could be for liberty. The South won most of the early battles, and when the great battle of Gettysburg was about to take place, Lincoln knew this was the turning point. If the South would win a great battle on Northern soil and take Washington D. C., the nations of England and France may have come to their aid to help the South take over the whole nation. Lincoln went to prayer and prayed as never before for the victory at Gettysburg. He said, "I felt that I must put all my trust in Almighty God. He gave our people the best country ever given to man. He alone could save it from destruction. I had tried my best to do my duty and found myself unequal to the task. The burden was more than I could bear. God had often been our Protector in other days. I prayed that he would not let the nation perish. I asked Him to help us and give us the victory now. I felt that my prayer was answered. I had no misgivings about the result of Gettysburg." This man who loved God and His Word, helped this nation become great. Lincoln was great because he was, like his Lord, a lover.
George Washington was a great man because of his Christian virtues. He said, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible." Washington was a hero in war, but he was a humble man who did not look for a fight. As a young man he got into a conflict and was knocked down. It was the custom to have a duel in such a situation, but Washington recognized he was part of the problem, and that he had provoked the fight by his sharp words. He went to the man and said, "I was in the wrong. I am sorry and I ask your pardon." The two became life long friends. Washington had demonstrated true greatness in the ability to humble himself when he was wrong. You can be famous and achieve great goals without this ability, but you cannot be great in the biblical sense without humility.
The more you study the life of Washington, the more you realize that he was God's providential gift to America. Had not God preserved his life many times he never would have been the hero of our heritage. Moses was spared as a child and so was Jesus. Both had to be protected until their work was done. But Washington had to be preserved from death over and over again.
1. When he was 20 he visited his brother in Barbados and was infected with smallpox, which was almost always fatal. He recovered in less than 3 weeks.
2. The next year in 1753 he was shot at by an Indian only 15 paces from him, and he was not hit. He and his companion were pursued by Indians ready to kill them, but they escaped.
3. In crossing the Allegheny River to escape he fell into the icy water, but was able to seize a floating log and save himself.
4. Soaking wet he had to stay out all night in the cold, but he survived.
5. In the French and Indian War he knew God had a destiny for him, for all around him men were dying. His horse was shot out from underneath him, and bullets were tearing through his uniform, but not one was permitted to enter his body. He knew he was protected by the providence of God. Four bullets actually went through his coat, and yet he was not even wounded. This is how he knew God's hand was on his life.
Washington was a man of prayer. His mother urged him, "My son, neglect not the duty of secret prayer." His mother and father were both devout members of the Episcopal Church which was almost the only Christian denomination in Virginia in that day. When he was 20 years old he wrote a 24 page book of prayers. One of them he ended like this: "Less my friends and grant me grace to forgive my enemies as heartily as I desire forgiveness of Thee my heavenly Father. I beseech Thee to defend me this night from all evil, and do more for me than I can think or ask, for Jesus Christ's sake, in whose most holy name, and words, I continue to pray." This reveals that, like his Lord, he wanted to be a man of words of love.
Washington was a great helper in the Baptist fight for religious liberty. They insisted on the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. These were the first 10 amendments. Washington wrote to the Baptist who fought and said, "If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the convention where I had the honor to preside might possibly endanger the religious rights of an ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the General Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one will be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution."
Washington was not a perfect man, nor was he a perfect Christian. He was a slave owner all his life. He set them all free in his will. It was his greatest admirer who finally set them all free, and that was Lincoln. There are no perfect men, but only those who try their best to be what Jesus wants them to be. Washington was an active church leader. Lincoln got turned off by the church, but Washington was an elected officer many times over, and was faithful to his church. In 1766 he was made chairman of the building committee and guided the building of the new church. He also bore a large share of the expense. He was also faithful in his daily devotions. He had many struggles in his life, and he lost a 16 year old daughter to consumption, but he was a man who stayed faithful to God and the will of God, because he was a man of love, and he knew how to speak words of love. We may never be great in the eyes of the world, but everyone of us can be great in the eyes of God by being men and women who daily strive to be a blessing to others by speaking words of love.