On a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I realized I had been operating with a very shallow understanding of the 16th president of the United States and the times in which he led. Because Lincoln holds mythical status in our culture, I had never bothered to learn more about him as a real person. And what I learned was both sad and inspiring.
Working my way through the exhibits, I was astonished by the level of personal suffering Lincoln endured throughout his life. He was a victim of relentless and tragic sorrow. His mother died when he was 9. His first love died when he was a young man. Later, three of his four children died in childhood. His wife may have been affected by mental illness, and he himself is believed to have suffered from what we would now call clinical depression.
His political path was no easier. This man we view as a unifying hero was divisive and largely unpopular in his own times. The media portrayed him as a hapless hick from the backwoods. Eastern society rejected him and his wife because they were from Illinois–then considered the rough western frontier. And when he ran for president, leaders in Southern states made clear that if Lincoln were elected, the country would divide. With 82 percent voter turnout in 1860, he won with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
Rather than shrink from a leadership nightmare in the making, Lincoln took on the presidency and the challenges it represented. He accepted leadership of a country that was already deeply divided below the surface, knowing his election meant division would soon be obvious on the surface as well.
Sure enough, after his election Southern states made good on their threats and began seceding from the union before he even took office. Then, roughly a month after he took office, all-out civil war erupted. His popularity grew during his presidency until, four years after he took office and just six days after the Confederate surrender, he was shot and killed in a final tragedy that helped to bring the nation back together in their grief.
What made Lincoln such an effective leader during this great crisis? Here’s one theory: Lincoln’s intimate acquaintance with sorrow and hardship had prepared him for the kind of self-sacrifice his presidency would require.
Are you equipped for the sacrifices and grief of ministry and service to others? Have you identified your own personal sorrows that can serve as fuel for an authentic, loving, and unselfish life? Most people–but perhaps especially in the church–face a knee-jerk temptation to view our scars as objects of shame we must keep hidden at all costs. But our scars represent some of our most formative experiences, and they condition us for more challenges. Without them, we are only touched-up pictures of ourselves.
If you haven’t acknowledged your scars and discovered how God can use them, consider these steps toward emotional health and a new perspective on your pain:
Purposeful living is no easy task. Let your endurance of former trials fuel your hope and confidence that you are up for the task at hand–and trust that God will be faithful as he has been in the past.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.