Lincoln's Lesson

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Do you or someone you know suffer from a critical spirit? When he was a young man, Abraham Lincoln took up the habit of criticism. He wrote letters and poems ridiculing people and dropped them along country roads for others to find. Once Lincoln sent a letter to the town newspaper criticizing a politician and ended up with a life changing lesson. Lincoln had been elected to the Illinois state legislature as a Whig, and James Shields was a Democrat and the State Auditor of Illinois. When Lincoln disagreed with a proclamation Shields had issued, he put his sarcastic wit and talent together and sent a series of letters to the local newspaper. Soon others were weighing in and before long, Shields became a laughing stock in the community. Indignant at being publicly humiliated, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Even though duels were illegal, the townspeople loved watching them. All politicians knew that to refuse a duel would show cowardice and would be a political dead-end, so Lincoln agreed. The young Lincoln chose his weapon, took sword fighting lessons from a West Point graduate, and on the appointed day, reported to the sandbar on the Mississippi River ready to fight to the death. The friends of the duelers sought desperately to resolve the issue peacefully. At the last minute, the 6’4” Lincoln demonstrated his obvious physical advantage by hacking away at some of the branches of a nearby tree. Finally, Shields agreed to settle their differences in a more peaceful way. After the unfortunate incident, the two became civil in their relationship and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers.

Embarrassed by the entire incident, Lincoln learned a valuable lesson in the art of dealing with people. Never again did he write the insulting letters. In fact, one of his favorite quotations became, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” During the Civil War when others spoke harshly of southerners, Lincoln replied, “Don’t criticize them, they are just what we would be under different circumstances.”

The next time we’re ready to criticize someone else, it would serve us well to consider how we might be under different circumstances. Or as the mid-sixteenth-century John Bradford uttered in reference to a group of prisoners being led to execution. “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

The next time we’re set on making someone else look bad or criticizing them, let’s pull out a five dollar bill, and ask, “What would Lincoln do?” Better yet, let’s ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Jesus taught the disciples how to treat others. Luke 6:26-31 tells us
27"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.


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