A country lawyer with only 1 year of formal schooling, Lincoln found himself in the middle of the greatest conflict in American history. When elected, he was called a country bumpkin and a disgrace. By the time the Civil War ended (1860-1865), 529,000 men out of a country of 32 million lost their lives. Every family was touched by the agony.
Despite the pressure, his spiritual development was astounding during those years.
How was this possible? Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Schenk, records how Lincoln struggled with serious depression from a very young age. Yet, he notes, his pain fueled his greatness and propelled growth.
He was able to integrate his deep feelings, his melancholy, and his failures into a larger purpose. His lifelong journey involved integrating his gifts and talents, which were so powerful, with his sadness and depression. In photos, we can observe he was a “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Observers have long noticed how Lincoln combined sets of opposite qualities. Lincoln not only embraced contrasts—self-doubt and confidence, hope and despair – but somehow reconciled them to produce something new and valuable. In this lies the key to his creative work as President – and an enduring lesson. Living a good life often requires integrating a bundle of contrasts into a durable whole.
His humanity was the integration of all of who he was. This enabled him to hold together a nation that was in great danger of falling apart. He did not need to divide the nation into good and bad guys. He had learned to hold that tension and complexity in himself. His heartbreak opened up for him a greater capacity for joy and suffering.
As a result, he was able to hold the nation together at end of civil war and become America’s greatest President.
Ernst Becker, in The Denial of Death, observes we have a universal human need for heroic figures who are less helpless or broken than ourselves. We transfer our childlike feelings of dependency to celebrities, mega-church pastors, or other authority figures. (Freud called this transference). They appear to have triumphed over the hardships of life. They dazzle us with their self-confidence. We compare ourselves to them, feeling diminished in their presence. If we happen to get close to them and see their ugly side, we feel shocked and betrayed.
We forget. They too feel frightened, inadequate, and vulnerable like the rest of us. Read the biographies of all spiritual, military, economic, intellectual, political, and artistic leaders through history. You will discover they each had their shadows and monsters.
People will, at times, put you on a pedestal, idealizing you and projecting onto you qualities as if you were indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. But remember: they will probably despise you when they see all of you.
We are all broken, human beings. As Becker says, we are all just a “homo sapien, standard vintage.”
The Desert Fathers, from the fourth century, offer us the antidote to these twin dangers of projection and transference: The brothers surrounded John the Short when he was sitting in front of the church, and each of them asked him about their thoughts. When he saw this, another hermit was jealous, and said, ‘John, your cup is full of poison.’ John answered, ‘Yes, abba, it is. But you said that when you could only see the outside; I wonder what you say if you saw the inside.”
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32 (NASB)
Sifting comes to every pastor and leader. There are no exceptions.
Sifting is happening when everything in us wants out. Jesus was sifted multiple times – e.g. in Gethsemane, in the wilderness, in the crucifixion. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” he said (Matt. 26:38).
The steady stream of pastors and leaders leaving the ministry due to sexual or financial scandal has not changed in decades. What is even more alarming, however, is the recent rash of pastors committing suicide.
Jesus’ comments to Peter teach us that:
Satan targets lead pastors with a particular rage and fury.
Jesus allows extreme testing to put things to death in us that can we cannot kill in ourselves and so that we effectively lead others.
Jesus’ intercession for us (Rom. 8:34) is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. He is the only way we can recover from falls and remain faithful.
Our breastplates are exposed. We spend our time growing institutions and not dealing with our own souls. It may be very difficult to lead a church, but it is easy next to the hard work of dealing with our sexuality, our marriages, our emotional lives, and the “stuff” buried under our frenetic activity.
Our conferences, along with our training of future leaders, focus almost exclusively on our exterior worlds. They equip us to do leadership better. That is a good thing. The problem is the imbalance with an equal focus on our interior lives.
God may finally be getting our attention that something is desperately wrong.