During our summer vacation this year, my husband and I surprised our oldest daughter with a trip to New York City for her 16th birthday celebration. We had a planned trip with our church’s choir to Washington, D.C., where the group was invited to sing at the 2018 Christians United for Israel (CUFI)’s Summit, and therefore we decided to extend the trip to New York and later to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.
While in Gettysburg, we visited the Civil War battlefield and museum, where I learned details about the battle that later became known as the highwater mark for the Confederate Army — a crucial victory of the Union forces, which certainly helped determine the outcome of America’s deadliest war.
In the last room of the battlefield museum, there stands a large picture of one of my favorite American heroes: President Abraham Lincoln. I gazed upon the massive picture, noticing the difference that a couple of years had made in the features of the beloved president. The war had taken its toll, and his grave countenance became graver still.
As I stood there, noticing the wear on his face, I remembered a story about Lincoln that perfectly illustrates one of his great qualities: humility.
The story was told by Civil War era congressman George W. Julian, who supposedly witnessed the account.
Edwin M. Stanton became Secretary of War in 1862 under Lincoln’s administration, and was known to be a man of sharp military vision and strong opinions. A former critic of the administration, Stanton had no problem expressing his opinion when he disagreed with the president. According to Julian, a committee of Western men, headed by Congressman Owen Lovejoy, proposed an exchange of Eastern and Western soldiers — a political move that would please the committee and enlarge the president’s popularity within the group. Lincoln approved the move and sent word to Stanton, ordering the exchange to take place.
Lovejoy explained the orders, but was met by Stanton’s flat refusal:
“But we have the president’s order, sir!” said Lovejoy.
“Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?” said Stanton.
“He did, sir.”
“Then he is a fool,” replied the enraged Secretary.
“Do you mean to say the president is a fool?” asked Lovejoy, in amazement.
“Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that.”
The bewildered congressman from Illinois rushed at once to the president, relating the result of his conference.
“Did Stanton say I was a fool?” asked Lincoln.
“He did, sir; and repeated it.”
After a moment’s pause, the president looked up and said:
“If Stanton said I was a fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means.”
As Lincoln talked to the general, he realized that his decision was a serious mistake, and without hesitation, humbly withdrew it.
“They that know God will be humble; and they that know themselves cannot be proud.” — John Flavel
Stop for a moment and think about the depth of John Flavel’s words above.
I firmly believe that people who have a deep sense of God’s guidance and control over their destiny have no problem admitting when they make a mistake; or change course when realizing their decisions are unwise. Conversely, proud men and women secretly believe that admitting their mistakes gives others the impression of weakness, and therefore they stand their ground, even if their decision causes others to suffer, or pushes them further into a path of destruction and pain.
Marriages are broken, children lose respect for their parents, friendships are lost … all because we are too proud to say three simple, yet powerful words: “I was wrong.” Thus, our prideful hearts assume a position that belongs only to God, for he alone is perfect.
The great Abraham Lincoln knew his limitations and was quick to change direction when realizing his mistake before it was too late, and before it cost him too much. His sobering example reminds me of this great truth:
Humility is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s the hallmark of true greatness.
“I was wrong.” These simple words can become a healing balm to help mend relationships, heal broken hearts … and even change the course of history.
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