Lessons From Lincoln
From a humble boy to a great wartime president, this man has much to teach us.

When Abraham Lincoln was 7 years old, he and his family endured a cold winter living in a three-sided shed that he and his father had built. When the weather warmed, they built their second home: a rough-log, dirt-floor cabin.

The Lincoln family lived in the heart of the wilderness. Around seven or eight families resided nearby. There was plenty of game around, but at times, roasted potatoes were all the Lincolns had for dinner.

While these living conditions were far from ideal, “there were few complaints,” historian Wayne Whipple wrote. “They were all accustomed to that way of living, and they enjoyed the free and easy life of the forest.”

Truly, this man who would become one of the giants of history had the humblest of beginnings. How did he go on to become what many people believe to be the greatest president this nation has ever had? How did he get from a three-sided shed to the White House, eventually delivering the Gettysburg Address, one of the most iconic orations in history?

Here are five lessons we can learn from Abraham Lincoln.

1) Lincoln had ambition.

In fact, he had “ferocious ambition,” in the words of author Rich Lowry (Lincoln Unbound).

His upbringing was difficult. According to Lowry, Lincoln’s father was “always doing, but not doing anything great.” His mother died when he was 9. His father eventually remarried someone who helped Lincoln more than perhaps even he realized.

Young Abe gained a reputation of being a “rail splitter.” After helping his father build the three-sided shed, he always carried an ax and cleared out areas to plant corn, potatoes and other crops. But while his mastery of the ax highlighted his physical strength and work ethic, it also represented something he wanted to get away from. He sought to operate on a much higher level. “I don’t always intend to delve, grub, shuck corn, split rails and the like,” he told one of his neighbors. That neighbor eventually told William Herndon, Lincoln’s biographer: “Abe was ambitious—sought to outstrip and override others.”

When Abe was growing up, his family knew the way he thought and acted was unusual. His profound intelligence towered above the boys around him. And he vowed to separate himself from the world he grew up in. His cousin said, “Abe always had a natural idea that he was going to be something.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of his upbringing is that he had less than one year of formal education. Lincoln was a spectacular example of determined, driving self-education. His whole mindset was geared toward getting an education, and he worked hard at it.

Especially in Western nations today, the average person has far more formal education than Lincoln had. Yet whatever our education, we must always continue to educate ourselves. A formal education can be a valuable asset. But do you realize how valuable self-education can be?

Lincoln had an outstanding mind. He was relentless in his self-improvement. Continually bettering himself was a driving passion. He was restless if he wasn’t moving forward. “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest,” Herndon wrote.

Herndon said Lincoln’s “mind and the ambition of the man soared above us.” Another author said his ambition “reached to the very marrow of his bones.” He truly wanted to be the best he could be! There was some vanity there, but God was eventually able to use him for a great work! Though we can’t know to what extent, I believe God had a hand in nurturing Lincoln’s ambition. We all need godly ambition! How can you be more ambitious and motivated?

As a boy, Abraham would get agitated if he couldn’t grasp what the adults around him were saying and worked hard to sort it out in his mind until it was clear. He had a passion for clarity and developed a powerful ability to make things plain.

Lincoln was an avid reader. But he didn’t just read. He really thought about what he was reading. And then he would apply what he was learning. He was a master at that!

He really took advantage of educational opportunities, constantly reading and thinking deeply. If he had a special thought that he felt he needed to keep in mind and didn’t have paper, he would write it down on wood; when he got some paper, he would write it again and put it in a scrapbook where he could have it before him.

Herbert W. Armstrong said, “The main purpose of education as we see it is to teach one to think.” We must learn to think! If you can’t do that, you cannot put yourself in the right place or do the right thing. You cannot have an enjoyable and fulfilling family life. Not thinking is a terrible way to live!

Lowry writes that Lincoln “burned with a white-hot desire for political distinction.” You have to be careful: That can be an evil desire. But God the Father has ambition! Consider what He is doing: He is enacting a plan to re-create Himself and to populate the universe with God beings! Talk about godly ambition! God cannot do anything greater than that! And nobody will stop Him from fulfilling that ambition.

God’s people can have the greatest ambition of all people! God is ambitious for you: He wants to make you a king and a priest! Don’t we need ambition, considering that job? We need to pray often for godly ambition, perhaps even daily. This will help us really take advantage of the education God provides. We need ambition to get going and do it!

2) Lincoln saw the entire forest.

Lowry writes that “another man could have saved the Union. But only Lincoln could have grasped and defined precisely and profoundly what made a nation worth saving.” Lincoln saw something about history, and about America, that nobody else did.

We have to train ourselves to see the entire forest as Lincoln did. You must know the difference between the essential and the trivial.

“Compare the viewing of any circumstance or problem to looking at a tree,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “First of all, many people get so close to the tree, they cannot see the forest” (Plain Truth, November 1961).

Consider Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. On the same occasion, Edward Everett, considered the greatest orator in America at the time, spoke for two hours. He talked about the men who fought and died, even naming some of them. He spoke of the details of the battle. He gave the kind of funeral eulogy that everybody gave.

Lincoln didn’t get into those details because he saw the entire forest. His address reached deeper than any other speaker had ever reached. In just three minutes, he showed the world how to view what was at stake in that war. Everett talked about battlefields, but as far as Lincoln was concerned, the Civil War was about liberty and equality for the whole world!

God’s Church today is also fighting for freedom. We are going to help Jesus Christ free the entire world, according to the truth that all men are created equal. God is offering freedom and equality and love for everyone! That is what we work to achieve. The greatest emancipation proclamation is just around the corner. That is the whole forest, spiritually.

“The tree should be viewed in its true perspective and relation to all the other trees. One reason they cannot see the other trees is they do not even see but a part of a part of a small branch, or tiny twig,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “I began, years ago, to train myself to see first the entire forest …” (emphasis mine throughout).

Looking at one tree is fine and beneficial if you have the entire forest in mind. First you must get the whole view: Have the universe vision in mind. Lacking that, you may get off on a small issue and be unable to see the forest for the tree. That can happen so easily!

If you want to look at the entire forest, study Mystery of the Ages. Mr. Armstrong learned to see the entire forest, and he could inspire and move us because of that. Near the end of his life, he warned, Most of you in the Church don’t get it. The tree is blinding you to the entire forest. You don’t know why we’re here, nor God’s plan for mankind! Look where that blindness has gotten the Laodiceans today.

The entire forest is God’s creation and master plan, and He is Supreme Ruler. We are branches and twigs. That is where we belong and where we can do the Work.

3) Lincoln brought God into the Civil War.

In his self-education, Lincoln loved the Bible. He knew it well. It shaped his thinking.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which he gave just before he was assassinated, has been called a sermon. Ronald C. White writes, “The Bible occupied a more prominent role in this speech than in any other that Lincoln gave. Here Lincoln declared slavery a sin, mentioned God 14 times, quoted scripture four times, and invoked prayer four times.”

That address discusses how both the Confederate and Union soldiers were praying to God for help in killing people. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln said. He then quoted Matthew 18:7, which reads: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” He warned that slavery was one offense by which woe would come! He could see that the horrors of the war resulted from the nation forsaking God.

Lincoln was delivering strong meat to the American people in his day. But it is also a horrendous warning for today! He was correcting the whole nation and speaking about the living God! By doing so, he was putting his life on the line.

He was talking to us today in many ways. Kent Gramm writes, “If we Americans can’t find Lincoln, we are lost.” It is important that we “find Lincoln.” But in reality, we must find far more than that.

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln said. “Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s 250 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 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” What a message!

Lincoln concluded by saying, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work ….” Finish the work! That is the message of God’s Church much of the time.

When Lincoln asked Stephen Douglas his opinion of the speech, Douglas called it a “sacred effort.” Indeed it was! It’s amazing what Lincoln accomplished without the Holy Spirit.

Charles Francis Adams Jr. said, “This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all times the historical keynote of this war.” That message is for all times! What a message it has for today.

Here is something for God’s people to consider. Lincoln gave that speech in 1865. Where was the Sardis era of God’s Church? The Church had the best opportunity ever: They had come to the United States; they had tremendous prosperity; they had freedom. But how little they did with it! As the Civil War raged, they were dying and probably even dead spiritually (Revelation 3:1-2).

That is what can happen to a Church of God when we lose the forest-level view. They just died spiritually. We can die spiritually. We must not allow that to happen!

As early as 1854, some Sardis members fell away from the Church of God to the Seventh-Day Adventists—joining Ellen G. White, a self-proclaimed “prophetess.”

Later, God used Herbert W. Armstrong to show Sardis members in Stanberry, Missouri, where they were wrong. But they wouldn’t hear that. So God told them: Repent and change, or I will blot you out of the book of life! That is a blistering warning.

Mr. Armstrong told them they needed a qualified ministry and school. They could have had it but lacked the strength and the support of God to build it. Yet Mr. Armstrong had three schools! Why couldn’t they do that? Because they were dead. That is a sadder story than what happened to freedom in America. Sardis’s fate is frightening.

4) Lincoln was willing to fight to the death.

Lincoln loved the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and would die to preserve them. He saw how the soldiers laid down their lives and gave everything, and he wouldn’t dare be less courageous than them. He said, We must finish this work. That means we either achieve unconditional surrender or we fight on!

Author Geoffrey Perret writes in his book Lincoln’s War that Lincoln knew bringing the rebels to unconditional surrender meant people would have to fight to the death.

Lincoln’s will to fight to the death was the North’s great invisible weapon. He understood like none of his generals ever did—except Ulysses S. Grant—that for the United States to have a new birth of freedom, they had to destroy Robert E. Lee’s army. Lincoln spoke of victory, but he knew that, as Perret writes, they were fighting a war that was “reeking with blood.” Perret said no other politician running for office in 1860 or 1864 would have refused to compromise.

Mr. Armstrong said he didn’t know why God called him, but the one reason it might have been was that he would not compromise. That indicated he too was prepared to die for God’s Work. When you understand God’s plan and you’re loyal to God and love God, then that’s actually not such a big deal.

Lincoln was a rare man. He knew that crushing blows were coming. His generals couldn’t really come to grips with that—and if they didn’t understand it, the soldiers wouldn’t understand it. Lincoln needed to find a general who would command the entire army—yet for two years of fighting, he looked in vain for commanders who would destroy the enemy.

This has a spiritual application. We must overcome the devil; kill the old, sinful man; and overcome the world and its impact and effect on us. We have to be winning our battles!

The North was not winning battles. They lacked a real man to engineer the whole affair. In 1862, poet Edmund Clarence Stedman wrote a poem titled “Wanted—a Man.” It said, “End this murderous holocaust; Abraham Lincoln, give us a man.”

Before sentencing Jesus Christ, Pilate called Him “the man” (John 19:5). Christ would not compromise on anything. He remained silent, and He offered His life for the greatest of all causes.

We have Jesus Christ living in us today. We have a Work that God has commanded us to finish. We must be obedient to the will of God, not our own (John 4:34).

The Apostle Paul wrote 2 Timothy, his final letter, while in prison. He knew he was about to die, yet this epistle has no hint of compromise.

“Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Paul, facing death, was doing all he could to raise more faithful men who would deliver this message!

“Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (verses 3-4). Are you really warring today? That’s what we are called to do.

Lincoln faced many desertions—72,000 soldiers left the Union Army; another 20,000 to 30,000 never even showed up. In God’s end-time Church, 95 percent of God’s people have deserted Him. Think what we could do if all those Laodiceans were helping us today!

Lincoln said, “Don’t you see that the country and the army fail to realize that we are engaged in one of the greatest wars the world has ever seen, which can only be ended by hard fighting? General [George] McClellan is responsible for the delusion that is untoning the whole army—that the South is to be conquered by strategy.” Lincoln was certainly concerned with strategy. But these leaders had a false strategy because they believed bloodshed could be avoided; they didn’t want hard fighting.

In November 1862, a group of women from the United States Sanitary Commission visited Lincoln at the White House. These ladies tended to wounded and dying soldiers and witnessed some of the most terrible sights you could ever see. They asked Lincoln for encouragement regarding the war. He bluntly replied, “I have no word of encouragement to give!”

“The fact is,” he told them, “the people haven’t yet made up their minds that we are at war with the South. They haven’t buckled down to the determination to fight this war through; for they have got the idea into their heads that we are going to get out of this fix, somehow, by strategy! That’s the word—strategy! General McClellan thinks he is going to whip the rebels by strategy; and the army has got the same notion. They have no idea that the war is to be carried on and put through by hard, tough fighting ….”

This same spirit infects America today. Look at what is happening in this nation—we are in a war! Yet Republicans don’t understand this.

Lincoln knew the war would not be won by strategy alone. His generals did not. Apparently, the Laodiceans didn’t understand that either. There is something very deep here we must grasp!

It took a lot of blood to win that war. An estimated 623,000 service-age men were killed. In World War ii, 405,000 Americans died. In proportion to the population, Civil War deaths were equivalent to America losing 2½ million men in World War ii! Dead bodies were strewn throughout the land!

We must face reality. God’s people are in a fierce spiritual war. We must be willing to give up mother, father, brother, sister and even our own life if necessary (Luke 14:26). We are God’s military—God’s soldiers. It is a spiritual war, but it can have physical dangers, as Paul’s example shows. We must be willing to put our life on the line.

The Apostle Paul suffered great trouble. Many brethren were turning away from the truth! (2 Timothy 1:15). This was the bitter reality that Paul had to face when he was waiting to be martyred. He was thankful for one determined man who visited him—a real spiritual warrior whose heart was in the Work and who was willing to die in the war if he had to (verses 16-17). “The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day …” (verse 18). Paul was not focused on the present—he was looking forward to when Christ is ruling this Earth!

5) Lincoln had a grand military strategy.

When Lincoln entered the Civil War, he knew little about war strategy. So he studied night and day to learn what was needed to win. He devoured all the quality reading he could find about military strategy. He held long conferences with eminent generals and admirals to learn all he could from well-reputed army and navy men. Many of them were not in the forefront of the war because politicians chose the generals, and politics governed those choices. But the politicians knew nothing about strategy. And they didn’t know what kind of general they needed because they themselves lacked vision.

“Lincoln stands out as a great war president,” historian T. Harry Williams wrote, “probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.” That is spectacular: Lincoln became a better strategist than all his generals!

God’s people need today to build a grand military strategy. We are in a war school—and it will lead to us being born into the Family of God. But we must keep growing so we can qualify.

Calling it a “grand military strategy” helps us realize we’re talking about warfare. Strategy is the science of planning and directing military operations. We must keep growing and learning the science so we can do more for the Work. Strategy is also skill in managing or planning. We really need a military strategy spiritually. This helps us build wonderful vision.

As Lincoln grew more competent in strategy, he got to the point where he told his generals, Stop giving me excuses and give me victories. That was the standard by which he began judging the generals. Where are their victories? We need victories in our life. That is where the joy comes in. This is a real test—and a real opportunity.

In our court case over the works of Herbert W. Armstrong, we had to walk by faith. We eliminated most of the television production and poured our resources into the court case. We risked everything for what we knew was right!

God blessed that spirit. We hoped to at least get a lease for that literature, but God gave us full copyrights! When we step out in faith, God brings miracles! He calls His people to win victories with that power and vision. Sometimes He will intervene in ways you can’t even imagine. Expect those miracles and be bold.

People would often ask Lincoln why the Civil War was necessary. In the Gettysburg Address, he answered their question. All men are created equal. We must have a new birth of freedom. Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the Earth. What a vision!

We are about to bring spiritual freedom to this whole universe—planting the heavens and the universe for eternity!

Maj. Gen. George Meade led the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln was jubilant that the North held their ground. However, he was gravely disappointed with what happened next. Meade said the Union Army had driven “from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” But he acted as though pushing Lee back into Virginia was full victory. When the retreating Confederates reached the Potomac, the river was in flood and they had to build a bridge to cross. The North followed from some distance but did nothing to stop them; they simply let them cross the river.

Lincoln was incensed. “Drive the invaders from our soil! … Is that all?” he asked. Had they destroyed Lee’s army, the North could have won the war! Though Meade had won a great defensive battle, he had no mind for offensive warfare.

Where we are working for God, we must go on the offensive! People are helping mightily to get this message out. But without a grand military strategy, you don’t have offensive warfare.

Read Chapter 7 of my booklet How to Be an Overcomer. Offensive warfare is far more difficult than remaining on defense. Winston Churchill said it was three or four times harder. But when you have a victory, don’t quit and rest. If you push it, it may be an opportunity for another immediate victory! Keep on the offensive, and that next victory could be far easier.

Lincoln learned that he needed one bold commander who would do the work out in the field, and then he could strategize from the White House (though he was often in the field himself). We, too, need unity of strategy. We need to be unified to get this Work done. That’s what it takes to win a war! You must have government.

Ulysses Grant had some success and began to open up the Mississippi for the Union. Here was a man who moved and won victories with the resources he had, without always crying that he needed more men. Lincoln made him a major general.

In one battle, Grant lost 15,000 lives and Lee only 9,000. But Lincoln was still very happy. Why? Because in spite of those losses, he saw Grant continuing to advance forward! He had the manpower to do that, but no other general would use such an advantage. That was the strategy, and the spirit, it would take to win the war.

Lincoln said Grant was the first real general he had! Grant accepted Lincoln’s strategy. He submitted to Lincoln with genuine humility. That deep respect unified the nation! And the Union began to win some real battles. But they had to go on the offensive.

There is a global strategy that we need to consider in God’s Work. We need the brethren praying for me and for the ministry worldwide. The Apostle Paul said, Pray for me that I speak boldly for God! (Ephesians 6:19). Our ministers and I must speak boldly! We are human and need your prayers. Without God’s power, we won’t be effective.

We must be bold and imaginative in going on the offensive. And we need real passion. If we don’t dig into our Bibles and this truth, we will lack the passion needed to do this Work.

We cannot have only partial victories! Christ said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). God will give us power to do what has to be done. He tells us, individually, I am with you! He has given us the power to become the sons of God! (John 1:12). All that power is available to us—but we have to use it.

In Lincoln and His Generals, T. Harry Williams wrote about a time when the Union really believed they had Lee surrounded and that he had no place to go. Lincoln could see this clearly. “Lincoln explained the situation to a group of guests on the River Queen,” Williams wrote. “Getting out his maps, the president pointed out the route of Lee’s march, the position of each pursuing Union corps, and the probable place where the Confederates would have to yield.”

The next day, Lincoln received a telegraph from Grant that said, “If the thing be pressed I think Lee will surrender.” So Lincoln telegraphed back, “Let the thing be pressed.”

The next day, Lincoln headed home. He could at last relax. The end of the war was in sight!

Williams then concluded his book, writing: “That day John Wilkes Booth registered at the National Hotel in Washington.” That very day, this madman prepared to assassinate President Lincoln.

Do you see why we need a new world? God is about to establish a world to eliminate that madness and the rule of human beings over human beings. In the great resurrection, Abraham Lincoln is going to be well prepared for God’s truth, I believe.

What a future we have before us! Though we are at war, we are not discouraged. We are full of joy and rejoicing. Of course we have trials and tests. But this is a good fight—if we have vision and are using a grand military spiritual strategy!