Abraham Lincoln and the Problem of Pain
Last month, one of my finest students, a young woman who served as my academic assistant throughout the just-ended school year, was killed in a traffic accident. Lovely in every way, Lilly’s death was deeply painful to her family, her many friends, and me.
Why would the Lord allow a young woman who loved Him so much, gifted with an exceptional mind and a delightful, engaging, and compassionate heart, to be taken at the age of 20? Especially when so many who bring little more than evil to the world prosper and, ultimately, die when elderly, snug in their beds? Is not God all-powerful, just, and good?
This age-old question tormented our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. He was well acquainted with grief brought on by premature loss. His mother died when Lincoln was only nine, and his sister Sarah died giving birth to a stillborn baby when not quite 21.
Lincoln’s son Eddie died at the age of three after a battle with tuberculosis. In the 1861 battle of Ball’s Bluff, his close friend General Edward Baker (after whom he had named his late son) was slain. That same year, Lincoln’s young protégé Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was gunned-down by a Confederate sympathizer in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1862, less than a year into his presidency, his 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever.
In addition to these personal losses, Lincoln presided over the greatest conflict in American history, a war that historians now believe cost the nation as many as 750,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more in maimed and wounded. The ongoing tallies of the casualties weighed heavily on Lincoln, who was horrified by the slaughter of the battlefields across America.
Lincoln thought long and hard about how and why God would allow these things. After the death of his son, Willie, Lincoln began to meet regularly with Phineas Gurney, the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. to talk about God’s unfathomable will. Gurley, compassionate and intellectual, helped Lincoln better understand “Reformed Christian beliefs on the mysteries of God’s providence.”
So it was that a few weeks before his assassination, Lincoln reflected on the problem of pain in the most meditative and theologically profound speech ever given by an American president. In the speech, his second inaugural address, Lincoln spoke of the ongoing war as God’s judgment on America for the sin of slavery. “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come but which having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
Lincoln here argues that slavery was allowed “in the providence of God” but that “His appointed time” for its ending would be according to “His will.” He exhorts his listeners: Because God allowed something evil and is now allowing something so devastating as the war, we dare not deny the “divine attributes” the faithful have always attributed to Him. In other words, God’s character should not be questioned because we don’t understand Him comprehensively. This is why, said Lincoln, that despite the rivers of blood that flowed from the backs of slaves and was then flowing from the fighting men of both sides, we can trust that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” as David affirmed in Psalm 19.
God does not offer us explanations for why He allows some things and not others, why He does what He does and does not do what He has chosen to prevent. Instead, He offers us something infinitely better. He offers us Himself. He calls on us to trust in His character, that He is good, just, omnipotent — and mysterious. As Paul tells us, “How unsearchable are His judgments and inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33-36).
It will not always be thus. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then” — in eternity — “face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Cor. 13:12). Until the day each disciple of Jesus enters into the presence of our gracious Redeemer and sees those who have gone before, may we trust that no matter what befalls, however grievous, He is with those who love Him, closer to us than the air we breathe.
This was Lincoln’s faith. It was Lilly’s. Is it yours?
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.