I’ve read that Abraham Lincoln liked to tell the story of a king who ordered his wise men to come up with a single sentence that would never be false. Their solution, which Lincoln described as both “chastening” and “consoling,” covered all possible contingencies: “And this, too, shall pass away.”
Thanks partly to President Obama, who invoked Lincoln’s name and legacy repeatedly through inauguration week, the 16th president is very much in vogue these days. One characteristic of Lincoln that seems obvious, but which is rarely spoken about, is the melancholy that’s so apparent in his visage. He looks like a sad man. Perhaps that’s what comes upon a leader who has seen his country gallop to the brink of civil war, and then plunge headlong into it. I can imagine he found comfort in knowing that as dark as things looked for the future of the union in the 1860s, the strife and bloodshed would eventually pass away.
Like Lincoln, we need the tales of wise men (and women) to comfort us. As anyone who is an investor knows, it helps to take a long view of things. We could say the same when we’re personally afflicted with illness, or when we’re saddened or discouraged by the misfortune of those we love. It’s always true that pain and suffering doesn’t last forever. Problems are eventually resolved. That doesn’t mean every story has a happy ending, from a human perspective. I don’t know what Lincoln may have thought about life after death, but it strikes me that the only way we can ultimately find peace is to know in our bones that the terrible circumstances that can befall us are not the end of the story. Sadly, we have empirical evidence that, for some people, hard times never seem to end.
God has promised in his Word that he will neither leave us nor forsake us. I take this to mean that when we die, he becomes real in a way we see only dimly in this world. When I’m with my friend who is dying from terminal cancer, I’m tempted to tell him that his pain will soon pass away and that he will be whole again. I don’t say it because he already knows. His faith and confidence is more a comfort to me at times than I am to him. For those who are much younger and healthier, but who are confused by what their place is in the world, there is also comfort in knowing that the wilderness before them does not stretch forever. There is a way forward. There is a path, however faint, that will take them to better places.
It is never untrue that pain dissipates. Suffering ends. Joy and peace is never postponed indefinitely. I believe it takes more than faith for some of us to believe this. It may take a wise person to remind us. As great a man as he was, Lincoln must have suffered terribly from all order of oppression. So do we—some more than others. I too am both chastened and consoled by truth that cannot be proved wrong, and by the knowledge that everything broken and corrupt will eventually pass away. The wise men have spoken.