Heart Conditions

Heart Conditions

“I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not better for it.”

–Abraham Lincoln

While I love reading historical biographies of remarkable people, I’m particularly fascinated to learn about things that shaped their childhoods. What’s the real story behind the familiar one? What early events, influences, relationships and turning points affected them in their youth? What were those famous people like behind the scenes when their lives seemed more ordinary? Or like Abraham Lincoln essentially asked: How did they treat the dog and the cat?

The best stories, I’ve found, were in the kids’ section of our local library. Biographers often focused on childhood tales because of their intended audience. I will never forget one story about Abraham Lincoln. With all that has been written about that great man, this account is relatively unknown. Here it is, as I remember…

It happened one summer afternoon. Young Abe and his sister, Sally, set out to play in the woods behind their rustic cabin. They headed toward a certain stream. After walking a good distance, it felt good to cool their weary feet in the flowing water. Abe suddenly noticed a good-sized fish lingering in a deeper pool. He didn’t bring a pole, but made up his mind then and there to catch that fish with his bare hands. Positioning himself, he waited patiently for the right moment.

His sister watched for a spell. Soon it became clear her brother’s conquest might take a while. She went off to play, using acorn caps and leaves to set up an elaborate tea party. After a bit, she ventured back to the stream. Abe stood in the creek with his hands poised and his body perfectly still. She sighed. Waiting had become tedious. Her brother was determined.

So she found a tree to climb and sang a few songs. Another hour passed. But Abe remained in place, hovering over that wily fish. Tired of watching, she climbed down and took a nap in the shade.

Boy holds big pike he just caughtThe afternoon wore on and was nearly over when, all at once, Sally heard whoops and hollers. She woke up in a start. Abe’s face beamed as he presented his dripping, wriggling prize. He couldn’t wait to show his father, though they faced a long walk home. Sally was two years older, but had to take extra steps to keep up with her triumphant brother.

Along the way, they happened upon a wounded soldier who’d fallen behind his company. The man appeared to be in rough shape and needed water. He hadn’t eaten for days. Abe listened to the man and studied his condition. Then he made a difficult decision—he offered the soldier his fish.

I can remember the emotions that filled my chest, reading that story to my young girls. Giving away his treasured catch was incredibly magnanimous. But something far greater than fishing prowess formed in young Abe Lincoln that day. He made a character choice, which produced something of great substance.

Difficult circumstances often develop character, but it’s not just hardship. It’s the decisions made in those times. Moments of choice, both public and private, determine what a person really becomes inside.

Something in that young boy recognized the greater need. And whether that soldier lived to rejoin his group or died before nightfall from his injuries, it didn’t affect Abe’s decision to help him.

Abraham Lincoln close up from 5 dollar billI believe Lincoln made many tough choices like that over the course of his life, most of which we’ll never know. Line upon line, precept upon precept, moment by moment, his character grew. And that kind of development prepared him for the Presidency more than any law degree or legislation experience in Congress. God saw the strength of his character and placed him in the seat of power. Lincoln in turn made assessments, pronouncements and resolutions that would profoundly shape a struggling nation in its darkest moments.

Lincoln’s quote about religion stated above gets right to the point. What we do privately says more about who we really are inside. We face countless obscure moments day in and day out that offer choices—some which are very important in God’s eyes. Character formation happens for better or worse, whether we like it or not.

My point here is this: experiencing and knowing God is tied to character in a big way. While God embraces us as a work-in-progress, our character choices can attract or grieve the Holy Spirit.

My friend Kelley said you can tell a lot about a person’s character on the golf course. You can discern some things by what people laugh at, or how they treat animals. A person’s checkbook can also tell a story. But what’s most revealing about character is what a person does when no one’s looking. No one, that is, except for God.

“For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” (2 Chronicles 16:9)


  1. Wonderful.

  2. So true and such a great story. Thanks Susan!

  3. Kathy Myers :

    Thanks, Susan. Beautifully written and a wonderful reminder.

  4. abe is the bomb! i always DID like that man. and now with his perceptiveness about dogs and cats…well…what more is there to say? thank you for enlightening me in regard to that quote.
    suzee B