The Statesman Listening to the Hearts of the People

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We often use the adjective “people-centered” to describe modern democracy. However, there is an element of irony here. The demands upon decision-makers in Government are so great that one has to operate by priorities. By the time the primary priorities are met, there is little time for anything other than making decisions. The irony is that in the process of making decisions that affect the lives of the common people, there is very little time left to consult the very people whose lives are impacted by those decisions, especially at the grass roots and especially the most needy. President Abraham Lincoln viewed Government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”, a statement for which he is remembered, and which fully expressed the intent for “people-centered” governance.

The irony would be if in serving in “people-centered” governance, a decision-maker would argue that one is too busy to listen to the people. Let us consider how President Lincoln dealt with this challenge. No one can argue that President Lincoln had an easy presidency and that he carried a light load. His nation began to fall apart during the weeks between the date he was elected and the date he actually entered office, and it wasn’t until days before his death that this load finally appeared to be lifting.

Throughout his time in office, Lincoln held open office hours each morning through early afternoon where he allowed people to come to his office without an appointment. Not only, as can be expected, did many who were either in his administration or in the legislature avail themselves of this privilege, but many were common people who walked in off the street without an appointment to discuss any topic of their choosing. In the midst of immensely heavy pressures, he took time, nearly every day, to listen to the people. In fact, when he entered office, Lincoln attempted to do this for the whole day. However, this proved impractical and he had to limit the hours. At first Lincoln argued against limiting the visiting-hours:

They do not want much, and they get very little…. I know how I would feel in their place.

Thus, when he used the phrase “of the people, for the people, by the people” in his famous Gettysburg Address, he was expressing a heartfelt conviction that drove him. Where does this heart attitude come from? We have no choice but to conclude that Lincoln’s actions arose from a sincere love and concern for the people that he was called to serve and who elected him to meet their needs. Lincoln’s actions were so contrary to conventional behaviour that we need to look for what drove him. I believe they were patterned after the words of Jesus:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).

Jesus described a heart attitude toward the sheep that the shepherd who is considered “good” by the sheep should have – going so far as to give his life for the sheep. In Jesus’ case, we know He was preparing us for the reality that He would literally give His life in payment for our sins, keeping us out of an eternity in hell. However, for those of us with responsibility for shepherding people, for example, in government, there are practical applications to our sacrificing on behalf of the sheep.

I believe this was a part of the way Lincoln applied Jesus’ teaching. When we study the way Lincoln dealt with the people he met with and listened to, we learn something else. Many of those who came to him did not come to express an opinion, but rather to seek help for issues where they had not previously been able to receive any. It is here that Lincoln showed compassion by directing them to others in government who were equipped to deal with the issue they each faced, often accompanied by personal letters from Lincoln to the official directing to provide the necessary help. Lincoln literally sacrificed the life he had at his disposal on behalf the people. He listened to their hurts, their needs, but also their advice.

Lincoln sacrificed by literally giving of his own life for the sake of the sheep. This leads to an intriguing issue. On the one hand, Lincoln’s giving of himself benefitted the sheep. Very quickly, the issue of balance arises in light of one’s responsibilities to the duties of office, even to loving oneself with God’s kind of love, and to family. The Statesman has all of these responsibilities. For the Statesman, this is exceedingly complex. Our Creator, who is the One who designed us, is the only One who can help us find this balance:

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).

However, Lincoln’s example provides a challenge to us for how we can listen to the people and best make sure we are listening to their hearts in the decisions we make.


How confident am I that I am adequately hearing the hearts of those I am called to serve?

Would the people I serve describe my shepherding as “good”?

Is there anything I can learn from Lincoln’s example?

Is there anything I can learn from the shepherding of Jesus, as Lincoln apparently did