One day during the Civil War, an admirer approached Abraham Lincoln to say that back home the folks all agreed that "the welfare of the nation depended on God and Abraham Lincoln."
Lincoln replied, "They are half right."
I appreciate his dry wit and modesty. But then, is it really modesty when you're describing the facts of the situation? Lincoln knew that the future of the nation was in hands much bigger than his own. Yes, he had a job to do, an important role to play, but the fate of the nation was far beyond his ability to determine.
Lincoln, like every person in ministry, knew that in the course of human events, he was dependent on strength beyond his own. No spiritual victory can be accomplished by purely human efforts.
Those of us who are called to proclaim and to live the gospel recognize that we can't produce life transformation upon demand. No matter how talented or creative we are, no matter how intense or winsome, we are incapable of generating new life. We can assist in the process, but spiritual growth is fueled by spiritual power. Without God at work, it doesn't happen.
As the angel told Zechariah, anything of significance is accomplished "'not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty."
I'm reminded of this spiritual reality every time I'm in an airport concourse and step onto one of those moving sidewalks.
Last week I was walking on one of those people movers when I looked to my right and noticed a younger man walking briskly. Despite his energetic stride and my more casual pace, I passed him easily.
Having a competitive personality, I was tempted to feel smug about blowing him away in this undeclared race. But even I had to admit the reason I outpaced him was not might or power or conditioning or superior stride, but because something was underneath me, bearing me along. I was walking, but the far more significant factor was that I was walking in the power of the people mover.
In ministry, when we walk in the power of the Spirit, God bears us along. No matter what our circumstances, whether in a situation of vigor or weakness, we experience a power so much greater than we could ever produce.
Ministry is learning to recognize the power of God, acknowledge where our strength lies, and like Lincoln, let people know when they get things at least half right.
Marshall Shelley is editor in chief of Leadership Journal.