A very unusual tribute was paid to Abraham Lincoln by American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg. He wrote, “Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.” You may or may not agree with that assessment of Lincoln. But one thing is sure — the kind of character Sandburg describes is all too scarce in human beings. And, may I add, rarer in the church than we should hope.
Jesus Christ was a man of velvet and steel. He was tough and He was tender, depending upon what different people and different occasions might call for. To those who had been done in by the devil but who were open to His teaching, guidance, and forgiveness, Jesus was tender as a loving mother and / or father. In John 4 He encountered a woman at Jacob’s well who had been married five different times to five different husbands, and Jesus reminds her the man she is currently living with is not her husband John 4:18). And yet, and yet — He didn’t write her off. He didn’t castigate or scald or scorch her for living in sin.” He deftly and directly but gently spoke to her about “living water” and His desire to provide it for her (verses 10-14). Read the whole account and you will see how tenderly Jesus dealt with her as He sought to lead her to faith in Himself as the long-awaited Messiah. Another example of Jesus’ tenderness is found in John 8:1ff where the Pharisees sought to trap the Lord. They brought Jesus “a woman caught in the act of adultery.” They urged Him to be hard as steel and tough in dealing with her, reminding Jesus, “Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say? You can read His response in John 8:6-9. With skill He turned the tables on these religious hypocrites, and His tender response to the woman is, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you” — but then tough words followed as He urged her, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:10-11). Even a casual reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life shows Him to be a man of velvet softness when dealing with hurting people and suffering sinners, but hard as steel when it came to truth.
The apostle Paul gives more than advice or a suggestion with his directive in Ephesians 4:15that Christians be “speaking the truth in love.” Any Bible student knows the apostle Paul was anything but soft on the truth. At great personal cost to himself he preached it up and down the first century Roman Empire. He had an iron will when it came to preaching God’s truth. In Galatians 2:5(we don’t have space to get into the context), Paul made this unbending statement about some people who attempted to change the teaching of the gospel: “to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” But before that book ends, we hear the apostle calling for tenderness between Christians — “… through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:13b-15)!” Let every Christian take notice — God wants a church characterized by velvet and steel. Velvet when it comes to dealing with people and their problems and sins. But a will of steel when it comes to holding fast to the truth of the gospel.