When should we show tenderness and bigheartedness—the "velvet" qualities? And when should we be like steel—firm and resolute?
As author Aubrey Andelin noted in his book Man of Steel and Velvet , only one human being ever fully modeled the best aspects of firm determination and gentle caring, though a few others have set admirable examples: "Christ stands alone. None can be compared to Him. However, in a modest way other great men have left a mark that will not be forgotten. Such is Abraham Lincoln, who was described by [his biographer] Carl Sandburg as possessing qualities of steel and velvet . . .
"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 . . . And the incomparable Abraham Lincoln . . . is an approach if not a perfect realization of this character."
—Carl Sandberg, joint session of Congress marking the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, Feb. 12, 1959, Congressional Record , Vol. 105, p. 2,265.
"Lincoln demonstrated then and now how a person can possess both a will of iron and a heart of tenderness. Nothing deterred the president during the American Civil War from his ‘noble' cause, and few persons have ever endured more criticism and detractors than Lincoln. Yet he was no more a man of steel than one of velvet" (1972, p. 15).
How can we tell when it's the right time to be tender (apply the velvet qualities) versus firm (the steely characteristics)? After all, if the velvet approach is used when the steel would be better, we could end up with a colossal failure on our hands. And we shouldn't confuse an iron will with hardheaded stubbornness.
Part of what made Abraham Lincoln great was his discernment of when to apply steel and when to use velvet. Likewise, true godly character can be defined as doing the right thing at the right time and for the right reason.
Motivational author Steve Groodier wrote: "Another courageous American, Martin Luther King, Jr. some hundred years later [after Lincoln's death], encouraged us to exhibit tough minds and soft hearts . . . not the other way around. Be mentally tough; your resolve and determination will overcome great obstacles along life's path. But let your heart be soft; your compassion and love will make the journey worth it" ("Men of Steel and Velvet," Life Support Systems Newsletter, Dec. 1, 2009, p. 1).
In the Bible God developed men and women of steel and velvet through the tests and trials He let them face. Let's note a few examples.
Abraham—a man of steel and velvet
Throughout his life, the biblical patriarch Abraham showed both steel and velvet in his character.
Consider first his "velvet" side. Abraham and his nephew Lot had difficulties with their livestock grazing together. Since Abraham was the head of the clan, he had the first choice of picking the best land to graze. But Abraham graciously allowed Lot to have first pick of where to live, being happy to settle for second. Lot chose the verdant, well-watered Jordan plain, while Abraham was left with the more arid, mountainous terrain. It was quite a sacrifice for Abraham, but he showed his "velvet" side (see Genesis 13:7-12).
On the other hand, when the occasion arose, Abraham applied his "steely" side. After hearing that a coalition of kings defeated the kings from where Lot settled and had kidnapped him, Abraham took a few hundred of his servants and ambushed the victorious rulers in a daring night raid. Abraham defeated th em, rescued Lot and returned the plunder to the king of Sodom (see Genesis 14:14-15). That took enormous strength of will and courage!
Esther—a woman of steel and velvet
This young lady showed her steel and velvet qualities while facing the greatest test of her life—which included the possible extermination of all her people, the Jews.
The Persian king had removed his former queen and used a "beauty contest" to replace her. Esther showed her velvet attributes by humbly accepting advice from the palace eunuch. She displayed grace and a modest beauty that won the king's heart (Esther 2:15-17). She was then crowned as the new queen of the great Persian Empire.
But Esther's inner steel came to play when the king's right-hand man persuaded him to issue a death sentence against all the Jews in the kingdom (neither knowing that Esther was a Jew).
Persian law held that even the queen couldn't talk with the king unless she was invited. If she presented herself uninvited before the king, she would be immediately executed—unless the king intervened (which seemed unlikely!).
After fasting for three days, Esther courageously went before the king. He did intervene, sparing her life, and asked her what she desired. Esther showed her velvet side again by not revealing her dire situation until it was the right moment.
She invited the king and Haman, the king's chief counselor who was behind the Jewish death sentence, to a private dinner. She built suspense that intrigued and delighted the king. Then she coyly invited them to a second private banquet.
By this time, the king was beside himself to please her, and it was only then that she revealed that she, being a Jew, was going to die because of Haman's plot against her people. The king was filled with rage. Instead of Esther and her people perishing, it was actually Haman and all the enemies of the Jews who were killed (Esther 9:5).
If you want to see a great summary of a woman's steel and velvet qualities—of strength, gentleness, firmness and compassion—read Proverbs 31:10-31.
Ultimate steel and velvet
The perfect example of the man of steel and velvet is Jesus Christ. Notice His velvet qualities: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).
Jesus displayed His steely side when dealing with the greedy money changers at the temple: "Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer," but you have made it a den of thieves'" (Matthew 21:12-13).
There are dozens of men and women of steel and velvet in the Bible—like Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Ruth, David, the prophets, and many men and women of the New Testament. Their examples would make a very good Bible study for young men and women who want to develop these qualities of steel and velvet.
God wants you to, but do you personally want to become a man or women of steel and velvet? I can guarantee that if you choose to pursue this aim, it will be one of the best decisions you'll ever make!