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.”
“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 Genesis 13:7-12 7 And there was a strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle: and the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land.
8 And Abram said to Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray you, between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we be brothers.
9 Is not the whole land before you? separate yourself, I pray you, from me: if you will take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.
10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as you come to Zoar.
11 Then Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: and they separated themselves the one from the other.
12 Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom.
American King James Version×).
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 Genesis 14:14-15 14 And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them to Dan.
15 And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them to Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus.
American King James Version×). 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 Esther 2:15-17 15 Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her for his daughter, was come to go in to the king, she required nothing but what Hegai the king’s chamberlain, the keeper of the women, appointed. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all them that looked on her.
16 So Esther was taken to king Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.
17 And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown on her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.
American King James Version×). 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 Esther 9:5Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would to those that hated them.
American King James Version×).
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 Proverbs 31:10-31 10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool, and flax, and works willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she brings her food from afar.
15 She rises also while it is yet night, and gives meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considers a field, and buys it: with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is good: her candle goes not out by night.
19 She lays her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretches out her hand to the poor; yes, she reaches forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
22 She makes herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes fine linen, and sells it; and delivers girdles to the merchant.
25 Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.
29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but you excel them all.
30 Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
American King James Version×.
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 Matthew 11:28-30 28 Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke on you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
American King James Version×).
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 Matthew 21:12-13 12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
13 And said to them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.
American King James Version×).
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!