How does it feel when someone says you can’t do something? Perhaps a parent has said you couldn’t succeed at learning how to play a musical instrument. Maybe it was a friend telling you that you weren’t good at playing ball. Or it might have been a spouse discouraging you from pursuing a cherished personal or professional goal.
When we hear “you can’t,” it can dishearten us. It can cause us to stop trying. Or it can actually motivate us, arousing a sense of determination to prove the person wrong. Sometimes, however, being told what we cannot do gives us a clearer understanding of what we can do – and what we should be doing.
Case in point: A series of 10 “cannot” statements widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln, although Snopes.com reports they actually were penned by the Rev. William John Henry Boetcker, a minister and noted public speaker, in the early 1900s. Regardless of the actual source, each of these observations is very insightful.
|These wrongly attributed|
statements still merit attention.
Consider the first one: “You cannot bring prosperity by discouraging thrift.” In other words, you won’t prosper long-term by practicing irresponsible and wasteful spending. What a revolutionary concept! Even if President Lincoln never voiced such a thought, it should be inscribed on public buildings in Washington, D.C., and be required reading for every elected official.
The other nine “cannots” are equally challenging and worthy of consideration:
- “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
- You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
- You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
- You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
- You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
- You cannot further brotherhood of men by inciting class hatred.
- You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.
- You cannot build character and courage by destroying men’s initiative and independence.
- You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.”
These certainly run counter to much of today’s thinking, but nevertheless they seem to be common sense. Interestingly, the Bible presents its own collection of “cannots.” I’m not referring to the “shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, although they make good sense, too – something that’s increasingly uncommon, unfortunately.
For instance, Jesus told His followers, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Despite the posturing of outspoken proponents of prosperity theology, we can’t serve and worship God, giving Him top priority and our full attention, while worrying about acquiring and keeping more and more stuff. Surprisingly enough, each session of the U.S. Senate opens with prayer, but they definitely don’t do that on Wall Street.
In the Old Testament, Joshua expressed the same sentiments after he had led the Israelites into the Promised Land – the land of milk and honey. He declared, “if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). He was saying we cannot serve the true God and pursue other idols as well, whatever they may be.
Later in His so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). A tree can be judged by its fruit, and He was advising His followers to be discerning about whom they listen to, that they should be wary of being deceived by slick-talking “false prophets.”
Jesus also made the starting statement that, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
He wasn’t advocating the breakup of families, but was asserting that to truly follow Him meant putting everything else in second place, no matter what. It wasn’t coincidental that not long afterward, many of the curiosity seekers that had surrounded Him stopped following, choosing to go their own way.
And when apostles Peter and John were confronted by the religious leaders and commanded to stop speaking about Jesus, they replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).