Christians love their heroes. We always have. Whether it’s Moses, Paul, Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Francis Chan, or Preston Sprinkle (one of my personal favorites)—we love hearing about these heroes of the faith and being challenged by their zeal, knowledge, and unbreakable faith.
I’m not sure how big of a business Christian biography really is, but I’ve gone through a few biography stages in the last decade, and I know many others have as well. There is so much that is good and helpful about examining the lives of the godly men and women who have gone before us, but I don’t think I need to sell any of you on the validity of Christian biographies (If I’m way off on that, by the way, leave a comment and I’ll write a post to that effect). What I want to do here is offer a few cautions about reading biographies.
Don’t forget that even heroes are human. Some biographies are excellent at presenting heroes of the faith realistically. In other words, they present a hero’s weaknesses along with his strengths. This is incredibly healthy. Some biographies read more like hagiographies (writings about saints). They show all of the hero’s strengths and make him seem perfect. St. Francis of Assisi was worthy of imitation in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect. Neither is John Piper. So while we should look up to these great Christians, it is unhelpful and inaccurate to view them as superhuman. Nothing is gained by viewing a historical figure as better than he or she really was.
Don’t read biographies moralistically. There are moral lessons to be learned by reading Christian biographies, but we still shouldn’t approach biographies moralistically. I have often heard the sentiment (whether expressed explicitly or implicitly) that if we could only be as disciplined as Jonathan Edwards, if we could only be as bold as Martin Luther, if we could only be as prayerful as Hudson Taylor, then we would see revival.
Let’s imitate the discipline, boldness, and prayerfulness of such Christians, but we would be foolish to suppose that adopting a few character traits moralistically is going to change anything. True change comes through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Don’t assume that you can discipline yourself into being the next Apostle Paul.
Hebrews 11 is commonly referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” Here the author of Hebrews holds up a number of faithful figures from the Old Testament for our consideration. But we must be careful to notice that it’s not the moral perfection of these men and women that is being praised as worthy of imitation—it’s their faith. Hebrews 11 is a call to faith, it isn’t a call to moral discipline.
Don’t forget that these heroes are dead. Okay, not all of the heroes I listed above are dead. But my point is that these men and women have all been used by God at unique times and in unique settings. You shouldn’t do exactly what St. Francis of Assisi did, because God called him to a specific type of ministry in the midst of a specific historical context. The same is true for all of the others, from Jonathan Edwards to Francis Chan. The value of Christian biography is lost if we merely imitate what our heroes did. Our task is to pursue the same God that our heroes pursued with the same passion and faith with which our heroes pursued him, and then to let the Spirit direct us and empower us for exactly what He wants to do in and through us in our unique historical and cultural setting.