Have you ever discovered something negative about someone you admired? How did you react? I went through a time when I was skeptical about people: what are they like in real-life, when nobody is around? I tended to assume that because I was disappointed by certain people, that everyone would disappoint me sooner or later. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether encouraging our children to have heroes causes more harm than good. That kind of cynicism isn’t a good place to stay, I’ve discovered! Looking back at the Bible helps me to gain perspective and reset my thinking.
Let’s look at some verses in the Bible that will shape this discussion for us.
First of all, it’s a given that the Christian life is about following the perfect hero, Jesus Christ. We can (and should!) study his life and learn from it! That means that Christians should be especially familiar with the gospels, and should regularly ask themselves, “How can I imitate Christ’s example here?” He will never abandon us. He is the perfect good shepherd.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. Matthew 16:24
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. John 10:27
Second, there is a Bible precedent for learning from the examples of real life men and women. Paul repeatedly tells his students to follow his example. “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” 1 Corinthians 4:16 (Also, Philippians 3:17, Philippians 4:9, 2 Thessalonians 1:6, 2 Thessalonians 3:9)
Peter also reminds elders that an important way to shepherd a flock is by example. (…nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 1 Peter 5:3) Likewise, as a mom, I need to remind myself that I’m teaching a whole lot by my example. (Am I talking about welcoming refugees without actually doing anything to welcome refugees? Am I showing my children the fruit of the spirit that I want to see in their lives?)
If you’re like me, you’re acutely aware that you’re not always a good example. And Paul, obviously a normal human, isn’t telling Christians to follow him in every way. (For example, he specifically acknowledges that not every Christian will want to remain celibate; and clearly he would want us to use discernment and not imitate him if he were being selfish or prideful or despondent.)
In fact, the Bible also tells us that we can learn from negative examples! Read the following passage, and look for specific lessons Paul shows we can learn from bad examples.
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.“ 8 Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; 9 nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. 1 Corinthians 10
We should not be afraid to ask about what we can learn from these real-life examples. Yes, Bible stories tell us something about God, but it’s not unspiritual to ask children “what can we learn from this Bible story?”
Finally, the Bible treats some people like heroes in spite of some pretty big flaws. Hebrews 11 surprises me (I never thought of Samson as a particularly inspiring hero), but it’s a good reminder that I can admire a person without admiring everything about them!
Because of how the Bible treats real-life heroes, we can draw some tentative principles as we consider how we approach contemporary heroes (living people we know personally or know from their writings or teachings). What principles would you consider?
P.S. If you like using fiction to teach, you might consider The Path of the Pale Horse by Paul Fleischman to read aloud and discuss with your preteens or teens. What happens when honorable heroes disappoint us is an important theme in the book. My short review on library thing.