When I was young, I read a lot of Christian biographies. I liked their stories, and found them challenging and inspiring. I also had this idea that the reason I was supposed to read biographies was to aspire to be a hero. Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God. Start an orphanage or tell nobody about my spiritual needs and expect that God would supply them anyway.
Occasionally, I would read a Christian biography of someone who seemed to be a hero, but had some problem or doctrinal error. I stayed away from those biographies. I thought, If a person isn’t a hero, then there’s no reason to read the biography. Throw those books out!
Then I became a mother. When my own children grew old enough to read, I had a desire to give them good books of men and women that were good role models. They NEEDED good role models. That’s because I could see all their faults and predict how messed up their lives would be if I couldn’t fix everything quick. Another thing, for some reason, they imitated all my faults instead of all my good points. I could tell we were in REAL trouble if we couldn’t get some better examples for them to study at our house.
I re-read the biographies of Christians that challenged me when I was young, and I started to question some of my assumptions about why I was reading biographies in the first place. I noticed that my reasons for reading these biographies have changed, and my understanding of people has changed. I’ve been particularly interested in the people (Christians and non-Christians alike) who have shaped our world. Many that I had once considered Heroes turned out to be people I would not want my children to be like at all. Some of the very things we admire, that enable people to do great things, come at a great cost. (For example, early missionaries who essentially abandoned their family and found fruitful ministry overseas, or creative geniuses who accomplished great things while destroying all but a few personal relationships.)
Another way that I’m reconsidering biography reading is the understanding that Christian biographers sometimes omit controversy or less attractive parts of their subjects, and unintentionally present an unrealistic portrait of Christian growth and godliness. Thinking back, I can see how some of those biographies I read left me more dissatisfied with my own weaknesses and struggles, wishing for something big to do for God, and idolizing the “giants” of the faith who I didn’t realize were normal, godly people. If I’m going to admire a person, it’s better to do so, knowing the whole person and not just a carefully curated collection of anecdotes. I do not want my children to unwittingly hold themselves to an unrealistic and extrabiblical standard. I especially want them to know that the Christian life is one of uneven progress, of immaturity, of failure and repentance, and so on.
I want them to value the long-term and simple faithfulness of God’s people in small acts of obedience that aren’t portrayed well in biographies. It would be far too boring to read about the Christian who chose to love her spouse by giving him the last ice-cream bar, or who went to church one Sunday, even though she felt like being an introspective hermit instead. Or to read the hourly internal prayer conversation of a Christian in dire circumstances, that leaves him exhausted every evening. The daily work of teaching a toddler to share is tedious, not something to explain step by step. Perhaps the best biographies can convey this kind of patient and boring faithfulness, but it is not common.
I’ve stopped thinking about biographies as pure models and more about understanding people and how God works through them however and whoever they are. We can take our cue from the Bible, a revelation of God and his works in the lives of his people. Yes, we are told to study the lives of people who have gone before us. God gave their stories to us for our good. We have figured out how to be gospel centered in our theology, but have we figured out how to be gospel centered in how we admire people? I suggest it is possible to have heroes who increase our confidence in God, not who simply give us more heroes for us to try to emulate.
The heroes of the Bible sometimes had mixed legacies. Reading Hebrews 11 reveals some people we wouldn’t have included in the hall of faith. Perhaps it would be better to frame our admiration of traits that God used in spite of human weaknesses. We can help fill in the blanks when Christian biographies leave out context, and we can refrain from blindly following the examples of our heroes without examining whether these examples would, in fact, be wise for our situation.
Finally, we can encourage our children to see God at work in others’ lives. We can remind them we are told in the Bible not to put our confidence in man. When I was a teenager and experienced crushing disappointment in Christian leaders I respected, my parents with tears encouraged me to put my confidence ultimately in God. He will never fail me, or forsake me. When we put too much confidence in people, we hold them to a higher standard than any person can possibly maintain. People will fail us. God will not. I’ve stopped wanting my children to be the next Hudson Taylor, and instead pray that they would love the Lord with all their hearts, souls, and might. I can encourage them to learn from Hudson Taylor’s biography, but if that encouragement leads them to more confidence in man, and less in God, then I have not done well.
Now I’m curious. How are you sharing with your children what you admire in others and why?
Tomorrow we’ll talk about heroes in real life!
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
And makes flesh his strength,
Whose heart departs from the Lord.
6 For he shall be like a shrub in the desert,
And shall not see when good comes,
But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness,
In a salt land which is not inhabited.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
And whose hope is the Lord.
8 For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters,
Which spreads out its roots by the river,
And will not fear when heat comes;
But its leaf will be green,
And will not be anxious in the year of drought,
Nor will cease from yielding fruit.