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Mining For Gold: What I’ve Learned from Reading Christian Biographies

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During a class in my final year in seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks said something that jumped out and grabbed me for life. The gist of it was, “You will be leaving here soon. Ten years from now, there will be a great difference between each of you in your personal lives and ministries. Some will have failed miserably. Others will be doing very well. Two factors will have the greatest impact on where you find yourself in ten years: the books you read and the friends you make. Guard them both very carefully!”

I’ve been out of seminary about 15 years now. I got to thinking about what, apart from the Bible, has most influenced my Christian walk and ministry. I concluded that it is reading Christian biographies. The people I have read about have become my friends, even though I won’t meet them personally until I get to heaven. Hendricks was right: the friends I have made through the books I have read have had a profound impact on my life.

It’s a gold mine available to all but mined by few. The pressures of ministry and family life in our fast-lane lives crowd out the time for settling down with the greats of the past. What can they teach me about dealing with difficult church members, raising offerings, and other problems of modern church ministry? Plenty! I’ve found that the mine is rich and worth the effort many times over.

W. Robertson Nicoll, the learned British writer, editor of The Expositor’s Greek New Testament and other works, had 25,000 volumes in his personal library, including 5,000 biographies! He wrote, “I have for years read every biography I could lay my hands on, and not one has failed to teach me something” (cited by Warren Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants [Baker], p. 108). Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who has been called the greatest preacher in the English language in the 20th century (no small compliment!) said, “There is nothing more important for preaching than the reading of Church history and biographies” (Preaching & Preachers [Zondervan], p. 317).

The Bible As Biography

There is biblical warrant for studying the lives of great men and women of faith. The rabbis said that God made people because He loves stories. Much of the Bible--far more than the didactic portions--consists of stories about people. God knows that we learn by example. Seeing how different people succeeded or failed in real life situations helps translate faith into practical insights to guide us through life’s many difficult situations and decisions. Bible stories show us that God saw a need to wrap theology in human flesh--the incarnation of Jesus Christ being the supreme example.

Lessons From Reading Christian Biographies

I began reading Christian biographies in the summer of 1970 when I read George Muller of Bristol by A. T. Pierson. God used that book to show me that I could trust Him and that He is a God who answers prayer. Since then I have read about 50 biographies or books on church history--a bit short of Nicoll’s 5,000--but it’s a start! It is rare that I come away empty. Sometimes the lessons are examples to avoid, but that also can be profitable! Here are four ways that reading Christian biographies has helped me:

Heritage: Christian biographies give me a sense of my place in the Christian drama.

A few years ago, Alex Haley’s Roots touched a nerve in our society--the need to know our family heritage. We live in a rootless society where most of us don’t know our family history much beyond our grandparents. Many are decrying the fact that we are losing our grasp of our nation’s history and that this could lead to the disintegration of our society. The stories of our past are a cultural heritage to pass on to the next generation so that they can appreciate the sacrifices made and the lessons learned to forge and preserve our common values in our journey as a nation to this point.

Reading Christian biographies has helped me appreciate my spiritual roots. It helps me put our times and my particular circumstances in perspective. It makes me realize that I am carrying the torch handed to me by those who went before, and that I must hand it off intact to those who come after me.

For example, we live in a culture that values tolerance and open-mindedness. Many pastors have capitulated and tiptoe around difficult doctrines like church discipline, divorce, or hell. Reading the lives of Luther and Calvin and how they stood fearlessly against the establishment of their day gives me courage to take a stand on the truths that really matter.

I’m not deluded into thinking that my convictions and choices will influence history as the reformers did. But I do believe that taking a stand on the common issues of everyday ministry in my small corner of the vineyard matters in shaping God’s kingdom in our day.

One small example: About five years ago, I had a sudden rash of disgruntled marriage partners come to me, independently of one another, informing me that they were going to divorce their mates. When I inquired why, I discovered that in each case the unhappy mate had read a popular book by a well-known Christian psychologist which encouraged them to issue an ultimatum in an attempt to bring their partners to repentance.

Some of the cases involved sexual immorality, but one case involved an alcoholic husband. But in my judgment, none of the situations were beyond hope if the partners were willing to forgive and live in a godly manner with their sinning mates (in accordance with 1 Peter 3:1-12). My understanding of the biblical grounds for divorce does not include alcoholism as a legitimate cause.

The woman whose husband had the drinking problem had come to see me with two of our elders’ wives who had been giving her counsel and who had recommended the approach of this book. When I explained (gently, I thought) that if she wanted to obey the Lord, she could not leave her husband, one of the women exploded at me because of my “insensitivity” for “coldly applying the Bible” to this hurting woman. I calmly, but firmly, held my ground, explaining that counseling someone to obey God’s truth is always the most compassionate approach, even though it may be the most difficult.

The wife of the alcoholic followed my counsel and dealt with her own sin in the marriage. Her husband eventually faced his problem and stopped drinking. She recently thanked me profusely for holding my ground under fire that day, saying that she and her husband would not be together today if I had caved in to the pressure.

As far as I know, even the marriages where there was sexual infidelity are still together today because I counseled the wronged partners with the need for forgiveness and commitment to their marriages in spite of their mates’ sin. My commitment to hold to the Word in the face of strong cultural currents to the contrary, has preserved several families from destruction.

I realize it’s not on a par with Luther at the Diet of Worms, but it helps me to stand firm when I feel pressured to compromise to know that I am linked in an unbroken chain of faithful witnesses who have held to God’s unchanging truth before me.

Modeling: Christian biographies give me great examples to follow.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was asked what is the best way to raise children. The learned doctor replied, “There are three ways: 1) By example, 2) By example, and 3) By example.” He was right. God has made us so that from our earliest days, we learn from models. We pick up attitudes and actions by watching how our parents and other significant people around us live.

The same is true spiritually. We learn by watching models who “flesh out” Christian principles in their daily lives. When I was younger in the faith, I wanted someone to disciple me. I tried several different men, but it never seemed to work out the way I had hoped. But in a very real sense, I have been discipled by some of the greatest Christians who have ever lived, by reading their biographies. Here are some who have helped me most:

Three of my most influential models have been Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards. Lloyd-Jones is from the 20th century, Spurgeon from the 19th, and Edwards from the 18th. All three were pastors and strong preachers. Their ministries affirm the power of biblical preaching backed by godly lives.

I have always admired men who can combine solid biblical scholarship with practical, down-to-earth preaching. These pastors had that gift. Each drank deeply from the Reformers and Puritans. But their theological depth was combined with a vibrant, practical love for God. Through their deep study of the Scriptures, they knew God and they knew the hearts of people. They were able to bridge that gap with powerful preaching.

Each man had a passion to see lost people coming to faith in the Savior. They each faced times in which many pastors were turning aside from the simple gospel message. There was pressure on them to soften their belief in the depravity of the human race and in the necessity of saving faith in Jesus Christ. But they held the line.

Each was involved in painful controversies which took an emotional toll on them. Edwards was removed from his pastorate and he and his family (ten children at that time) nearly starved, because he came to hold that communicants must give evidence of salvation. Many attribute Spurgeon’s final decline in health to his grief over the famous “Downgrade Controversy.” Lloyd-Jones paid a price by standing alone against what he saw to be the encroachment of liberalism into British evangelicalism.

Reading the lives of these men has motivated me to deepen my theological roots. They have shown me the shallowness of my love for Christ and the need to walk in daily reality with Him. I’ve been strengthened to take a stand on the theological issues that really matter, rather than go with the tolerant mood of our day.. I have worked harder to base my preaching on solid biblical scholarship, rather than the latest pop psychology, but to communicate it in a way that connects with the average person. They’ve shown me that in whatever century, the simple gospel is still the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

Although Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon, and Edwards are my favorites, I have many more models. Francis Schaeffer has reinforced the need to blend compassion with truth, scholarship with evangelism, and orthodoxy with spiritual reality. His model of strong family life in the midst of fishbowl living has been of great help.

George Muller impresses me with the practicality of a life of prayer and faith. Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, and Bruce Olson all give me examples of men who bucked the Christian establishment and endured hardships to further God’s work in difficult areas.

Adoniram Judson has shown me a model of endurance and faithfulness through horrible trials and discouragements. Judson served 33 years without a furlough, often working 12-hour days. It took him 14 years of disciplined translation work after his first wife’s death (not counting the many years with her at his side) before he sent the completed Burmese Bible to the printer. He endured a horrible two-year imprisonment and torture, after which he lost his wife and baby daughter and went through a time of severe depression. He later lost another wife.

Thinking about Judson helps me put in perspective the lumps and bruises I endure in pastoral ministry! Maybe I don’t have it so bad. If Judson endured all that, I can survive a rough board meeting!

Spirituality And Doctrine: Christian biographies give me theological perspective and balance.

We are all limited by the fact that we are creatures of our time and culture. We tend to view issues from the grid we almost subconsciously absorb from the theological and social climate in which we come to Christ and begin to grow. It’s as if we’re born in the forest and start walking, not quite sure where all the various trails come from or lead to. Reading Christian biographies is like climbing a high mountain so that you can get a feel for the lay of the land.

Reading biographies of men and women who grew up in different times under different cultural influences, broadens me. To read of Anglicans, Lutherans, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others who loved and served the same Lord widens my understanding of what God is doing. It makes me more catholic (in the sense of “universal”), less sectarian, less consumed with petty issues and narrow viewpoints.

It also gives me perspective on how the Christianity of our day has drifted. For example, take the matter of observing the Lord’s Day. In our day, especially in laid-back California, most Christians view Sunday the same as any other day, except that you go to church if you’re not doing something else. But after church, it’s a day to do whatever you please: Wash your car, work in your yard, go shopping, play soccer, watch TV sports, or whatever. And, if you decide to take the weekend off to go camping or to go to Disneyland on Sunday, it’s no big deal. We’ve lost any concept of Sunday as the Lord’s Day.

I was reading the life of Hudson Taylor and was shocked to learn that his wife, Maria, who was desperately trying to get home to be with a sick child, would not travel on “the sabbath” (Sunday). She would get off the riverboat and wait to catch another boat on Monday, rather than travel on that day. I’ve discovered that if I had lived in colonial America and behaved the way I do now, I would have spent time in jail, my arms and feet locked into the stocks in public humiliation. Why? Because I have traveled on Sunday. It just wasn’t done by respectable people!

C. H. Mackintosh, a popular Plymouth Brethren devotional writer of the last century, wrote, “The idea of any one, calling himself a Christian, making the Lord’s day a season of what is popularly called recreation, unnecessary traveling, personal convenience, or profit in temporal things, is perfectly shocking.” (Miscellaneous Writings [Loizeaux Brothers] Vol. 3, “A Scriptural Inquiry as to the Sabbath, the Law, and Christian Ministry,” p. 6.)

I’m not saying I endorse these views. My point is that by reading about these people from the past, I’ve learned that “we’ve come a long way, baby!” There’s a fair chance that we are out of balance. That drives me back to the Scriptures to seek God’s mind on the matter.

You gain the same kind of perspective on other social issues. For example, what did Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Robertson Nicoll, G. Campbell Morgan, C. S. Lewis, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones all have in common? They smoked, some of them as pastors! In most American Christian circles, that’s enough to brand you as unspiritual, if not to question your salvation. And yet Spurgeon would be aghast that Christians watch TV and go to the movies. He disapproved of attending stage plays and reading secular novels. Such “worldliness” was unthinkable in his day!

In Jonathan Edwards’ colonial America, there was an uproar because the young people of the town got together in groups of “both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics.” As far as I can tell, these weren’t sexual orgies, but just parties consisting of unchurched young men and women together! Again, “we’ve come a long way, baby!”

Take another contemporary issue of a more serious nature: the debate over “Lordship salvation,” which concerns the nature of saving faith. Must a person believe in Jesus as Lord, meaning submission to Him, in order to be saved? Or, is faith equal to mental assent to the facts of the gospel? Or, is saving faith somewhere between these extremes? By reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ The Puritans I discovered that the same questions were debated about 200 years ago (“Sandemanianism,” pp. 170-190). There is nothing new under the sun.

So reading Christian biographies and church history has taken me up the mountain for a clearer view of my own and others’ theological perspective. This has helped me sort through which issues are crucial and worth fighting for and which issues are more cultural, where I need to be more tolerant.

Humanity: Christian biographies give me an understanding of people and of myself.

I’ve discovered that there are two types of Christian biographies. Many of the older works fall into what I would call the “eulogy” genre. They approach the subject as we deal with the deceased at funerals: They emphasize his good points and overlook his faults. But more recent biographers tend to take a more honest look at their subjects, exposing warts and all.

If you uncritically read biographies of the “eulogy” genre, you can get pretty depressed, thinking, “That guy almost walked on water. I’ll never attain the high level of spirituality he had.” But if you read more honest biographies (and read between the lines of the eulogy-type), you discover that God has used some very rough instruments. You find that the great strengths of some of the giants were also the flip side of great weaknesses and blind spots. Men and women who were unswerving in their commitment to Christ were sometimes stubborn and ran roughshod over people. And yet God used them greatly!

This is not to excuse their problems and sins, nor to excuse my own. But, like many pastors, I am a perfectionist. I tend to be very hard on myself. When I read of others who did great things for God, it helps me to realize that they weren’t perfect. Far from it!

Some of the greats, such as John Wesley and William Carey, had difficult marriages. Carey’s wife didn’t want to go to the mission field, and when she finally got there (due to her husband’s pressure), she went insane. Jonathan Edwards had trouble relating to people socially and tended to stay holed up in his study. I wonder if he would have weathered the theological controversy which cost him his pastorate if he had been warmer relationally.

David Livingstone was a loner who had numerous conflicts with fellow workers. He packed a revolver and sometimes brandished it in the face of belligerent African chiefs. He essentially abandoned his wife and children, who suffered greatly without him. Yet God used Livingstone to open Africa to the gospel!

One of the most tragic stories is that of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision. It is told by his daughter, Marilee Pierce Dunker, in Days of Glory, Seasons of Night (first published under the title, Man of Vision, Woman of Prayer). Bob Pierce loved the world but couldn’t relate to his own family. He preached the gospel to huge crowds in the Far East and saw thousands respond. He founded World Vision to help the many hurting children he encountered.

Yet his oldest daughter committed suicide. He and his wife were separated at several points in their marriage, apart from the numerous separations due to his incredible travel schedule--he was gone an average of ten months each year! He never tamed his explosive temper, and eventually World Vision fired him. Yet he loved and served the Lord to the end of his life.

Ruth Tucker’s excellent From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], a biographical history of the missions movement, lays bare the human side of some of the giants. Many great missionaries sacrificed their families for the cause. Some were unable to relate well to people, including their own mates and children.

C. T. Studd, famous for the quote, “If Christ be God and died for me, no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him,” left his wife in poor health and went to Africa, returning to see her only once in the final 16 years of her life. He worked 18-hour days and expected everyone else to do likewise. His intense dedication to the cause of Christ made him intolerant of anyone who wasn’t equally committed. He alienated everyone around him, including his daughter and son-in-law, and was finally dismissed by the mission he had founded.

My point is not to take pot shots at these servants of the Lord nor, by justifying their sin, to excuse my own. But seeing their shortcomings and failures helps me accept imperfect people, including myself. It helps me remember that there never has been a perfect church, so mine probably won’t be. The saints who are extolled as attaining such a high level of spirituality struggled with many of the same problems I do.

And yet God did some significant things with these imperfect men and women. Thousands of lives have been changed. In some cases, the history of nations and of western civilization has been altered through these godly, yet very human, instruments. Maybe there’s hope that God can use even me!

Conclusion

Phillips Brooks wrote, “A biography is, indeed, a book; but far more than a book, it is a man.... Never lay the biography down until the man is a living, breathing, acting person to you.” (Cited by Warren Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants [Baker], p. 13).

Many of the greats from the past have become my living, breathing, mentors and friends as I’ve read their biographies. They have given me a sense of the heritage I have in Christ. They have provided me with models to live by. They have given me theological and spiritual perspective to navigate the tricky waters of our times. They have helped me understand others and myself, as imperfect human beings called to serve the perfect Savior. The gold is there for the mining. Happy prospecting!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Library and Resources, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Testimony & Biography