Hebrews 11 is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that, if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will "lay aside every weight and sin" and "run with perseverance the race that is set before us." If we asked the author, "How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?" his answer would be: "Through encouragement from the living and the dead." Christian biography is the means by which "body life" cuts across the generations.
Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as C. S. Lewis calls it). It is also theology—the most powerful kind— because it burst forth from the lives of people like us. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.
Biographies have served as much as any other human force in my life to overcome the inertia of mediocrity. Without them, I tend to forget what joy there is in relentless labor and aspiration. Before Jonathan Edwards was 20 years old, he wrote 70 resolutions which for years have fired my work. Number 6 was "to live with all my might, while I do live."
When I came to be pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, I began to hunger for biographies to charge my pastoral batteries and give me guidance and encouragement. Since I believe very much in the pastor-theologian, I recalled not only Edwards but, of course, John Calvin. How Calvin could work! After 1549, his special charge in Geneva was to preach twice on Sunday and once every day of alternate weeks. But what amazes me is that between 1550 and 559 he took 270 weddings. That's one every other week! He also baptized (about once a month), visited the sick, carried on extensive correspondence, and sustained heavy organizational responsibilities. When I look at Calvin and Edwards and their output, it is hard for me to feel self-pity at my few burdens. They inspire me to break out of mediocre plodding.
George Muller, the 19th-century philanthropist who devoted his life to caring for orphans, has for years been a pacesetter for me in prayer. His Autobiography is a veritable orchard of faith-building fruit. In one section he tells us that, after 40 years of trials, "I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord."
For ten years, he explained, he went at this backward. "Formerly, when I rose I began to pray as soon as possible and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer." The result: "Often after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray."
So Muller changed his pattern and made a discovery which sustained him for 40 years. "I began to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning…searching into every verse for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation; yet, it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer."
I have found Muller's way absolutely crucial in my own life: Be with the Lord before I am with anyone else, and let him speak to me first.
Living theology. Flawed and encouraging saints. Stories of grace. Deep inspiration. The best entertainment. Brothers and sisters, it is worth your precious hours. Remember Hebrews II. And read Christian biography.
Adapted from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper (Broadman& Holman, 2002). Used by permission.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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