The Dangers and Delights of Reading Christian Biography
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us (Philippians 3:17).
Be imitators of me as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Dr. John Piper chose the above text from Philippians 3:17 when he gave the first ever “Charles Haddon Spurgeon” lecture at the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. I was there to hear the lecture in person. His point was that just as Paul faithfully imitated Christ, and others likewise imitated Paul, so too we ought to continue that long chain of men and women who for generations have trailed after our glorious and Risen Lord.
For seventy minutes I sat in awe listening to one of my favorite living preachers waxing eloquent about one of my favorite dead preachers. This was pure joy to me, because for nearly twenty years I have been consumed with reading the biographies of famous Christians who have gone before me. Curiously and by some divine “coincidence,” I had just read the same biography on Spurgeon from which Piper apparently crafted his manuscript for that electric evening.
I cannot estimate how valuable to my soul these types of biographies have been over the decades, especially as a local church pastor.
During some years, I have chosen one particular man as my focal point and read as much as I possibly could both by and about him. I have especially focused on those from my own theological tradition whose perspective is often close to mine. I went through a Jonathan Edwards phase first, then a year or so in John Calvin, then a Francis Schaeffer period. Spliced in between these times I have grown close to other dead men as well: the Reformers and Puritans always foremost among them.
Strangely, these now-glorified saints have become my “friends.” Sometimes, particularly during seasons of mild depression and apparent ministry defeats, they have become closer to me than my actual friends. Perhaps some others reading these lines will share that strange trans-generational experience.
It is during these dark times that we find one of the most delightful serendipities of reading Christian biographies: we find that the exact same struggles that we have endured are not so terribly unique after all. There is no temptation—either of body or mind—that has not been experienced by another brother come before me. There is no malady of frame or soul that God has not called another believer to trudge through, long before I came along. The ability of previous generations to endure through suffering actually has the strange power of pulling me along through the midst of my own battles.
Too, I find that my unquenchable passion to be in the presence of the Holy One has been shared by a unique breed of men and women in whose footprints I now walk. When I read in 1999 of Hudson Taylor’s passion for the lost souls of China, I found a man who shared—and greatly excelled—the angst I felt for those who don’t know Jesus. Like him, I felt willing to cross land and sea to share the Gospel with even one unreached individual. Hudson Taylor lived and died for the lost!
When I visited A.W. Tozer’s grave in Akron not far from where I grew up, and just a stone’s throw from my in-law’s home, I felt that I shared the same longing to delight in God’s presence as the man whose several books I had lately enjoyed.
Who would not be moved by the accounts of Edwards’ fiery preaching in the Great Awakening, or be taken up in the Luther’s joyous fear of declaring “Here I stand!” at the Diet of Worms? How could I avoid Calvin’s tender pastoral spirit “rubbing off” on me as he wrote tearful letters to men soon to be martyred for the faith in Reformation-era France? How could I not be stirred within when I read one of Spurgeon’s echoing sermons, still just as alive today as the day his voice dominated the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London? How could I not savor my English Bible more when I learned of all that William Tyndale endured to smuggle New Testaments into England in bales of hay? I wept at 1:00am when I read of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s martyrdom just weeks before the Second World War ended in a Flossenberg prison camp.
But here is where I find the great danger: the more I try to be like these men, hoping to see the shape of my own life in their ever-lengthening shadows, the more I know I can never measure up.
I find that my very pursuit of “imitation” can be my greatest frustration. Have you ever tried to photocopy another photocopy before? The more generations away from the original we get, the worse the quality of the print becomes. In the same way, some of the biographies that we read tend to make the error of “hagiography,” they no longer produce accurate representations of the man and instead make them into saints: halo, wings, and all.
I must become content—even pleased, if I can be so bold—with the person God has made me to be.
“Hagiography” (literally: saint writings) is the spurious genre of trying to make another man into a complete saint. In the biography of Spurgeon I mentioned above, for instance, the author studiously avoided almost any critique of the man himself. In an almost forced confession to create the veneer of “objectivity,” the author finally admitted that Spurgeon (gasp!) smoked cigars! That was the only fault he could find!
And so as a reader, I am nearly driven to despair. Reading the account of a hero whose ministry only grew—all the time—made me wonder if there wasn’t something seriously wrong with me. My own ministry wasn’t growing at all. By the time we get more than a hundred years away from an historical figure, the more perfect his biographers seem to cast him. His weaknesses are glossed over, especially those which his wife and children probably knew best.
Yes Calvin and Luther et. al. were geniuses in their times and greatly used of God in their unique age. But if I try to replicate the extraordinary acts of these men and women, I will find myself increasingly frustrated. These men, after all, were extraordinary, not because they were miniature “christs” themselves, but because God in His mercy saw fit to use them extraordinarily.
It is simply not fair to compare ourselves with the all-time “greats,” or to expect that the unusual outpourings of God’s Holy Spirit ought to become usual in our day.
Yes, there are times when God’s Kingdom advances in very marked ways. The wheat grows quickly after the thunderstorms, but it also grows during more temperate weather as well. Even if more slowly. God is glorified as much by the ordinary, trudging, faithful ox in the field as He is by the brilliant lightning bolts that lead the storm.
To expect to have the computer-like mind of a John Calvin or the preaching unction of a Charles Spurgeon, or the audacity of Martin Luther is simply not a fair. True, we will continue to hope and pray for God to raise up such men that can shake our own generation out of its complacency, but to expect every faithful man and woman to change the world alone is not realistic.
More realistic (and more Biblical) is to expect God to smack the world out of its lethargy by a thousand thousands of ordinary, unknown, average believers who are sincerely pursing the glory of Christ in their own day and generation.
God grant us to be among their number. Amen.
The preceding essay is from Matthew Everhard's forthcoming book, Unknown: the World-Changing Power of Ordinary Christians. Matthew is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.