Of all the books I read I often feel that the biographies are most helpful to my Christian walk. I developed an early love of the genre from my mother who taught me the importance of reading about and understanding the lives of the great saints of the past, that we might be able to learn from their example. As a child I remember reading biographies of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Eric Liddell and many dedicated but relatively unknown missionaries. I have little doubt that the lives of such people did much to shape my growing faith and I am forever indebted to them.
I was thinking recently about the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, that “hall of fame” of great men and women of the faith. The author writes about many Old Testament figures–Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and others. He seeks to encourage the readers of the epistle to be confident in the certainty of what God has promised but not yet actually given. He encourages his readers to learn perseverance from the examples of these saints. Having done that, he begins chapter twelve with these words: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” He paints a picture of the Christian as a runner. He is in a stadium surrounded by multitudes of people cheering him on as he runs a race. These people who are cheering him have already run and successfully completed this same race. They shout encouragement to those who are still running and encourage them if and when they stumble.
We live almost two thousand years after this epistle was penned. How much greater a cloud of witnesses surrounds us as we run the race that is set before us? Those who have finished the race already, and whose lives have been memorialized in print, now also cheer us on. Of course they do not do so directly. The Bible does not tell us that men and women who have already run their race and won the prize are able to see back down to earth and literally cheer us on. I suspect that is the very last thing these people would want to do, having already “‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage” (to borrow a phrase from Ben Jonson). But it is their example, written and preserved for us, that cheers us on. We receive encouragement from their example.
I think of Eric Liddell, whom you know from the movie Chariots of Fire. Here is a man who bucked every trend. He was a competitor and a world-class runner. But prior to running a race he would go down the line and shake hands with each man he was about to run against. He would lend his trowel to any of the other runners who needed a better foot-hold, that they might run a better race. He ran with his arms flailing and his face pointed to the sky. When asked how he was able to see the finish line, while running in this unorthodox way, he simply replied, “The Lord guides me.”
As you well know, from a story that seems to have lost far too much of its meaning in being told and retold, Liddell gladly gave up what was almost a sure gold medal because he refused to violate his conscience by running a race on the Lord’s Day. Instead of running on Sunday, he preached in a local church. A few days later he ran the 400 meter race, a race he was not expected to win, but he broke the world record and came away with a gold medal. But then, at the height of his fame, he left his racing career behind and went to China to work as a missionary. In 1943 he was forced into a Japanese internment camp where he became sick and died. His final words were, “It’s complete surrender.”
Now here is a man from whom we can learn so much. As a great saint of days past, he stands in the stadium, watching you and watching me as we run for the prize. The second half of Hebrews 12:1 admonishes the believer to, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” The author refers to burdens and hindrances that hinder our faith. In ancient times, races were run naked so that cloaks and tunics would not interfere with the runners. But there is more to laying aside burdens than this. Runners would also train diligently, so no fat or weakness could prohibit them from doing their absolute best.
And this is where we best learn from these great men and women who have gone before us. We learn from them what it means to lay aside every weight and sin. We learn what it means to run with endurance. We learn what it means to shed spiritual fatness and weakness. From Eric Liddell we can learn the inestimable value of not violating one’s conscience. We can learn the importance of complete surrender. We can learn how to better run the race.
A few years ago I briefly corresponded with Noel Piper, author of Faithful Women & their Extraordinary God–a wonderful little book that shares short biographies of faithful Christian women. In it she wrote, “God is good to give us faithful ‘leaders in our faith’ to be mentors. I think that’s why there are so many stories in the Bible about people. God could have give us straight teaching, but he knew how much personal stories help us understand him.” And indeed, God is good to bless us in this way. At the end of my review of Piper’s book I wrote, “As I came to understand these women, I came to understand God just a little bit better. And if that is the ultimate purpose of any Christian biography, which I believe it ought to be, Noel Piper has done well with Faithful Women & Their Extraordinary God.” God teaches us through what he has taught others. He teaches us through lives that display the Christlikeness that you and I so desire.
When I read biographies, be it of Abraham or Moses in the Bible, or Eric Liddell, Charles Spurgeon or Jonathan Edwards, I am encouraged to “keep on keeping on.” I feel as if these great saints surround me, encouraging me with their example, shouting to me when I stumble, and above all, teaching me how to lay aside every weight and every sin, that I might run the race most effectively. And so I try to read biographies. I often read them slowly, even over several months. I read them closely, trying to understand the underlying faith that made these simple saints into great warriors. And I read them expectantly, trusting that God will bless me through this great cloud of witnesses. I am thankful that he saw fit to teach us about himself in this way.