Why reading Christian biography is good for the soul

I had a really effective (and fun) history teacher in seventh grade.  Her students did so well that observers from the school district and other educators came into her class to find out what made her so effective.

By the time I reached seminary, all those fun days in history forgotten and replaced by prototypical history professors and courses.  And seminary did nothing to change my impression of history.  My professor was dry, bored, and boring.  And his textbook was worse.  So after graduation,I relegated my church history texts to the bottom shelf and I wanted nothing to do with any historical or even biographical book.

But over the past years, I have increasingly gravitated to old works.  I have particularly benefited from reading the Puritans.  And as I have read them, I also began picking up some different histories and biographies.  And like Mikey, I liked it!  Now I rarely visit a book store that I don’t include a stop at the church history section where I look for new authors and new biographies.

So why have I developed an appreciation for history and biography?  Here are a few reasons:

  • Biography allows me to see how other believers have applied and lived biblical Christianity well.  The older I get, the fewer contemporary examples there are to guide me through the labyrinths of life.  History and biography encourage me with real-life illustrations godly living.  Others have wrestled with life issues and experienced the sufficiency of Scripture to guide them.  Biography reminds me that like Elijah and his 7000 prophets, I am not alone in my quest to follow hard after God.
  • Biography demonstrates that failure is not final.  All men sin and fail and fall and God still redeems sin and uses redeemed sinners to accomplish His purposes.  There are other Jonahs and Peters and Marks — and God used them and He might use me similarly.
  • Biography illustrates that God uses people of differing gifts and maturity to accomplish His purposes.  Not all his successful servants were the same.  Moses and Paul didn’t talk well, though they were dynamic leaders.  Peter talked well, though he was somewhat impetuous.  Jeremiah and Elijah were prone to depression and discouragement.  Job was alone in his trek (or at least he probably wished he was alone!).  The lesson from Scripture and history is that not all godly people are the same.  They have differing personalities and abilities, but they have the same God who sovereignly uses them to accomplish His purposes.
  • There is “fellowship” to be had with dead saints.  J. I. Packer said it well when he wrote, “Learning from the heroes of the Christian past is…an important dimension of…edifying fellowship for which the proper name is the communion of saints.  The great Puritans, though dead, still speak to us through their writings, and say things to us that we badly need to hear at this present time.”  We learn from the dead heroes of our faith.

So go to your book shelf, pick out a good biblical biography or history and learn from a dead believer what it means to live like Christ.

[Or, if you don’t have such a book on your bookshelf, pick up a copy of this month’s GBC book of the month, The Roots of Endurance:  Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce, to get you started on the journey to learning to love history and biography.]

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