"The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." – Genesis 17:8
At the end of last year I started writing this post but never finished it. It’s remained in my drafts folder since then. When I found it today, I thought it was worth finishing and posting. The Church has traditionally been a reading and writing people. She desperately needs to remain so. Here are three reasons why every Christian should regularly read biographies (both Christian and non-Christian).
The Benefits of Reading Christian Biographies
Over the past couple of years, I’ve read several biographies as well as a few books that briefly looked at a few dozen lives. I entered into the lives of people as varied as Plato, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Hudson Taylor. I watched as men and women faced incredible difficulties both with and without God. And I was reminded of why I love biographies (especially Christian biographies): they remind us of our place in God’s story, they encourage our faith, and they teach us how to deal with current problems I face.
1. Reading biographies reminds us that we’re only part of God’s Story.
It’s easy for us to get tunnel vision as Christians. We too often fall into the rut of seeing everything through the lens of one local church and forget that God’s Church is catholic (with a lowercase ‘c’). One of the things that has always stuck out to me when reading the Revelation is the universal nature of God’s church. Listen to John describe her at worship: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'” (Revelation 7:9-10).
Every nation, tribe, people, and tongue is represented in the heavenly worship service. As we read biographies, we’re reminded that God is bigger than ‘The First Whatever Church of Wherever.’ In those pages, we get a glimpse of God’s work in places like Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. This kind of reading helps us to put our problems in perspective and they keep us humble by reminding us that we are not the church all alone. Our brothers and sisters in Christ extend all over the world and throughout time. This story is God’s story. We’re just blessed to play a bit part now and again.
2. Reading biographies encourages us to have greater faith in God’s power.
Several years ago I read the autobiography of George Muller and was struck not only by Muller’s faith but also by God’s response to that faith. Listen to the confidence that Muller places in God’s ability to provide: “But while the prospect before me would have been overwhelming had I looked at it naturally, I was never even for once permitted to question how it would end. For as from the beginning I was sure it was the will of God that I should go to the work of building for Him this large Orphan Home, so also from the beginning I was as certain that the whole would be finished as if the Home had been already filled.”
And Muller’s prayers were answered. In fact, the work that began with Muller is still going on today. It’s amazing (even though it shouldn’t be if we recognize who God is) to think that the faithful prayers of one man two hundred years ago could still be in the process of being answered today. And yet they are. This is the kind of history that encourages us to believe in God’s power with an ever growing intensity and faith. Reading these kind of biographies can act like fertilizer for spiritual growth.
3. Reading biographies can teach us how to deal with current problems.
Earlier this year I read short biographies of Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna along with some of their writings. One of the things that I noted in that post was how Ignatius faced persecution. He saw every trial and painful experience as an opportunity to join himself to Christ. It reminds me of Paul’s reference to the “fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). I hadn’t thought much about suffering as a form of discipleship until I read Ignatius’ biography.
When I broke my leg over the summer, I was reminded of Ignatius’ words and happily used my immobility to dive deeper into the Word of God. I wasn’t experiencing the kind of intense suffering that the early Christians in Ignatius’ day were but his words struck a chord with me and helped me deal with a problem I was forced to face. As we enter into the lives of believers who have experienced success, disappointment, persecution, fame, loss, health, sickness, death, and everything in between, we can learn how to live well. Note what worked, note what didn’t and adjust your life accordingly. It’s a surprisingly effective way to live.