Fourthly, and equally as important as the positive challenges derived from our reading of Christian biography, are the warnings it gives, the signposts along the way of dangers to be avoided, of pitfalls awaiting the unwary. The Bible itself never brushes over the failures even of good men and we readily recognise the value of such warnings. Peter’s betrayal of Christ and his restoration has served to give new hope to many whose faith has failed in a time of crisis. Even Hezekiah, among the most outstanding of the kings of Judah, allowed pride to cause him to stumble (Isa. 39). John Wesley was a colossus of the Christian church, yet his insistence that perfection was attainable for the Christian in this life by an act of faith (although his statements were often accompanied by numerous caveats and qualifications), is a warning that even the best men can be stubborn and wrong. Echoes of his teaching recur from time to time in various sectors of the church. Christmas Evans was one whose preaching could hold captive huge congregations at the Welsh Association meetings and whose powerful ministry was used by God in Anglesey, transforming that community. Yet he fell prey to Satan’s devices and embraced Sandemanian teaching, which brought his usefulness to a temporary standstill. With its damaging teaching that saving faith requires nothing more than mere notional assent, Sandemanianism dismissed the inner movements of the Holy Spirit in the heart as unnecessary for salvation. At last after many years in a prayerless and powerless spiritual wilderness, Christmas Evans was restored while on a lonely journey across the Welsh mountains. He then saw how wrong he had been. There is a new form of this same teaching abroad in our evangelical churches today, reducing conversion to little more than a matter of ‘explanation’ followed by a mental acceptance of Christian truth. So Christmas Evans’ experience stands as a warning.
A fifth and more positive lesson which we can glean from our reading of Christian biography is how to suffer rightly. Such accounts stand out on every page in the lives of some of our forebears in the faith. Omitting for a moment the unspeakable sufferings of the martyrs, we learn how to face those afflictions which are the common lot of our humanity with dignity and confident trust in God. Catherine Boston, wife of the Scottish preacher Thomas Boston of Ettrick (1676-1732), lost six of her ten infants in death. Her sufferings brought about a mental collapse, and for many years she was ‘as the living among the dead,’ as her husband expressed it. Yet whenever her condition eased, she reaffirmed her strong faith in God. After eight years of illness she could still declare on one of those few days of mental clarity, ‘I did take God to be my God . . . and with my whole heart gave up myself, soul and body, to be the Lord’s for ever.’
Contrary to our natural fears and apprehensions, trials and sufferings have often proved the single greatest incentive to growth in grace. Perhaps it is at this point that Christian biography can be of the greatest help. As we read we discover that at such times God often favours the believer with unusual disclosures of his love. John Bunyan, one who had tasted the depths of suffering both through family deaths and his own long imprisonment, could say:
He [God] can make those things that in themselves are most fearful and terrible to behold, the most pleasant, delightful and desirable things. He can make a gaol more beautiful than a palace; restraint more sweet by far than liberty; and the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.
And Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), writing from house arrest in Aberdeen, would add his warm assent to such words:
It is your part to believe, and suffer, and hope, and wait on . . . Whether God come to his children with a rod or a crown, if he come himself with it, it is well! Welcome, welcome, Jesus, what way soever thou come.
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), the Scottish hymn-writer, buried five out of his eleven children in their infancy. Yet he regarded suffering as a God-sent privilege – the family badge of the Christian. One day, he assures us, we shall thank God most of all for being allowed to suffer, for then we grew most in grace and in our love for Christ.
Following on naturally from their fortitude in suffering is the courage and confidence with which many believers have faced death itself. Unlike the Victorians, our society today is reticent to speak about death; it has become a taboo subject even among Christians. Despite the plethora of new hymns available for Christian worship today, few songs touch upon the subject of death and the joys of the eternal world. But to read the life of the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691), followed by his classic, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, would transform our perspective. William Grimshaw taught his people to meditate often on death. With the average age of only twenty-six in Haworth at the time, death was an ever present reality in their homes. ‘When you put off your clothes’ [each night] he would say, ‘think of putting off your earthly tabernacle . . . and close your eyes in this world as you would open them in another. Today is your living day; tomorrow may be your dying day. Meditation on death will prepare you for death.’
Christians who have prepared themselves mentally and spiritually to face this last of enemies have often left behind testimonies of God’s special grace at such a time. When John Knox was dying in November 1592 he was still pleading with God for the troubled church in Scotland. Nor did Satan leave off his vicious assaults on the sick man’s soul. But the day before he died Knox could declare, ‘I have fought against spiritual wickedness and have prevailed. I have been in heaven where presently I am and have tasted of the heavenly joys.’ Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) too experienced unspeakable joys as he was dying. An hour before the end he was heard to say, ‘It will not be long before God takes me, for no mortal man can live after the glories which God has manifested to my soul.’
And who could fail to be moved by the steadfast courage of young Lady Jane Grey, called the ‘Nine-day Queen of England’, as she faced the cruel scaffold at only sixteen years of age. Writing to her younger sister the night before her execution she could say:
As touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption and put on incorruption. For I am assured, that I shall, losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life, the which I pray, God grant you, and send you of his grace to live in his fear and to die in the true Christian faith, from the which (in God’s name), I exhort you, that you never swerve, neither for hope of life, nor for fear of death.
Principles and patterns
A final benefit to be gained from reading of the lives of other believers is the facility it provides for tracing certain recurring principles and patterns of the activity of God, repeated in every age. Among the most important we discover the place of prayer in the purposes of God. C. H. Spurgeon once said:
When a man really prays it is not a question whether God will hear him or not, he must hear him; not because there is any compulsion in the prayer, but there is a sweet and blessed compulsion in the promise. God has promised to hear prayer and he will perform his promise. As he is the most high and true God, he cannot deny himself. Oh! to think of this; that you, a puny creature, may stand here and speak to God, and through God may move all the worlds.
These words can be verified again and again as we read the lives of Christians in the past. Secret intercessory prayer has almost always been the precursor of a revival of spiritual life in a community. When John Oxtoby, known as ‘Praying Johnny’ wrestled with God for his mercy on the God-rejecting town of Filey, he would not stop until a divine assurance was given to him of an answer to his pleas. Then rising from his knees, he cried out, ‘Filey is taken! Filey is taken!’ And indeed, Filey was taken for the kingdom of God as the people wept over their sins when they heard Johnny preaching, and hundreds were converted.
The same may be illustrated time after time as we read of individuals burdened to pray for some loved one. The great Augustine of Hippo had a praying mother, Monica. Distraught at the godlessness of her son, she wept and prayed ceaselessly for him. In her distress she spoke to a local bishop whose advice can still console praying parents: ‘Let him alone a while, only pray God for him . . . for it is not possible that the son of these tears and prayers should perish.’ Shortly after Augustine’s dramatic conversion, Monica herself died, but not before she had seen all her hopes fulfilled.
Perhaps the greatest blessing of all that comes from reading Christian biography, and one that should encourage us to start if we have not done so already, is the assurance that our God is an unchanging God. All that he has done in the past he can repeat in our day. His power in unlimited, his grace as plentiful. He is still able to take up men and women who earnestly seek him and use them effectively in whatever sphere he may chose. As we read, we enter into a great heritage of two thousand years of devotion and service to the God of heaven. And who can tell what he might yet do for us even today?
– Faith Cook