LOOKING AT A MODEL HELPS US BUILD OUR HOUSE
I begin my new year reading a Christian biography. What I’m after is an example of how someone in a different era applied the scriptures within their culture and to their everyday life at the time. Right now I’m reading the life of J. Graham Miller, “One Step Nearer Home.” It is about his work in New Zealand and New Hebrides. He was just a few years older than my father, so I’ve enjoyed that. Banner of Truth published it. Hope this will help you.
“Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” (I Corinthians 10:6)
“I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but made it my
study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.
I eagerly sought occasion, sometimes to my own hazard
and hurt. One natural consequence of this was a loss of
favor with my new captain…. Besides, I had a little of that
unlucky wit which can multiply troubles and enemies to its
possessor….But let me not fail to praise that grace which
could pardon, that blood which could expiate, such sins as
mine… I, who was the willing slave of every evil, possessed
with a legion of unclean spirits, have been spared and saved,
and changed, to stand as a monument of His almighty power
His sinful attitude not only led to a bad relationship with his ship’s captain but eventually landed John Newton into virtual slavery to a slave-trader in Africa where even his deliverance from that did not turn him to God! He went on to become a commercial ship’s captain making his money transporting people from Africa to be sold as slaves. But, eventually, he could write, “Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me!” a hymn still popular today. His life has indeed become a memorial to God’s unmerited favor in saving sinners. After all, the Holy Spirit does not come to bring the pure and right to repentance, but sinners like John Newton or you or I. These are the kind of stories weneed to hear, don’t you think?
OUR HEROES BECOME ROLE MODELS
Christian biography is helpful to us. It shows how people of the past applied biblical principles. We all need role models and heroes. Knowledge of how people in the past worked out the Bible can help us work it out for ourselves. If Christians become our heroes, we are more likely to follow in their footsteps. William Carey could inspire us to missionary zeal, John Newton to turning to causes of justice, William Pierce to hard work and kindness, Ann Judson to helping our husband, Charles and Susie Spurgeon to having a romantic marriage. Have you teen ever heard of any of these people? Our Christian heritage has often been sadly overlooked.
There are a lot of ways to get into biographical material. I love letters and journals with just a quick outline of the life enclosed. These give you a more intimate look into the person than a formal biography. Autobiographies give you opinions tucked in among the life story. They add color and a “real person” ambiance to the read. In our computer age, everyone likes short quotes instead of digging through the lengthy biography. That might be a way to perk up a story but isolated quotes don’t compare to an up-close look at the person. But, since you are doing what you can, let the teen chose his preference. Getting them into this process of looking at how others lived out their Christian values is what counts.
Remember, all of this coaching of skills and building a spiritual house is for the purpose of godliness. Speaking of my friend and pastor, Ernest Reisinger, his biographer says,
“I have been edified by his life story, in seeing what God has
been pleased to do through an imperfect man. I long for others
to know it too. Let the facts speak for themselves,” said Geoff Thomas.
Being built up– made stronger by another’s example and acknowledging God’s grace to them– is what reading biography is all about. That is the skill you are trying to develop in yourself and your teen. This tool is especially good for constructing your roof and planting your landscaping. It is all very personal–this observable life and good deeds. Others see it and know that you have built some devotional “walls” and they may even wonder about those doctrinal foundations. Helping you to see how someone else has applied the scripture to how they act toward others or what they do with the opportunities before them, biographies give you a different perspective.
SOME IMPORTANT LESSONS
There are always lessons to learn as well as thinking skills. For instance, Ernie Reisinger tells how the Sunday School he attended had him memorize some Christian facts, but forgot to point him to Christ or tell him of the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. He went on to be a “20th century pagan!”3 That might influence a teen to teach Sunday School or help out in Bible School with an evangelistic message.
Another lesson might be the way they approach work and Christian duty. The following is from William Carey by Mary Drewery:
Everyone who ever worked alongside William Carey pays tribute
to his dogged persistence Certainly the young shoemaker must have required all the doggedness of which his character was capable during the years he spent in Piddington. He admitted that though he could cope with shoe-making, he was not successful at running a business. Under-nourished and constantly struggling against the persistent cough and fever that plagued him, Carey endeavoured not only to scrape a living for seven people, but also to preach and study.4
How a person turns out is sometimes a big surprise. William Carey developed into a Bible translator, college professor, and missionary who took the gospel to India. His persistence and hard work are renown. “Why not find out by reading about him?” you could ask.
“Amazing Grace” is the most recorded song in history so far or at least that what I’ve been told. John Newton’s autobiography stirred his generation and made his ministry of letter writing and preaching accessible and effective. His sailing career, his slave trading, and his dramatic conversion all attested to the grace and mercy of God.
“The Lord had now to all appearances given me up to
judicial hardness; I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor, so far as I
remember, the least sensibility of conscience. I was
possessed of so strong a spirit of delusion that I believed
my own lie, and was firmly persuaded that after death I
should cease to be. Yet the Lord preserved me!”5
He wrote this in 1764, twelve years before Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formulated America’s plea for independence. See how it points to the biblical principle of God’s all-powerful grace in our salvation, bringing hope to your teen who might be into all kinds of sin? You could “casually” mention Newton’s experience when your teen’s classmate or friend gets addicted to drugs or alcohol or sexual impurity.
A lot has been written on the lives of Christian men, but not much has been done for us feminine minds. Mrs. Robert E. Lee by John Perry is a very valuable book because the author investigates her spiritual life. If you visit Washington, D. C., you can stand in the rooms where Robert E. and Mary Lee were engaged, raised their family, where daughter Agnes came to know the mercies of Christ. Seeing Mary Lee’s garden and her slave’s quarters and then reading of her Christian perseverance under great loss during the War Between the States personalizes the emotional side of Mary Lee’s life. Mary put aside her grievances and personal losses to keep on believing and serving Christ. Mary wrote during the 1860’s to her daughter, Mildred, about turning to Christ,
“Do not be discouraged because you see so much in yourself
that is vile and sinful. That is the sure work of the Holy Spirit.
Before His influence was shed into your heart, you could see
none of your faults. It was like coming into the parlor some
cloudy morning. All the dust & litter of the room would not be visible. But let a bright ray of sunshine gleam in & how you would see every particle of dust! So the Holy Spirit has shined into your heart & you are astonished at what you see there. He shows all these defilements to you that He may cleanse them & daily you must pray for his purifying influence…
Do not doubt for a moment His power & His willingness to receive you…He will keep you safe. He will never leave you nor forsake you. He will give you peace & joy the world knows not of.”6
This could make a trip to Washington even more profitable!
Remember the goal of all of these skills is to stretch ourselves toward godliness. You might believe it was wrong of this family to own another human being, but part of profiting from history and biography is to walk in another time and another’s shoes. The mark of Christ is clearly on the Lee family.
ESPECIALLY FOR GIRLS
Since so many biographies are about men, girls need to learn to pull out the spiritual lessons from the male stories. Do this again through your casual questions; your goal is to teach them to think. Ask the right questions to do this. For instance, What were the difficulties of his life? How did he overcome them? Was his wife or mother mentioned? How did she influence him? What could you learn from their relationship?
Girls are always interested in romance. So lead them into reading about marriages of famous Christians. Teach them to scan a biography, looking through the table of contents or the index for pages revealing these intimate relationships. (Scanning is a reading skill they should have been introduced to by their sophomore year in high school.) Scanning for this information might pique their interest in the whole story. Be sure to have them do this with George Whitefield by Dallimore! Scanning through men’s lives can teach girls valuable lessons.
Edna Gerstner does this for us in Jonathan and Sarah. She gives family stories in novel form, based on the life of this foremost leader of American theology.
Sarah promoted the wise building of her home by respecting her
husband’s nearly thirteen hours a day of study time and managing
her eight children through the running of a disciplined household.7
Now that is a good lesson for today’s young women to grasp! Mrs. Gerstner has also scanned the life of John Calvin for us and has written another novel about his wife, Idelette. This reading skill of scanning is very useful for us ladies!
Perhaps my favorite biography from the 1990’s is Sharon James’ My Heart In His Hands illustrating through practical stories the doctrine of God’s providence in the life of Ann Judson, America’s first foreign missionary.
The intensity of the spirituality of Ann Judson was matched
only by the compelling drama of her story. Her courage in
leaving America, her dedication in insisting that her husband
remain with the young church while she sought medical help
abroad, her loyalty during Adoniram’s imprisonment and her
disregard of personal risk seem almost superhuman. Yet
she was only too human in that she suffered greatly; she was
not hard, insensitive or cold. She was a woman who loved
intensely, loved her husband, loved her children, loved the
people of Burma, but above all loved her God.8
Another good source is Broadman Press’s accounts of Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon. Some of these are written with the pre-teen girl in mind. But, you get the idea. Find the story that will capture the imagination of your teen, ask the right questions to promote the right lessons and the right thinking.
BOYS NEED MEN
Besides John Newton’s autobiography, another young man that might capture the imagination of your son is that of George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore. Between 1737 and 1770, Whitefield made seven trips to the American colonies, preaching up and down the eastern seaboard riding horseback to do it. Boys love adventure and need models of zeal, hard work, and sacrifice. Ask the questions that will show the hardship of travel in America in those days. Why was he willing to endure such stresses? The following quote from Dallimore shows one impact of Whitefield’s zeal:
When the present author is stirring at 7 in the morning, he
frequently reminds himself that Whitefield had been active
since 4. Arising at that early time, he spent the first hour in
communion with God, reading and praying over a portion of the
Scriptures, praising God and also interceding with Him for lost
souls in general and for several in particular. At 5 he preached,
and virtually always to a host of men and women. John Newton,
the converted slavetrader, stated, ‘I have seen Moorfields as full
of torches at 5 in the morning as the Haymarket is on a threatre
night.’ And by 7 Whitefield had often set out on an evangelistic
journey or was writing letters or meeting the first of the number
who came seeking spiritual advice.9
Besides exposing the pre-teens/teens to quality biographies, using Bible study material to focus on a person is a good way to show them how to ask the right questions and look for character traits they could emulate. Whether you study these as a family or encourage them to study them on their own is open to your family habits. Roger Ellsworth has divided the life of David into manageable chapters with easy to pick up on biblical principles and practical lessons. For instance,
Mercy is the grandest thing in this tired old world. Mercy is
showing kindness and compassion. It may be directed to
those who are in desperate need and cannot help themselves.
It may be directed to those who have offended us in some way.
It is always directed to those who have no right to expect anything
from us….In this passage, we have a marvelous display of mercy.
Here is Mephibosheth, the grandson of King Saul and the son of
Jonathan. What a miserable figure he cuts in these verses!…
But, David, in great, generous mercy, showed kindness to him.10
He then goes on to compare David’s mercy with Christ’s mercy to to himself, using his own experience to make real the biblical principle. This is the kind of biographical lesson our teens need to here. All in two double spaced pages!
Another book to help do this with girls is William Jay’s Lectures on Female Scripture Characters, written in the 1850’s but republished in 2004 by Sprinkle Publications. He wrote this after many years of studying and preaching with the aim of helping women to apply biblical principles by examples. He relates the story of fourteen women in the Bible, pulls out the spiritual principles and applies it. For instance, he carefully notes that any conjecture as to Mary Magdalene’s being a former prostitute is just that–conjecture with no biblical basis. Then he goes on to point out her deliverance from dreadful suffering and peril. His application is that we have also been delivered and we, like Mary, should use all we have for the glory of Christ.11 (William Jay, Lectures on Female Scripture Characters, (Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Va., 2004), p. 53-56.) You would probably need to use this as a commentary, pulling out the lessons to then teach during family Bible study or pass on to your teen in a more casual setting. His warm application of biblical principles and his high regard for women make it worth your efforts. Always remember the power of examples to illustrate biblical principles.
“We must not, therefore, make the experience of others, in all respects, a rule to ourselves, nor our own a rule to others. These are common mistakes, and productive of many more. My case has been extraordinary; I have hardly met a single one resembling it.”12
Look at the quote from John Newton above. Experiences of others, whether from church history or biblical examples, can make biblical principles more clear for us. But, we should never use our own experiences or those of others as a club to force people into one mold. John Newton said in 1764 that his deliverance from a state of hardened willful sin was a magnification of God’s mercy toward sinners, but was no guarantee of deliverance to another. Overriding his own experience was the sovereignty of God to show mercy to whom He wished.13 A good example of this is to look at the relative smooth road American Christians have experienced since World War II contrasted to the British Puritans of the late 1600’s who were persecuted for their faith, had high infant mortality rates, suffered plagues etc. It would be a gross misapplication of biblical principles to claim that since Americans have been prosperous and their children healthy, they obviously were more favored by God than the Puritans. To give another example, William Jay preached in the same church for more than sixty years and his life story illustrates the fruitfulness of a long ministry in one place reaping what you sow. But, it would be a mistake to make that a “rule” for all pastors, saying to leave one church for another is wrong. The pastor who moves is still going to reap what he sows, but Jay’s long ministry should not become a club to whip him into guilt or make him stay where he is!
I see this happening frequently in the area of child rearing and discipline. One person finds a method that works for them. That method then becomes a “rule” for other parents. “We must all adopt this approach for successful kids!” is the cry. Don’t bet on it–even with methods Christians currently approve. That is making a life experience a rule for others. What does this have to do with you? Your goal is to train your teen to think correctly and to profit from the examples of others. Ask the right questions, coach. For example:
What is the general foundational principle you see in this life story (or incident)?
What biblical theme does John Newton’s salvation illustrate?
What lessons can you learn from Mary Lee’s life?
(Not every wife has to knit socks for the army like Mary Lee. But, keeping on believing in God’s faithfulness, trusting in His promises to never leave them and remaining faithful in performing duties are principles Mary Lee’s life makes crystal clear. And those principles would apply to every woman whether black or white, Hispanic or European or Asian.)
So do what you can. Expose them to the best. Model before them. Keep asking the right questions until their thinking is habitual. You are helping them put the roof on and landscaping their spiritual house so they can have fuller assurance they are the Lord’s redeemed. And don’t try to put an old head on a young body! They might not respond positively now, but, who knows, maybe as adults they will fly to biographies in their pursuit of holy and wise living.
READ BIOGRAPHIES FOR MODELS OF HOW TO BUILD YOUR SPIRITUAL HOUSE