We all have heroes. We may not call them that, but even as children we know who we look up to and who we want to be like when we finally grow up. As Christians, even Christian adults, that still holds true. We notice people who seem to be where we think we should be, or who attained some level of success or self-possession we want to have, too. We look up to people we want to emulate or learn from.
They say we are only ever changed by the books we read and the friends we keep—and, we might add, the heroes we want to follow. Let’s hope we choose wisely.
Growing up, I was fascinated by Amy Carmichael. The story of the unlikely missionary who eventually became “Amma” (“Mother”) to hundreds of India’s needy children captured my imagination and my interest for years. I read several of Amy’s books and devoured Elisabeth Elliot’s exhaustive biography of Amy’s life. “Amma” was a strong personality who refused to follow conventional missions habits of the time if they weren’t effective (and most were not). She set out to follow God’s leading wherever He took her, and eventually He led her to give up the traveling ministry she had dreamed of to care for children He literally brought to her. India’s caste and temple systems of the time led to horrible treatment of millions of girls. The small percentage God rescued through Amy she led and cared for throughout her life.
William Borden is not well-known, but his story deeply impacted me when I heard it. A young heir to a large estate and successful business, Borden left behind the effortless rich life that was handed to him. After busy years of local ministry during college, Borden chose to channel his life into obedience to God on the foreign mission field. He set sail for Egypt with the goal of eventually reaching Chinese Muslims, but he never made it. While studying Arabic in Egypt, Borden contracted meningitis and died at the age of twenty-five. He had chosen hardship and an eternal reward over a life of ease and temporary riches. He didn’t know how his story would end, and we still don’t know all of the ways God worked through his life, but we do know this: Borden’s obedience wasn’t wasted. God led him and he followed, and one day we will hear stories of how God used his obedience.
The Corrie ten Boom story has gripped me ever since the day I read The Hiding Place from cover to cover in just a few hours. Corrie and her sister Betsie lived with their elderly father in Haarlem, the Netherlands, when the Nazis overran their little country during World War II. Here was a family whose mission field came to them. The Ten Booms would become part of an elaborate underground network, with their home being a focal point of the work. Illegal ration cards, secret messages, and hunted people were all funneled through their unassuming house off the old cobblestone street. It was a time of hard, hard suffering—but service in the midst of it. They trusted God for results in the midst of unanswered questions and dangerous uncertainty, with no guarantees they would stay safe. When they were turned in to the Nazis by an informant, and then arrested, a new time of even greater difficulty began. Corrie’s imprisonment in concentration camps was marked by suffering we can’t even fathom from our middle-class American living rooms. Her father and sister would die during their imprisonment. Corrie later traveled the world, sharing her family’s story and her own journey of forgiveness through it.
Only One Hero
“Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules….” Sally Lloyd-Jones writes in The Jesus Storybook Bible. “Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean” (Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, p. 14-15).
No, there is only one Hero in the pages of our Bibles. The people we notice and want to follow aren’t “heroes” in the sense that they have some supernatural ability or save us from painful danger, and they usually aren’t even consistent “good examples” like we might hope.
“The absence of heroes in the Bible puzzled me for a long time. One day it dawned on me that perhaps this absence was the point of the whole book. There are no human heroes. Everyone’s hands are stained and dirty” (Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell). While the Bible doesn’t give us a list of heroes, it does share countless stories of real people who faced real difficulty and hardship—and who point us to the only Hero. They remind us that it is God who works in all of our lives and it is through their stories that we are inspired to press on through ours.
“There is no such thing as a great man of God, only weak, pitiful, faithless men of a great and merciful God,” Paul Washer points out. That’s all any of us will ever be. And it is through the lives and stories of some of those weak and faithless people that we will be encouraged to take the next steps in our own lives (see Romans 15:4).
One Common Thing
In “The Hall of Faith,” as some have called Hebrews 11, we are given several vignette stories of God’s people who have gone before us. Most of their stories are recorded in the Bible, and we know they weren’t perfect. We have read about Abraham’s fear and Sarah’s doubt, and we know Moses was not always a good example. Good grief, the list even includes Samson and Jephthah—and we remember more about their failures than anything else.
What holds all these remembered people together is one common thing: faith. While they were far from perfect, and that faith was sometimes small and very weak, they walked forward in faith. Faith in the middle of unknown outcomes, uncertainty, suffering, turmoil, pain, evil. Faith without knowing the whole story, or the ending, or the next chapter.
Their stories remind us that God works in our stories, too, and their lives give us examples of how to live ours. We know enough of their stories to know not to idolize them—in fact, the best “heroes” are the ones honest enough to tell us their own failures and shortcomings. These people are not stand-ins for God or gurus we follow to the ends of the earth. We follow God and God alone, and so did they. Through everything.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 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, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
We all have people we look up to and want to be like one day. When we finally grow up. We may call them heroes, though we know they could never make themselves invisible and won’t magically appear when we need some kind of rescue. And we know they weren’t perfect.
But we tell their stories and hear their words because through them we hear the story of God at work. By remembering Abraham and Sarah, or Amy Carmichael and William Borden, or Corrie ten Boom and her family, we are reminded of what we all too often forget: God is always here. God is always in control. God is always loving us. Whatever lies before us, we know that others have come this way before.
Because of the examples of all these witnesses that surround us, we press on through uncertainty and difficulty and unknown outcomes. With faith. Faith that the God who brought our heroes home is doing the same for us.