In his excellent book for pastors, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper includes a chapter on “Brothers, Read Christian Biography.” His encouragements to do so, of course, apply not only to vocational ministers but to all Christians. So please consider his perspectives for your own spiritual benefit. And if you think these thoughts would encourage and profit your own pastor, perhaps you’ll want to share this blog with him.
Here are some of Piper’s key thoughts on this subject in his own words: “Hebrews 11 is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will ‘lay aside every weight, and sin’ and ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’ (Heb. 12:1). If we asked the author, ‘How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?’ (10:24), his answer would be: ‘Through encouragement from the living (10:25) and the dead (11:1-40).’ Christian biography is the means by which the body life of the church cuts across the centuries.”
“[God] regularly uses human agents to stir up His people. So the question for us is: Through what human agents does God give us vision and direction and inspiration? For me, one of the most important answers has been great men and women of faith who, though dead, are yet speaking (Heb. 11:4).”
“Christian biography, well chosen, combines all sorts of things pastors [and other Christians] need but have so little time to pursue. Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as C.S. Lewis calls it). It is also theology—the most powerful kind—because it bursts forth from the lives of people. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.”
“Since biography is its own best witness, let me tell a little of my own encounter with biographies. Biographies have served as much as any other human force in my life to resist the inertia of mediocrity. Without them I tend to forget what joy there is in relentless God-besotted labor and aspiration.”
Piper then cites the examples of Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Of the latter he writes: “How Calvin could work! After 1549, his special charge in Geneva was to preach twice on Sunday and once every day of alternate weeks. On Sunday, August 25, 1549, Calvin began to preach on Acts and continued weekly in that book until March 1554. On weekdays during this time, he preached through eight of the minor prophets as well as Daniel, Lamentations and Ezekiel. But what amazes me is that between 1550 and 1559 he took 270 weddings. That’s one every other week! He also baptized (about once a month), visited the sick, carried on extensive correspondence, and sustained heavy organizational responsibilities.”
“When I look at Calvin and Edwards and their output, it is hard for me to feel sorry for myself in my few burdens. These brothers inspire me to break out of mediocre plodding.”
“George Mueller has been a pacesetter for me in prayer. His Autobiography is an orchard of faith-building fruit. In one section he tells us, after forty years of trials, ‘how to be constantly happy in God.’ He said, ‘I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord.’ ” Piper then relates how that for ten years Mueller would go to prayer first thing in the morning, but often suffered from wandering thoughts for up to half an hour.
Mueller himself describes a significant change he then made in his personal devotions routine and the benefits that yielded: “I began to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning … searching into every verse for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, thanksgiving or supplication. So that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer.”
Comments Piper: “I have found Mueller’s way absolutely crucial in my own life: be with the Lord before I am with anyone else and let Him speak to me first.”
Piper shares a number of other personal encouragements he has received from historic Christian biography in his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Broadman and Holman, 2002), chapter 13, “Brothers, Read Christian Biography” (pgs. 89-96).
Piper not only reads biography but also has written seven outstanding volumes of historic Christian biography in his “The Swans Are Not Silent” series published by Crossway. Each of those volumes contains a trio of biographies on noteworthy, influential Christians of the past.
Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie