The passage that our workbook quoted from this week, Hebrews 11, describes some of the “heroes of the faith”—believers of the past who are specially commended for their actions of faith.
Although there is much to say concerning these people specifically, on this page we will be examining the general concept of drawing inspiration from the faith of others, and how we might do that in our personal lives, alongside drawing inspiration from exemplary believers mentioned in scripture.
What about so-called saints, famous martyrs, church fathers, the reformers, and so on?
Some traditions tend to make a practice out of looking to other categories of people for inspiration too: so-called saints, famous martyrs, church fathers, the reformers, and so on.
While we don’t want to fall into legalism by banning something scripture does not, it is also true that unverifiable third-party reports may or may not be true. We may glorify God inasmuch as things we hear about these people seem to put Him first and bring Him glory. Perhaps we shouldn’t go so far as to say that it is a uniformly terrible idea for us to try to find inspiration in historical Christians who show up only in history rather than inspired scripture. But it is also true that we must be careful in doing such, that’s all. Appearances can be deceiving.
This is why this page will mostly be discussing people whom we can have direct relationships with in our own lives, and therefore can have less doubt about. It’s hard (perhaps functionally impossible) for someone to fake serious interest in the Bible and actual spiritual growth for a long period of time, and yet not mean it. People who are not genuinely interested will be driven away, because the truth gives no quarter, and it unfailingly divides and convicts (Hebrews 4:12). Any place where the truth is actually being taught in a substantive way (rather than just given lip service to, as is unfortunately common in many modern churches, which barely even teach anything at all, much less anything that could be said to be offensive to and truly demanding of their attendees… since that would drive away said attendees, and therefore money and prestige) – such places actually teaching the truth in a substantive way will be extremely uncomfortable for anyone who doesn’t sincerely want the truth.
All that is a long way of saying that it is relatively safer for us to admire people whose spiritual maturity we can observe ourselves. We can do such with a good bit less wariness than that we probably ought to exercise in admiring the supposed spiritual maturity of historical believers whom others have put up on pedestals… even and perhaps especially if by “others” we mean “well, many Christians in our present lukewarm day.” Even though it sounds really harsh, since in current times many Christians are not truly all that zealous about the hard work of spiritual growth and production (despite what they say with their lips; their lack of care towards the truth in how they organize their lives clearly and irrefutably puts the lie to their words), how likely is it that the people they think are excellent and praiseworthy are really the ones deserving of the most honor in God’s eyes?
See Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30. In my estimation, the believers in eternity who will be most highly rewarded will not be the ones most people would guess, but the faithful few who work out God’s Will tirelessly, seeking His glory rather than attention for themselves. Compare also Matthew 6:1-2. This idea of “being careful not to perform righteous acts before men to be seen by them” is precisely why you don’t hear about them, and why they don’t grace the pages of history books as much as the sort that lukewarm believers idolize. Because showing up on magazine covers or the historical equivalent—gaining recognition so that people know of you and say nice things about you—matters not one whit. Only doing the Will of God matters, doing the things He actually demands of us. And God’s judgement on that Great Day of Days will make that incontrovertibly clear to all.
I should close by stating that not all well-known believers of the past were necessarily trying to draw attention to themselves in a Pharisaical manner. Some people who seem great really were great, it is true. The point is that it is difficult to know for certain in a great many cases, and for that reason there are many people held up glowingly as examples that ought to instead be held at arms length more than is commonly the case. Our skepticism should only be stoked all the more by the fact that the truth is usually quite unpopular (since it demands so much from us), such that people whose teaching is beloved are commonly not teaching much truth, as a rule of thumb. And we ought not forget that.
The dangers in comparison; looking to others for inspiration is not really comparison
In 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, Paul talks about judging nothing before the time. We are not even supposed to judge ourselves, much less others (whose thoughts and motivations and so on we can never truly know).
Nonetheless, it is oftentimes very tempting to compare ourselves to others. This is true regarding such material things as wealth, status, career prestige, and so on, but it can also be true spiritually. To soothe our own egos, we might engage in the practice of trying to see how our choices and our spiritual progress stack up against the choices and spiritual progress of others.
This practice is dangerous for several reasons. First of all, our minds are entirely self-serving, and comparing ourselves to others tends to lead to legalism very quickly. It is easy to make the sins of others seem so much worse than one’s own, to redraw the lines in a way that makes one seem relatively better and others relatively worse than what is accurate to reality.
Secondly, we humans are very poor at judging anything deeper than the surface level. The issue is, what God really cares about most of the time is the heart. It is true that the actions of spiritually mature people—their “spiritual fruit”—will shine forth their faith, but it ought to take only the tiniest bit of honest reflection to realize that it is simply impossible for human beings to really know the hearts of others in the way that would be necessary for us to make completely accurate assessments about “how well they are doing spiritually.”
Finally, comparing the skeletons in our closets tends to put the emphasis on the past, rather than focusing on the present. We can’t change the past and we can’t control the future, so the only day we should care about as Christians is the present. No matter if yesterday holds a long chain of spiritual victories or an unfortunate chain of spiritual defeats, either way, what we ought to be doing today does not actually change one bit. Think about that for a second. Our orders from our Commanding Officer will not wait on excuses of past failure. And if we let focus on the past get in the way, then we are failing as soldiers in the present!
For all these reasons, and others besides, comparing ourselves to other Christians is not something that we ought to do as general practice. The natural question to ask then is if it is possible for us to look to the example of other Christians to find inspiration in our own walk without at the same time engaging in this sort of harmful comparison? While one might be able to make a longer argument, we shall here content ourselves with simply asserting that the two things are not identical—that is, that it is entirely possible for us to draw inspiration from our brothers and sisters in Christ without at the same time necessarily slipping into comparison of the problematic variety.
Given that presupposition, well, who is it exactly we are looking to for spiritual inspiration? We can certainly look to those who came long before—like the folks mentioned in Hebrews 11—but we can also actually look to those around us in our own individual circumstances. We can marvel at the work God is doing through them, appreciate the glory their faith brings to God. We can try to make similar choices in our own lives to similarly reflect God’s glory, try to also act in such a way that God is not ashamed to call us His people. And we can do all of this without slipping into comparison. It mostly just requires us to firmly keep in mind that we are all of us but tools in the hands of the Master Craftsman, and all glory thus belongs to Him, not ourselves.
Examples of Christians in our own lives who we might look to for inspiration
Our Bible teachers
If we are going about the process of spiritual growth correctly, each of us should have a Bible teacher that we submit to, the person we look to as our primary point of contact for answering spiritual questions we may have, the person who provides the primary form of spiritual nourishment that we take in.
Put simply, if we have done well in selecting our Bible teachers, they ought to be very natural people for us to be inspired by. Since trusting their character and spiritual knowledge is something that is all but mandatory anyway for us to be able to submit to them and trust what they say, then it ought to be no surprise that lay Christians commonly end up looking up to their Bible teachers. This is completely right and proper.
Older mentor figures
In my own personal experience, I have found it very helpful to cultivate relationships with Christians older than me, treating them as people with experience and perspective that I lack, people I can learn from. Given that sometimes our Bible teachers end up older than us (although sometimes not too, as there is nothing wrong with younger pastor-teachers—cf. 1 Timothy 4:12), then this sort of “looking up to older believers” idea may overlap with what we discussed above with respect to looking up to our Bible teachers. But it can also be true of other lay Christians in the body of Christ—those who perhaps have a similar role to play as the one you may have identified for yourself, for example.
While age is no guarantee of maturity, with greater age comes greater potential. In this way, while it is perhaps accurate to say that age is commonly overrated in terms of what it means for one’s spiritual maturity, it is also improper to pretend like older folks have had no more time than younger folks to grow in the truth. It is simply not true.
The trick then is finding the older folks who have actually lived lives worthy of emulation, who have made good use of their lives by putting God first and growing spiritually. Not so you can put them up on a pedestal and treat them as some sort of unattainable ideal, but so that you can learn from them—so that the body of Christ might properly build itself up in love.
The high outliers
We might also draw inspiration from people who are in our own generational cohort, or even people who are younger than us. If we look towards people’s spiritual growth and zeal for God, then there will be times when we ought to marvel at all that someone has done given their relative youth, their relative economic or social disadvantage, or whatever else might tend to set certain expectations that these exceptional folks then shatter.
Put simply, the hottest of the red-hot, no matter their age or relation to us, are always worth looking to for inspiration. It may be human nature to struggle to respect young people or poor people or people without lots of education (and so on), but we ought to fight against that, for if we do not, we will find ourselves incapable of drawing encouragement from God’s masterful use of such people, and the example in faith that they set us, if their faith actually is something special.
And that really is all there is to it. Once we recognize, as we ought, that faith is honestly the only thing of importance—and exactly how hard it is to hold tightly onto faith in this world of ours—then in fact it ought to be easy for us to be inspired, even awed, by all those who run an exceptional spiritual race, regardless of everything else about them (like their age or social status or level of education and so on). These other things simply aren’t relevant when it comes to appreciating the witness of their commitment to the Lord.
Alongside the accounts of particularly faithful historical believers we have in scripture, like those mentioned in Hebrews 11, we can also look to Christians in our personal lives for inspiration. The example of these others can serve as a witness to us that the exercising of godly faith was not only something possible for believers of old, but is also something possible for us for us here in the present.