Who would have guessed that a religion stressing lofty morals would cram into its holiest book the slimy details of King ‘Peeping Tom’ David, ‘lover-boy’ Solomon, fish-breath Jonah, sleazy Jacob, and two-faced Judah, to mention just a few of the seething swarm of con-men, backstabbers, rapists, murderers and whores that fill the Word of God?
Few Christian biographies are as fiercely honest as Scripture. If there were more books that gently peel the plastic off famous Christians, it would be easier for us to realize that we belong in the big league. For instance, John Wesley’s godly parents had a marriage so stormy it still puts the wind up people. His own string of abortive romances continued until finally he married, at age forty-seven. ‘The marriage started poorly and went downhill from there,’ wrote Petersen. ‘Perennial mutual resentment’ was how another writer described the union that spluttered and flared for twenty torturous years until ending in permanent separation.33
Dwight Moody’s Christian graces have rightly been extolled, but have you heard of his temper? In public he once pushed someone with such violence that the man was sent reeling down the stairs. ‘This meeting is killed,’ gasped a friend of Moody, ‘The large number who have seen the whole thing will hardly be in a condition to be influenced by anything more Mr Moody may say tonight.’34
Martin Luther wrote things about Jews that, to say the least, are highly regrettable.35And many of our early Protestant heroes in Europe, Britain and America, favored killing their theological opponents at the stake or gallows.36
It takes a special life to win the devotion of natives the way David Livingstone did. Stanley glued himself to Livingstone day and night, week after week, and the experience melted his hard journalist’s heart. Four months of intense scrutiny led him to praise Livingstone’s piety, gentleness and zeal. ‘I never found a fault in him,’ he marveled. Yet though we could dwell long on the virtues that gilded Livingstone’s soul, slag touched the gold. It is said that throughout his life serious personality defects dogged his service.37
John Sung has been called rude, stubborn, a poor family man, and China’s greatest evangelist.38
Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision had one driving passion: ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.’ An experienced biographer and researcher lauded him, declaring that ‘few people in history’ have ‘demonstrated greater compassion for suffering humanity than Bob Pierce.’ Yet just sentences later we read that ‘the love that he gave so freely’ to others ‘was given so sparingly to the ones who needed it most – his wife and his daughters.’39
If you knew C. T. Studd personally you would probably be offended by his authoritarianism, his sledge-hammer bluntness, his harsh ultimatums. Like his own mission committee, you might worry about his use of morphine and want to suppress his book Don’t Care a Damn. In common with those who knew and loved him most – even close family members – you may feel compelled to withdraw from this great missionary.40
We cannot idolize our heroes without falling into heresy, such as the satanic lie that being used by God is a reward for living an exemplary life. Service – like salvation, holiness and every other spiritual gift – is always an undeserved gift received by childlike faith.a God broke into Paul’s life and assigned to him his enormous ministry, not after he had proved himself, but when the man was fuming with murderous rage against Christ; while he was still – as he later confessed – the ‘chief’ of sinners, torturing Christians in the hope of making them blaspheme.b Though it was years before he was released into its fullness, the timing of that original call is both illuminating and liberating. May the implications ricochet within our heads until our dying day.
Yes, our character flaws grieve and defame the Holy One. Yes, we must move heaven and earth to root out our shame. And yes, as impossible as it sounds, God’s holy power can trickle through flawed, sin-stained channels to a thirsty world.
God does not use synthetic saints petrified in stained glass or mummified in strained biographies. If the paper people squashed between book covers or exhibited in special Sunday services seem real to you, you’ll love the Easter Bunny. If you were thinking of cornering the market on your brand of inadequacy, forget it; heaven’s databanks bulge with the triumphs of people with quirks like yours. Heaven’s heroes are people with pimples and stringy hair; people with wrinkles and pug noses. If you’d like to see a real saint-in-training, a cheeky Master’s apprentice poised to gelignite Hell’s gates, someone on the brink of eternal acclaim, go to your mirror.
Some of us live life in the fast lane. I’d be happy to get out of the parking lot.
I was reading about John Wesley. The more I read, the more inadequate I felt. Like Luther and several other famous Christians, Wesley seemed to have the abilities and do the work of ten men. I’ll quarantine further details lest I spread my gloom. Yet as I groped through the fog I began to query my suppositions. Is God so short of workers that he particularly needs someone to do the work of ten? Could not you and I be among the ten or even a thousand who together could equal a Luther or a Wesley? Are God’s gifts so puny that they must be concentrated in the hands of a few before they are of value? Is the need of the hour for more Wesleys or for ordinary Christians to overpower discouragement and start pulling their weight?
Let’s be content to fulfill our God-appointed task. It alone, delights the Father’s heart and brings the joyous satisfaction we were born for. The pressure to fill someone else’s shoes is not from God. It leads only to corns!