Do we learn how to know God and live for Him by studying the doctrines of the Bible, or by considering the personal examples (positive and negative) in the Scriptures? In a word, yes. Understanding what the Bible teaches is always good but it’s also helpful to see how the doctrines of Scripture play out in the actual experiences of people. That’s why Bible biographies can be so instructive and nurturing and challenging (even convicting).
When I was in seminary, one of my professors was Ruth Tucker, author of the book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. That book takes a different approach from most missionary biographies. Instead of just touting the “good things” about men and women of faith, she paints a more realistic picture of these flawed yet faithful followers of Christ. It was criticized when it first came out because many people did not like having their missionary heroes taken off the pedestal. I had a totally different reaction. I liked reading about missionary mistakes and personality problems because I can relate to real people. In other words, I didn’t think I could ever be like Adoniram Judson or Hudson Taylor, but when I read about what they were really like, I thought to myself, “If God can use their weaknesses and shortcomings, then maybe He can use mine.”
The characters in Scripture are very similar to you and me. Each has a mixture of good and bad, of faith and fear. Don’t be intimidated by them. Instead, study their lives and find out how much they are just like you and how you are just like them. James 5:17 says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.”
What are you going through these days—what trials, what challenges, what opportunities, what open doors, what closed doors? Could you use some encouragement or advice from someone who has walked a similar path? The men and women of the Bible can help us in one of two ways:
- Encouraging examples. When we read about what happened in the past, we can find models to mimic and examples to emulate: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). But we will find hope and help only if we submit to what God tells us there.
- Wise warnings. Sometimes when we read the Bible we come across people who did not obey and did evil. This kind of behavior, and its consequences, serves as a warning for us. “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:6-11).
I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror. That’s probably because I have an ugly scar on my chin, the result of a car accident when I was seventeen. I’m also cognizant of the fact that I drink too much coffee and I don’t want to see my pearly yellows. But if I don’t at least glance into the mirror I won’t notice that my eyebrows and ears have become victims of a hairy takeover or that my forehead is a bit too shiny or that I need a shave.
The Bible is like a mirror. When we read it and discover how men and women from the past lived, its reflection gives us encouraging examples and wise warnings. Our challenge is not to just glance at it but to look fully into this marvelous mirror. If we turn away too quickly, we’ll forget what we’re really like and won’t find the help we need in order to change.
If we want the Bible to not only reflect what we are but to also retrain how we’ve been living, we must gaze into the glory of God’s Word and then put it into practice. It must go from our head to our heart to our hands.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25)