Eventually I moved on to reading full biographies and was faced with something I seemed by-and-large to have missed before - these men were really sinners. These great ones of the faith sometimes made horrible decisions based upon sinful attitudes or faulty premises. Almost without exception each one held dear some belief or practice I find abominable. Sometimes, or should I say frequently, the very thing which led to their notoriety occurred amidst, or even as a result of, their own bumbling and uncertainty. These men were flesh and blood sinners.
I could argue that this is probably the best reason to read thorough and objective biographies of those we regard highly in the faith. Although little sermon anecdotes and lectures focusing on the high-water marks in the lives of the saints are inspirational and often edifying, if we limit ourselves to these we run the risk of losing sight of something more important: God. We begin to view the successes in the lives of Christians as a result of their good qualities and their exceptional piety. We look for a neat and tidy correlation between obedience and favorable results, between sin and failure. We begin to think that perhaps, if we mimic them, adding their pious habits to our lives, subtracting or avoiding their errors, doing it all just right, we can expect similar results. We begin to view successes as the result of our spirituality and obedience, becoming inwardly (and sometimes openly) haughty. Or, for those of us less naturally capable, and I'm speaking for myself here, we fall short and despair of ever being used by God.
Scripture, however, does not portray its heroes in the way we like to display the heroes of church history - not at all. It portrays them, often embarrassingly, in their sinfulness, while at the same time declaring them righteous. Think for a moment of the "great cloud of witnesses" in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews: Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses. Think of "righteous Lot" (2 Pet. 2:7). Each lived lives littered with shameful moments (which God saw fit to record for posterity), and yet God characterizes them by their faith. I fear we miss the point when we treat their lives as morality tales, lessons on how to gain and keep God's favor, vowing not to make the same mistakes (arrogant in the notion that we will be holier than Abraham if we just set our mind to it) and to emulate their greatest moments (as though we could muster up a heart like Moses' on our own). What then are we to do with them? The writer to the Hebrews tells us. We are to look to them as people like us - people who persisted in faith in spite of their sins, and in spite of the fact that they never in their lives saw the promises they trusted in fulfilled. They lived their painful and messy lives trusting in God and died having never witnessed the cleaning up of the mess. Each one of them died with that nagging question, "What was that all about?" yet unanswered.
"And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 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, 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." (Heb. 11:39-12:2)
Don't you find it strange that we like to look to them while Scripture tells us that they are looking to us? Their unfulfilled promises were to be fulfilled in us. What then are we to look to? We are to look to Jesus. Our unfulfilled promises are to be fulfilled in Him. We are to emulate Him, the only one whose life was untainted, the one who aimed so perfectly at the joy which was placed before Him that He achieved it, not only for Himself, but for us as well, acquiring for us the righteousness of God. It is He who initiated our walk of faith, and He who will bring it to completion. It is our task, our great gift, to look into His face and be transformed. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:18)
And so, what of our heroes, the saints of old, the legendary figures of church history? What are we to make of their glorious yet sullied lives? What would God have us learn from them? I believe He would have us look through and beyond them and their messy lives to the God they looked to. He would have us looking to the Author and Finisher of their faith and ours, willing to go forth when, like Job, we are given no answers, and when neither Scripture nor providence give us any clue as to the "why" of our circumstances. "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth....as it is, they desire a better country that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." (Heb. 11:13,16)