This article stresses the importance of learning from one another, and learning from those who walked the path of faith before us.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2000. 2 pages.

Encouragement in the Faith: The Example of Those Who Have Gone Before Us

Have you ever wondered why we seem so necessary to each other in living the Christian life? Sometimes it would seem more logical, and definitely more simple, if we could pray, learn from the Scriptures and walk with God on our own. After all, have not some of the most holy people led an especially solitary existence? Why is it that most of us seem to need others to keep us going in the Christian life? The answer, it seems to me, is that we have been made like this: to encour­age one another, to help one another and to teach one anoth­er, through the warmth of the witness of our lives; to build one another up in the faith so that together we are made more like Christ. As one helpful friend said to me once: we need to straighten our brother's hair when it gets untidy, and brush the dust off his coat. Spiritually, that means helping each oth­er become more lovely in Christian faith and action. God has given us the lives of His people as examples, as loving instances of Christ to us as we walk the path of faith.

This is how we learn. It is a very biblical point. Not only do the Scriptures tell us directly to help one another and teach one another, but we also see this principle at work in the way the pictures of biblical narrative are presented to us. It is clear that one important reason God gave us stories of the lives of His people was to show us how to live; or how not to live. For instance, several psalms recite the history of Israel as an unfaithful nation (e.g. Psalm 78) with the very purpose of showing, through the lives of their forebears, how the current genera­tion were not to behave. Or again, we are told to remember the lives of Abraham the faithful, or David the devoted, to believe and to love as they did. Hebrews 11 is a remarkable catalogue of those whose lives are depicted as a stimulus for our own perseverance in the faith. Echoing the same princi­ple, though in relation to a specific issue, Paul advises his readers to follow his example as he follows Christ's (1 Corin­thians 11:1). How do we learn to live as faithful Christians? By the example and the help of those God gives us, as they teach us and show us the meaning of Christian character. Jay Adams made this point excellently in explaining the responsibilities of the Christian teacher. Students learn, he emphasizes, through the personal example of their teacher, just as Jesus had his disciples "with him", so that they could learn from him. Learning, in other words, is something, which happens when we know those who are the means of our instruction.

Learning in the spiritual sense usually comes through those best known to us here and now. But the lives of those who have lived before us may also benefit us greatly. It can, for instance, be a very refreshing thing to read the biography or autobiography of someone who has lived in quite another time, place and circumstance, but who overcame the very kinds of sin we share. Or perhaps they had similar interests or gifts, and learned to use them in ways that we had never thought of. Maybe they learned unselfishness or self-discipline, more emphasized in their day than ours - and that causes us to realize how selfish we have become. Maybe their approach to prayer was fresh and spontaneous: whenever difficulty came in their day's work they would immediately bring it to God and ask for His help and wisdom. That can be a spiritual "shot in the arm" for us if we tend to become routine, and morning-and evening-only in our habits of prayer.

Spiritually mature and faithful women of the past can be remarkably helpful to us – if their lives have been conveyed discerningly – and if we read them with wise eyes. One thing we should not do is idolise them. Sometimes biographers have made the mistake of writing as if the way to gain spiritual benefit from the lives of their subjects is to fo­cus solely on the strengths and gifts of their subjects, and to magnify their virtues. Nineteenth-century biographers are par­ticularly guilty of this. If we are going to profit from reading such biographies we need to read them carefully. No woman is without weaknesses, and very often we can learn as much from where someone failed as we can from their spiritual vic­tories. Secondly, we should be careful not to treat acts of particular courage or faith in extraordinary situations as a kind of norm — thinking that we are spiritual pygmies because we do not seem called upon to act like this, or because we fear that if we encountered terrible persecution like they did, we might not show such great faith or bravery, and so on. God does give grace according to need, and we should read such stories in that light. Wise reading of such stories will have us looking for a woman's view of God's greatness, or her simple trust in His goodness and power, not for something overpow­eringly unique in her character that we do not see in ours. Likewise, we should not romanticise the time or the place she lived in, as if what she did or thought would be impossible now. If it was a Christian grace that was true, it can be prac­tised now.

With these thoughts in mind I am planning to begin a short series of articles depicting the lives of Christian women from the past. These are women who have made use of the opportunities of their time to bear faithful witness to Christ, and my aim is to suggest a few ways in which we might profit from their examples. Most of these women were well-known or prominent, but where possible I have chosen those who will be less familiar to you, so that we might be less tempted to think of them as "safe" examples so far beyond us in character or circumstance that we could "not possibly" be like them. It is my prayer that their example would strike chords in all of our hearts, so that we are all encouraged to press on in love and good works in whatever calling our Lord has given us as Chris­tian women today.

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