Biography of a Saint: The Importance of Personal Story

Through the Window

A few (about ten) years ago while still in college, I stumbled upon this book about Gladys Aylward while at home on semester break.

“What’s this? Oh, a missionary book. For kids.” I tossed it aside, but somehow picked it back up later that night. Whether it was boredom or divine inspiration that got me to open the book I don’t know, but I burned through it in a few hours.

Gladys Aylward was a tiny British woman with a lot of faith and no small amount of gumption. In the 1930s, she decided she wanted to go to China and share the gospel. So she did. All by herself. By taking the train as far west as it would go. Through Russia. Then -- she crossed into China. On foot. Through the snow. In the middle of a war zone.

Then the mission work actually started . . . and continued for the next forty years.

When I finished, I was left with nothing but a dazed expression on my face and the frivolity of my life in my lap. I wish I could say the impact of that “kids’ book” caused me to get in gear, gather up some gumption myself, and start blazing my own trail across the world and do some things that actually mattered. It didn’t. But Gladys still stuck with me.

Fast-forward a few (about seven) years. A little older and a little more in tune with the Lord, I was living by myself, without a T.V or Internet, and with a lot of time on my hands. This led to about a millionfold increase in my book purchases. At the top of the list: this one. I remembered Gladys and wanted to know more. The Little Woman is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read, and it’s still one of my favorites. The life of Gladys and the work God did through her, simply because she made herself available and listened to His Spirit, are jaw-dropping-stutter-inducing-make-you-hide-your-face-in-the-book powerful.

I could probably have spent that entire year (or the rest of my life) gleaning wisdom and knowledge from her life alone. But I couldn’t stop there. Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Isobel Kuhn, George Mueller, and Brother Yun followed. And the list is still quite long: John and Betty Stam, Adoniram Judson, and Heidi Baker are just a few people whose stories I have yet to read. But I will get to them, because reading biographies has become a rich and necessary aspect of my life. Similarly, I would argue that it might be necessary in your life too. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The writer of Hebrews used biography -- the account of the lives of others, or a life in its course -- to encourage the recipients of his letter. “The Great Hall of Faith” in chapter 11 takes us from Abel to the prophets, recalling the lives and actions of saints-gone-by. Why? So that their lives of faith would strengthen and increase the faith of those in the present. Those who have gone before have already received a good testimony (Heb. 11:39). Their faith has been proven by God’s faithfulness, and the legacy of their lives -- the tests, trials, and triumphs -- bears witness to His ultimate goodness towards them.

The readers of Hebrews, past and present, are to remember and take heart. When we are facing difficulties, when we feel defeated, when we are tempted to despair, we must look to the stories of others for encouragement, solidarity, and strength to stand up and press on.

Personal experience tells me that when I am in the throes of hardship, I want to close my door on the world, curl up in the fetal position, and stay there indefinitely. This is fatal. The voice of the enemy doesn’t respect my closed door, but barges right in, settles in around my ears, and whispers.

This is too hard. You won’t make it. No one has ever suffered this like you’re suffering through it now. There is . . . no hope.

All lies. The Lord has promised that I won’t experience anything I can’t withstand, or that others won’t understand (1 Cor. 10:13). But without the stories of others to remind me of their necessary perseverance and God’s unfailing faithfulness, I will struggle to believe I can make it, and I won’t have the encouragement of “those who have gone before.”

We must share our stories. We must learn from the testimonies of others. It doesn’t have to be a missionary who lived a hundred years ago. Perhaps you find the time, setting, or work inapplicable to your own life. That’s okay. Find someone who you do connect with. Perhaps it’s a writer or preacher no longer living, whose life circumstances feel like yours and whose message speaks to you. Perhaps it’s someone who’s living their story right now, writing about what God is doing in and through them on a blog or in books. It doesn’t matter who. But find someone outside your circle whose life inspires you, whose actions challenge your own, and whose words encourage your heart. In short, someone you look at and go, “Wow!”

Then -- get excited. Because you haven’t just found someone whose brief yet triumphant time on earth is going to help you better navigate your own. You’ve found someone whom you’ll meet someday. What’s more, if they’ve already arrived in heaven, they’re cheering you on. Above us looking down, or somehow peering through I hardly know, but we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). They are beckoning us onward, calling us upward, hopeful and jubilant that we will one day join them -- if we just press on.

I’ll be honest: Knowing this is the only thing that keeps me going some days. One day we will meet Christ . . . and everyone else with Him. All the stories we’ve read on pages and all the people we’ve imagined in our hearts will suddenly be standing right in front of us. There will be no awkward handshakes or a nervous nice-to-meet-yous. No, it will be a reunion! And, oh the stories we’ll share!

I sure hope Gladys is as excited as I am.

Annie Provencher is a writer living in Virginia.

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