One of the problems with having heroes who are alive is that they may still disqualify themselves.
Of course, we still benefit from living examples. One of mine is retiring from ministry this September. He’s approaching his 70s and is praying that they will be his best decade yet. He’s finishing his pastoral ministry well, and he’s setting an example for me and others.
But I know other living examples who’ve let me down. It’s why we could all benefit by a healthy number of dead guys (and women) who finished well and can’t possibly mess it up.
Cloud of Witnesses
“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…” (Hebrews 12:1).
Hebrews addresses a problem: many were tempted to turn away from Christ. The writer of Hebrews wants them to endure. He uses a number of different warnings and encouragements, including this one: run well by looking to those who have run well in their generations. Use them as an example.
We sometimes think of the cloud of witnesses watching us. I think it’s the opposite: we’re supposed to watch them. “It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement,” writes F.F. Bruce.
I’m grateful that God has given us living examples to follow. I’m even more grateful that he’s given us dead ones. There are more of them. None of them were perfect, but they’ve completed their race, and many of them stand as an example to motivate us to complete ours too.
Years ago I stood in Bunhill Fields, a burial ground in London, England. It holds the graves of some of my heroes: John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress; Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan author; John Owen, church leader and theologian; Susanna Wesley, the godly mother of John and Charles, the founders of Methodism; Isaac Watts, the hymn writer; and more.
I felt overwhelmed. Talk about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and only in one cemetery. I think of others I admire: Charles Spurgeon, Helen Roseveare, Jack Miller, and more.
J.I. Packer once wrote about his appreciation for the Puritans. They “have taught me to see and feel the transitoriness of this life, to think of it, with all its richness, as essentially the gymnasium and dressing-room where we are prepared for heaven, and to regard readiness to die as the first step in learning to live.” We need that. The Puritans, and others who have lived and died well, can give us this perspective that we might otherwise miss.
We need examples — and the best examples may be dead ones.
We can’t take our own endurance for granted. We need examples — and the best examples may be dead ones. Yes, keep looking at the examples of those who are alive now and serving well. But don’t forget about all those who have gone before. Don’t forget the cloud of witnesses. Don’t forget the dead guys.