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I’ve done what people like me tend to do. I’ve written a Rule of Life. I’ve worked on my mission and values. I’ve imagined what I want people to say about me at my funeral; even more importantly, I’ve thought about what I hope God will say about my life one day.

All of this is helpful, but it can feel a little overwhelming.

And that’s when I turn to another document I’ve written. It’s simply titled “Examples.” It’s got the names and pictures of five people I admire: three men, two women. Two are dead; three are old. Underneath their names I’ve written some traits I admire about them. Ernest was hungry for Scripture, encouraging, and took an interest in others, for instance. Leila was a voracious reader and gracious. She actively served and invested in people younger than her.

My other documents are aspirational and abstract. My list of examples is concrete and hopeful. I look at the lives of these saints and feel encouraged. Some have finished well; some are finishing well; maybe I can be a little like them.

We need more than abstractions. We need examples. I understand the biblical command to love and serve my wife; Ray shows me what it looks like in the way that he honours his. I understand what the Bible teaches me about honouring others; remembering how Ernest honoured me gives me a roadmap. I want to be a pastor who handles God’s word well; seeing Darrell preach with care and love for God and the listener reminds me of the preacher I want to be.

I need to see faces. I need to see embodied obedience, to understand what the commands of Scripture look like when they’re lived out in the complexities of life.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God,” writes the author of Hebrews. “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). The recipients of that letter were tempted to waver in their faith. The author gives them a rich catalog of biblical examples of faith (Hebrews 11). But he then tells them to make their own. Find godly examples, meditate on them, and then follow their examples.

That’s exactly what I try to do a few times a week.

The older I get, the more I realize that aspirations aren’t enough. I’m a little weary of our endless attempts at self-optimization. Life is complex, and we’re weaker than we think. As much as it can help to set worthy goals, it’s not enough.

We need examples. For this reason, I often think about those who have gone before me, who have faced some of the challenges and problems I am facing, and who have shown me what faithfulness looks like in a life like mine.

Try it. Think of some older, faithful people in your life. If possible, include some who’ve died. Meditate on their faithfulness. Write down some of the lessons you learn from them. And imitate them. I think you’ll be encouraged.