As a kid, I hated reading. I thought it was one of the most boring things a person can do. Then I became a Christian and discovered the rich and worshipful world of theology. I’ve been a voracious reader ever since.
That was 18 years ago. Since then, I’ve read hundreds of books, most of which fall into the categories of theology, pastoral ministry, preaching, and leadership. I’m a thinker and a doer so I guess I just tend to gravitate toward the theological and the practical.
In recent years, however, I’ve made an intentional effort to read more biographies, and now I’m hooked! In fact, I’ve come to believe that good biographies are essential for every library, and I regret not reading more of them when I was younger. Here’s why.
Biographies inspire you.
When I read the biographies of some of history’s greatest men and women, I’m often surprised by how much they managed to accomplish in life – often in the face of some of life’s most impossible odds. I find myself amazed again and again by stories of God’s faithfulness and power displayed in the incongruent and messy lives of mere mortals like me.
This inspires me to shed my limiting beliefs about what God can do with my life. It also strengthens my inner man as I pursue what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” If God can use the likes of people like Augustine of Hippo, Corrie Ten Boom, or Jim Elliot, then why can’t he use me?
Biographies sober you.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from biographies, it’s this: there’s always more to the story. History’s heroes are far more ordinary than you think they are, and history’s villains have more in common with the average person than you realize. When you come to terms with this reality, it causes you to take stock of your own life.
You begin to realize that your life is nothing more than a series of ordinary moments ordained by God to make you into a certain kind of person who accomplishes certain kinds of things in the world. You also begin to realize that your life is more fragile than you think it is. You’re just one temptation away from veering off course the way some of history’s most atrocious people were. The ordinary becomes more meaningful, and grace becomes more necessary.
Biographies reveal that we’re not that different from the famous people we read about after all.
Biographies encourage you.
One of the hardest things about life is the fact that we don’t know the end from the beginning. We have hopes and aspirations for how our lives will turn out, but it can be hard to see past our present difficulties and discouragements.
When you look at your life, all you can see is your past and your present. Biographies are encouraging because they give you perspective. They provide an opportunity to zoom out and consider the sum total of another person’s life from beginning to end. You get to see their successes and failures, their victories and defeats, their triumphs and tragedies. And you also get to see the way that God weaves all of those threads into a unique and beautiful story – for better and for worse.
Knowing what other people went through and how their lives turned out always encourages me, especially in seasons when my own life is messy and disorienting.
Biographies soften you.
Every time I read a biography (especially of famous Christians I admire), I walk away thinking two things. The first is, “Wow, I want God to do in my life what he did in theirs.” The second is, “Lord, I need you!”
There’s just something about reading a good biography that stirs my affections for Christ, awakens my passion for his glory, and reveals my need for his grace. Seeing God work in the lives of ordinary, flawed people like me softens my heart toward him. Seeing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of history’s most admired (and sometimes despised) people causes my soul to long for his presence afresh.
Whether it’s a uniquely Christian biography or a secular one, I find myself with every chapter asking the Lord to take my life and let it be all for him and for his glory. For these reasons, biographies have become a staple in my reading list every year. I hope they’ll do the same for you.
Note: If you’re looking for a biography to get you started, you can find a few here.