The most effective teaching is by example and imitation. That is how we learned our native language. It is how we learned to do good things and bad things. Example and imitation are also God’s means of conforming us to the image of his Son:
"To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21).
"Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children" (Ephesians 5:1).
"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).
"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7).
Find a person who follows the example of Christ and then follow his example. You have considered the outcome of his way of life, and now you can imitate his faith.
There are not that many good examples, and you may not be near enough to imitate the ones there are. This was Paul’s solution for the Corinthians who had the same problem:
"Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church" (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).
Paul followed the example of Christ. Timothy followed Paul’s example. The Corinthians followed Timothy.
We can do like the Corinthians and follow examples of examples, or we can follow people who are already in Heaven. That is why Hebrews 11 was written.
My life has been greatly influenced by other people. Some of them I could not have known because they lived in another age. Some of them were my ancestors, but some were not related to me at all. Their influence came to me through books. God must have thought that biography was a good way of communicating truth, because He uses it abundantly in the Bible: the lives of Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul are just of few. These biographies are abbreviated, but they are loaded with truth. I remember Bill Pape (author of The Lordship of Jesus Christ) saying years ago that God crammed the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and hundreds of years of history into just eleven chapters, as if he were in a hurry to tell us about Abraham. Then He spent thirty-nine chapters telling us about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Biography is important. It takes truth out of the abstract and puts it into a practical, observable form. Then we can see that the truth can be lived and how it has been lived by people not a lot different from ourselves.
Some of the best biographies were not authored by good writers, so they are not great literature. But they are about men and women who loved and obeyed God. With such books, the person holds my attention, not the author or the writing itself. A few of the people who have influenced my life are George Muller, James Fraser, Amy Carmichael, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, Henry Martyn, Adoniram Judson, William Tyndale, and Corrie ten Boom.
What do these people have in common? They were all more interested in pleasing God than they were in conforming to the evangelical church (including the more dedicated evangelicals). They were all “cross-cultural” missionaries. They were all people of prayer, the Word, and obedience. Fraser, Martyn, Carey, Tyndale, and Judson all translated the New Testament into other languages. Tyndale and Elliot were killed for their faith; Martyn and Judson suffered much.
I would encourage you to read biographies of people who obeyed God. If you are interested in ones I have mentioned, here are a few of the books about them:
• Corrie ten Boom: A Prisoner and Yet, Amazing Love, Not Good if Detached, The Hiding Place, and Tramp for the Lord.
• Books about Jim Elliot by his wife Elisabeth: Journals of Jim Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty, and Through Gates of Splendor.
• James Fraser: Behind the Ranges by Geraldine Taylor, Mountain Rain by Eileen Crossman, and Prayer of Faith by James Fraser.
• Hudson Taylor: Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Howard Taylor and Hudson Taylor by J.H. Hudson.
• George Müller: George Müller of Bristol by A.T. Pierson and George Müller, Delighted in God by Roger Steer.
• William Tyndale: God’s Outlaw - The Story of William Tyndale by B. Edwards.
• Adoniram Judson: To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson.
This is only a brief list. There are many more worthy biographies available. (You can find mine here.)
As you read about the lives of famous Christians, consider these things:
• An autobiography will be closest to the truth, but may leave out embarrassing things or major failures.
• Autobiographies that are co-authored will not be as close to the truth, because the co-author may embroider to make the book more readable.
• Biographies written by another person after the subject has died may be biased to make the person too much of a hero.
Biographies are not inspired, but they can be useful in helping us make right decisions that we otherwise might avoid.