Why Read History?

Several months ago, I was asked to develop a free online course on the history of Christian missions. (If you are interested, in the course, click here) At first, I wondered why in the world would anyone want to study history. I like history, but for many people that makes me weird.

But you know, there is an answer to this question. One of the most important tools we have for our ministerial and spiritual growth are the stories of others. We have access to these stories when we read their biographies. G. K. Chesterton writes, “Real development is not leaving things behind us, as on the road, but drawing life from them, as a root.” One of the benefits of reading history and biography is that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We see more clearly because of the lives they have lived.

As we read biographies and study the histories of those who have gone before us, what can we learn?

1.Perspective on Trials

The wrong lesson to take from the trials of others is: “It could be worse.” No one wants to learn that lesson.

However, on the other hand, there can be a great benefit when we see that others who have gone before us have endured trials and that the Lord has been faithful to them. We can remember that we are not the first to have walked this road and the Lord has been there all along the way.

  1. Eliminating Naiveté

Good biographies point out that our heroes are not perfect. They are men and women just like us. They sinned. They were afraid. They were successful and they failed. John Piper says that biographies are “Lived Theology. Flawed and encouraging saints. Stories of grace. Deep inspiration.”

It is easy to read history through rose-colored glasses. We imagine those who went before us were flawless or completely flawed. Good biographies show us that God can use anyone — actually, he doesn’t have much of a choice.

  1. Provide Mentors at a Distance

No matter what God has called us to do, we need to learn from others. Good biographies supply just such mentorship.

Learn the lessons of survival and success. Let those who went before you point the way. While their contexts and circumstances are different, it is always helpful to have those who have “been there” and “done that”..When you cannot have someone like this close by, a good biography provides one at a distance.

  1. Provide Tools for Personal and Spiritual Growth

One writer has observed that history, and especially biographies,

“are a great way to find insight … or the motivation you need to complete a project, tweak your workflow, or develop habits that will help you do great work… Your specific job might be different, but the raw habits, routines, and best practices have been developed by remarkable people in many generations. Tap into history for a new level of success.”

We make a mistake when we major on the accidentals, those parts of the story that we cannot replicate. We learn lessons as we examine trajectories and commonalities.

What about you?

Do you enjoy reading biographies? What lessons have you learned?

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