Over the last seven or eight years, I have been drawn to reading biographies of some of history’s greatest men (apologies to history’s greatest women – I just have a harder time relating). I’ve read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, Eric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I just finished John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
Even a little farther afield, I read Unbroken a few years ago, which – if you haven’t heard by now – is the inspiring story of Louis Zamperini who, after a short career as an Olympic runner, suffered one of the most harrowing and grueling journeys after his plane crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during World War II. And I could perhaps also add that I’ve gathered a few gems while reading a recent biography of E. J. Waggoner.
I read biographies for inspiration. I read them to glean insight on what makes great men great.
Because, the truth is, I make it no secret: I aspire to greatness and want to change the world insofar as it can bring glory to God and help hasten His return – recognizing, of course, that I am falling infinitely short of this goal (if my wife and kids won’t confirm my failings for you, certainly the churches I pastor could).
As I’ve gone through these biographies, though, I’ve noticed that these great men seemed to all share a number of common characteristics that made them great. I could list many.
But through it all, I’ve noticed one characteristic in particular that seems fairly ubiquitous, standing out above the rest.
I’m probably late to the party, and it may not be all that profound to you, but this characteristic has stuck out to me quite poignantly. It is simply this: all these great men were willing – no, eager – to relentlessly pursue their convictions even at the risk of great personal loss, some of them even death.
They had convictions, of course. We all do. But what separates a person who is merely a historical footnote and those who are memorialized – and here we could add people like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and of course Moses, Elijah, Paul, and Jesus – is that the latter were willing to not only do something about their convictions, but follow them to the point of personal loss.
Their convictions weren’t merely armchair convictions. They didn’t follow them when it was only convenient, trendy, or popular. They were sold-out and devoted to them, and would not waiver from passionately pursuing them. Indeed, the refused to play it safe. A life of ease and comfort was not an option for them so long as their convictions remained unfulfilled.
In short, they all exercised unparalleled courage – starting, of course, with an absolute disdain for the status quo, followed by an equal obsession with ferociously pursuing change.
The experience of Roger Williams is, of course, fresh in my mind.
After arriving in the New World in 1631 and immediately being courted to become the pastor of the church in Boston – the New World’s most prestigious pastorate – which he declined, he was soon banished from Massachusetts for promoting what he would later call “soul liberty,” i.e., a person’s right to freely follow his or her conscience in matters of worship and faith. Such an idea was extremely radical for his time – and Massachusetts, believing they were in covenant with God to stand as the “city on a hill” that showed the whole world what a Christian nation looked like, would have nothing of it.
They at first decided to send him back to England, but when they issued him a summons, Williams sensed that his life was actually in danger and, leaving his wife and kids in Salem, escaped into the Massachusetts wilderness. For the next fourteen weeks, during the harsh winter, he was sustained by the care and kindness of Native Americans.
Life didn’t get a whole lot easier for him, however, when he emerged in the land south of Massachusetts and ultimately started Providence Plantation and what would later become the state of Rhode Island. For the next two decades, the surrounding New England colonies pressured and harassed, sometimes violently so, Williams and those who took up residence within his borders – all because Williams and his colony promoted “soul liberty” and welcomed people of all stripes and persuasions.
Yet he never relented. In fact, even till his last dying day he never relented. That last dying day came during a time of great poverty, after Native Americans in Rhode Island – many of whom Williams had personally helped for many years – wiped out his home and left him destitute. In a moment of sympathy, his old arch-nemesis Massachusetts offered to lift his banishment if he agreed not to disseminate or vent “any of his different opinions.”
But even to the end, instead of surrendering his convictions, he chose poverty.
It’s no wonder that, of Roger Williams, John M. Barry writes: “Roger Williams never conformed – not even as a child, for even his father had persecuted him for his beliefs as a young boy. Yet for all his conviction, for all his commitment to his own way, it was not certainty he had clung to much of his life. . . . As he had told [John] Winthrop so many years before, I desire not to sleep in security and dream of a nest which no hand can reach” (p. 345).
And such could be said of all of history’s great men. They didn’t stay on the sidelines, privately holding their convictions. They followed them to their logical conclusion, staring straight into the face of danger and putting it all on the line if that’s what it took.
It deserves mentioning, however, that these men didn’t themselves go courting persecution for persecution’s sake. They didn’t intentionally look for trouble. Their goal was not simply to try to incite people.
Their goal was to relentlessly pursue their convictions, come what may.
Neither did they stand on the periphery of society as outsiders or outcasts, unable to gain an audience. They didn’t simply shoot arrows from the outside, trying to pick people or ideas off. They used tact and got into the trenches with people, trying to capitalize – for the sake of their ideals – on the relationships they had cultivated. Again, Barry writes of Williams that when he interacted with his foes from Massachusetts, he was “subtle, charming, gracious, and yet determined” (p. 369).
All this inspires me with the idea that a life free from adversity and risk is not a life worth living. People who play it safe don’t make a difference. They may make a living, perhaps even make a name for themselves, but they don’t make much of an eternal difference.
It somewhat reminds me of what C. S. Lewis wrote about tithes and offerings – which he called “charities.” “If our charities,” he wrote in Mere Christianity, “do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small” (p. 86). And if our convictions and ideas don’t challenge and disquiet the status quo – and as long as we’re this side of heaven there will be a status quo to challenge – then perhaps they’re also too small.
Indeed, people who merely flirt with ideas from ivory towers or quiet, idyllic pastorates, dispassionately and casually debating philosophical and theological minutiae, may tickle the intellect or the funny bone, but they don’t incite revolutions or revivals.
And that, to me, is no existence at all.