In the last year, a number of heroes have been exposed. Historical figures have had their faults revealed and, in the light of 2020, history seemingly has been redacted. There is a cancel culture abroad. We’ve seen protests against those who were once celebrated; even figures in church history have not been immune to this. How do we as Christians respond? How should we view our heroes? I want to argue that as Christians we need heroes, but we also need to have a sober view of history without idealizing heroic figures on the one hand or dismissing them on the other.
The Apostle Paul is a hero—he was a man who proclaimed Christ unashamedly. He took the gospel to the world, he wrote most of the New Testament, he stood for the truth, endured persecution, fought the fight, and finished the race in heroic fashion. He tells us to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). He’s a model Christian, but was he perfect? Was he a man without flaws? We know he wasn’t; he describes himself as the chief of sinners, he writes of sin dwelling in his body, and he even goes as far as to describe himself as a wretched man. A hero, most definitely, but a flawed hero.
Think of Abraham—the friend of God and the father of the faithful, a man of faith, who left all to follow the call of God. But Abraham had character flaws, he repeatedly lied about his wife, and there was cowardice in his character. How about great King David? A man after God’s own heart who led God’s people gloriously, a giant slayer, the sweet psalmist of Israel, and yet we know he committed adultery and murder. The Bible is a wonderfully “real” book—it doesn’t hide the flaws of its characters.
Hebrews 11 gives us a glorious portrait of our heroes and heroines of the faith, and yet they are sinful men and women—Noah falling into drunken disgrace, Isaac and his poor parenting, Jacob and his continual scheming, Moses and anger, Rahab the prostitute, Samson and his pride. Our family heroes of faith from the Bible all had feet of clay. The heroes of our faith were but men and women like us.
As we move from the biblical testimony and look at the world around us, we see that heroes are essential in life. Every culture holds up certain people as those who are worthy of admiration and imitation. However, we need to understand that contemporary Western society has misunderstood heroes and heroism. As those who are in Christ, we must understand the difference between the world’s view and the biblical view of heroes. In our culture, we have elevated the unimportant and the trivial, and so we often make heroes of the wrong kinds of people. We mistake talents, success, or, even more tragically, celebrity for heroism. Our categories have become confused. Sporting success, wealth, fame, and image have taken on a weight that they cannot and should not carry. In our celebrity culture, the trivial has become important.
On the other hand, we live in a cynical age where any heroic act is analyzed and dissected and motives are impugned. There are second or third day’s reports of a news story in which the person behind the heroism is smeared and dirt is cast on what took place. Biographies are written exposing great men and women of the past, bringing little-known secrets out into the open and discrediting their accomplishments. Mark Twain said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” It is as if our world knows it needs and wants heroes, yet it cannot comfortably live with them.
In our society, there is still a deep hunger for heroes, for true human greatness. There remains a need in people to look to others, which we especially see in the sporting and political arenas. The heroes rarely last, and hopes are dashed. The whole process is repeated over and over, but people are still searching.
The biblical view, as you’d expect, is more sensible and fits with our humanity. The Lord Jesus gives us a parable in Matthew 25 where He speaks about a master going on a long journey. The master in the parable gives to his servants talents, each according to their ability—to one he gives five talents, to another two, and to the last one. That is very helpful to us, for it shows us that there are people in God’s kingdom who are five-talent men or women, there are those who are two-talent people, and there are some who are one-talent people. God gives different gifts to each person. There are people in the kingdom of God who are outstandingly gifted. We mustn’t deny that but should celebrate it. Look at a man such as John Calvin or C.H. Spurgeon—God blessed them both with remarkable abilities, and they put those gifts to use and were extraordinarily used by God. Their lives were heroic in who they were, how they endured, and what they accomplished. There are also others, such as Joni Eareckson Tada, who, from her wheelchair, has inspired and taught millions, encouraging us to godliness. She has persevered over decades, faithfully teaching God’s Word. God’s power has been clearly seen in her weakness.
As you read this, you will be able to think of people in your congregation, quietly serving and living faithful and quiet lives under the radar: the mother patiently bringing up her children, the older Christian woman dealing with being a widow after years of marriage, the deacon who has served quietly in the background of church life for decades. Anonymous heroes in the world’s eyes, to whom our culture pays no attention, and of whom the world is not worthy (Heb. 11:38). Think of Jesus’ drawing our attention to the widow in Luke 21 who gives out of her poverty in the midst of the grandeur of the temple while the rich give their offerings out of their abundance. He is teaching us that our heroes, many of whom are hidden, are different from the world’s. As believers, we need, and should have, models of godliness—people whom God has used and is still using. It is one of the ways we grow as Christians—by picking our models wisely. Paul was right when he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
We know these people aren’t perfect men and women. As Westminster Shorter Catechism 16 teaches, “All . . . sinned in [Adam], and fell with him.” These people have made mistakes, and they themselves would see their sin clearly. And yet they are worthy of our admiration and imitation. They are “partial” heroes who live out elements of Christlikeness in marvelous and inspiring but nonetheless imperfect ways. It is right to have heroes and heroines of the faith and to be encouraged by how the Lord used them. But the Bible is always clear that men and women will always disappoint you. It is a lesson that the people of God need to be taught again and again. Psalm 146 puts it so clearly: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps. 146:3). We mustn’t gloss over people’s failings, yet neither should we buy into the cynicism of our age that seeks to discredit and cut heroes down to size. The biblical Christian hears Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23:9: “Call no man your father.”
The search for heroism and greatness ultimately leads us to the one man, Jesus Christ, who has no skeletons in the closet, no past to be ashamed of, no hidden secrets that might be exposed, no vanity, and no ego. His life is the opposite of the trivial. His life showed strength of character, He fellowshipped with the vulnerable and outcast, and He taught with authority. His life showed a courageous determination to save His people from their greatest threat. In Him we see the humility of the God-man who left His throne in heaven and took on flesh, the hero who embraced weakness and submitted Himself to life in this world and was put to death—all to rescue His people. We look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter [hero] of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). A conquering hero who is victorious over the grave and reigns in majesty. A hero who will not let you down, who will not wax and wane over time, whose kingdom will never end, who has been given the name that is above every name. He is the ultimate hero.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 26, 2021.