Which do you think would most help you live a more purposeful and active life – focusing on the conditions, problems, and hopes of this world, or on heaven and hell, along with its realities of eternal joy and eternal torment? Sometimes you’ll hear the non-religious person say something like, if only Christians (and people of other faiths) focused more on the “here and now,” think of all that they could accomplish.
Yet countless examples of Christians show the reverse – the British lawmaker William Wilberforce comes to mind, who, even as he often meditated on eternal realities, passionately threw himself into myriad social causes, most famously the abolition of the slave trade, as I showed here. And though he didn’t have nearly the same kind of political impact on society, we also find a life of purpose and achievement in the great American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. From Owen Strachan’s brief and delightfully instructive Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Though it seems strange to say in this age, we should think about hell. We should not direct our minds only to pleasant things and passing diversions. We need to take the spiritual world seriously, and to meditate on it and think about it in the course of our daily lives.
“… He [Edwards] studied hell and often remembered what God had saved him from. He did not simply think about where he was going after death; he though about where, but for the grace of God, he would sure have gone. This contemplation fueled his passion for the Lord and drove him to live a serious and purposeful life. Because Edwards looked deeply into the reality of eternal torment, he was equipped to live a life of great spiritual intensity that pointed countless people away from hell and toward heaven” (107-108).
We’ve often heard the truism: actions speak louder than words.
I would add, however, that the next best thing after observing real life examples – whether of greatness for inspiration or infamy as a caution – is to read about them. This is one of the best reasons, apart from sheer enjoyment, for reading good biographies. But don’t take it from me. See what Eric Metaxas, who gave us the excellent and widely acclaimed biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has to say in his recent and terrific Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013):
“You can talk about right and wrong and good and bad all day long, but ultimately people need to see it. Seeing and studying the actual lives of people is simply the best way to communicate ideas about how to behave and how not to behave. We need heroes and role models” (xiv).
Orator, writer, historian, artist, statesman. By all accounts, Winston Churchill was a truly extraordinary man. His remarkable life has been the subject of enormous interest, spawning countless biographies and books on everything from leadership to painting (a favorite hobby of Churchill’s). In his short yet exceptional Churchill (Penguin, 2009), master historian Paul Johnson does us all a great service, providing a concise, vivid, and highly memorable account of one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century. Below are the five lessons Johnson provides from the life of Churchill, excerpted straight from the book.
1. Always aim high.
He did not always meet his elevated targets, but by aiming high he always achieved something worthwhile (163).
2. There is no substitute for hard work.
Mistakes he made, constantly, but there was never anything shoddy or idle about his work. He put tremendous energy into everything, and was able to do this because he conserved and husbanded his energy, too. There was an extraordinary paradox about his white, apparently flabby body and the amount of muscle power he put into life, always (164).
3. Never allow mistakes, disaster, accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get you down.
He had courage, the most important of all virtues, and its companion, fortitude. These strengths are inborn but they can also be cultivated, and Churchill worked on them all his life (164).
4. Don’t waste time and emotional energy on the meanness of life: recrimination, shifting the blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas.
Having fought hard, he washed his hands and went on to the next contest… There is nothing more draining and exhausting than hatred. And malice is bad for the judgment. Churchill loved to forgive and make up (165).
5. The absence of hatred leaves plenty of room for joy.
He liked to share his joy, and give joy…Churchill was happy with people… He showed the people a love of jokes, and was to them a source of many (165).