Reading About Others' Spiritual Journeys: A Wellspring of Encouragement and Inspiration
If you were to write the story of your life, including the spiritual aspects, what would you include? We all have our own unique stories and can learn from and be inspired by others’ stories. The author of the book of Hebrews recognized the spiritual significance and inspiration of stories belonging to those who seek God. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”
You may find reading biographies and autobiographies of Christian saints helpful and inspiring in your own spiritual journey. Recognizing the value of learning about those in the past who sought to know and experience God, Gerald Sittser, professor emeritus of theology and senior fellow at Whitworth University, gathered such stories in the book “Water from a Deep Well” that spans from the spirituality of the early Christian martyrs to that of Christians in modern times (1). He concludes that “the rich history of Christian spirituality shows us how our brothers and sisters from the past drew upon divine resources to live for God right where they were. They drank from the well of living water, and they call us to drink from the same well” (2).
In the course of my own life, I have read several dozen biographies and autobiographies of such saints, some famous and others less known. These stories have encouraged and inspired me, especially with how these saints have faced and dealt with life’s challenges through their experience of and faith in God. Many examples of what I have read come to mind, and I would like to share two with you in this blog.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived during the first half of the 20th century, refers to prayer through much of his writing, especially in relation to discipleship, living in community, and meditating on Scripture. After the Nazis took over Germany and World War II began, Bonhoeffer’s pastoral and teaching activities were severely curtailed. He began working for Abwehr, the office for spying and counter espionage, that was used as a cover for some working in the German resistance against the Third Reich, including Bonhoeffer (3). Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer continued his daily life deeply rooted in prayer even after imprisonment. He reached out to his fellow prisoners by writing prayers for them, including prayers for morning, evening, and for those in particular need (4). Eberhard Bethge, a close friend of Bonhoeffer and his primary biographer, published a paper that reflected on how Bonhoeffer connected prayer with “righteous action” (5). He notes that Bonhoeffer provided material support for the prisoners, such as arranging for and/or providing legal help, money, and medical assistance, thereby embodying prayer and action in one of the darkest periods of his life (5).
Bonhoeffer’s last day of life was a testament to the power and comfort of prayer in his life. The camp physician who attended him in the hour before his execution would report at a war crimes tribunal that he witnessed the pastor bowing on his knees and praying fervently to God and bravely composed as he ascended the steps to the gallows (6). Bonhoeffer knew that God was with him that fateful day.
In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom, a watchmaker in The Netherlands, shares her story about the persecution and imprisonment that she and her family experienced during World War II from the Nazis for hiding and caring for Dutch Jews. At the end of the book, she provides a profound example of forgiveness. After the end of the War, she began to give talks to various churches about God’s faithfulness to her and her sister Betsie during the hardships of their imprisonment.
After one such talk, one of the former Nazi SS guards wanted to shake her hand. Initially, Corrie hesitated because this person represented the group that hurt her and her family so deeply, including being responsible, in part, for the deaths of her father and sister Betsie. She shares that what finally moved her to shake his hand was that “Jesus died for this man.” As she shook his hand, she found forgiveness and love in her heart for him. Corrie reflects, “And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges but on [God’s]” (7).
How might you be helped and even inspired in your own spiritual journey by reading about the lives of Christian saints? You might start with a book that provides the history of Christian spirituality, such as the book authored by Gerald Sittser. You might also consider selecting a specific biography or autobiography of a Christian saint that you are interested in or has had an influence on your life. May God bless you with stories from the great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith.
1. Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007).
2. Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 295.
3. Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Spoke in the Wheel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 141-43.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Lisa E. Dahill, Reinard Krauss, Nancy Lukens, Barbara Rumscheidt, and Martin Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 157; 171-4.
5. Eberhard Bethge, “Prayer and Righteous Action in the Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Currents in Theology and Mission 4, no. 4 (August 1977), 199.
6. Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 390.
7. Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Spire Books, 1971), 238.