When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.
I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.
When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.
These days heroes are hard to come by.
These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.
In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”
But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.
I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?
In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.
He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.
Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.
He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.
Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.
If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain
For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”
Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.
It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.
In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah 13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.
John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.