March 16, 2017

Hero or Saint?

Mention the word “hero” and we are likely to quickly come up with a list of superheroes, movie characters (or the actors who play them), musicians, and sports stars. They are the larger-than-life names that dominate our screens, billboards, and social media feeds.

Not only are we constantly “learning” about them, we are also—and at the same time—being told repeatedly that this is what it means to make it. That I must be the hero in my story, even if only by the shoes I wear or the selective stories I share in the stream of my online persona.

In too many senses, my life can become a massive video game in which what I do, say, and buy are judged by how they will look onscreen for my sometimes-imagined audience. Be honest: for most of us our “likes” generally come from our extended network of friends who should be cheering for us anyway, and could be doing it in more meaningful ways. Or they come from people we don’t know, those with whom we have no real connection; so their opinion doesn’t really matter to us at all.

“The word hero does not appear anywhere in the New Testament.”

When it comes to changing the world—a worthy goal and something we are called to do—we can often begin with this similar mindset. There are those who attain their status among our media heroes for doing good, or for looking like they are doing good. And that can become our definition of doing good: posting the photo with the kids on a mission trip, “liking” an online petition or protest, wearing the right T-shirt, eating only fair-trade chocolate (and posting about it).

All these things are good, but often only a little bit good. When I repeatedly place myself as the hero of these stories, I can easily get these things out of proportion, believing that I am doing much good. I become the hero of my story, at the same time as having this nagging doubt that maybe I’m not quite as great as I’m trying to appear.

And notice how this becomes an individual project. Even when with a group, it is the photo I take that becomes my story. The heroes we watch and follow and applaud are usually individuals. In a team setting, the hero is the one who takes over the game, demands the spotlight, and dominates the conversation.

There are definitely heroes—of a sort—in the Bible. Spend some time reading Hebrews 11, for example: great people who did great things. But notice that this hero status always comes in the context of something larger: “It was by faith . . .” or as part of a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 11; 12:1).

This language is important—and, as the authors of The Justice Calling point out, “the word hero does not appear anywhere in the New Testament.”[1] They argue that this is an important distinction to notice: “The hero vision is different in every way from the portrait of the saint.”

Paul was a hero of faith, but he was focused on the saints around him.

As an example, Paul addressed his letter to the Christians in Rome in this way: “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7, ESV[2]). First, the foundation for this “status” is not our heroics, “likes,” or stuff; it comes from something outside ourselves, something we have been given in being loved by God. Second, it is always a calling, not an achievement or status, and something that calls us outside ourselves. Third, it is always plural. We might be heroes by ourselves; that often comes with the definition of a hero, the one who stands out or rises above. By contrast, saints are saints together: “Every single one of the sixty-four reference to saints in the New Testament is plural.”[3]

You might have the opportunity to be a hero in whatever context, stream, or challenge you fit. If so, do it well, do it meaningfully and faithfully. Make sure it matters. But our larger calling is to be saints: faithfully and together, whether successful or not. More important than accumulating followers is finding those people who share our life, our faith, and our values. Those with whom we can really make a difference in the world, sometimes in big ways, often in everyday and ordinary ways that matter.

Given how Paul began his letter to the Romans, it is hardly surprising that he concludes with a request that these Christians pray for him (see Rom. 15:30), and work with him so that “I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other” (Rom. 15:32, NLT[4]). He then gives a long list of people who were part of the church and the team (see Rom. 16). Paul was a hero of faith, but he was focused on the saints around him and directed “all glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever” (Rom. 16:27).

So hero or saints? Status or calling? “Likes” or loved? Solo or together? Competition or encouragement? Follower or disciple? Instantly or forever? Praise for me or glory for Him?

Choose well.

Nathan Brown is book editor for Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.

[1] Bethany Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson, The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance, Brazos Press, 2016.

[2] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance.

[4] Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ã 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.