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Ask Jani: “What are your favorite Christian biographies?”

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Episode Synopsis

Why should we read? What should we read? Jani and Heidi share some of the Christian biographies that have shaped their lives.

Audio Transcript

Heidi: Welcome everyone. It’s great to be here with you today. Heidi Howerton is here with Jani Ortlund, and today we’re taking a break on our series of going through the 10 Commandments to answer another “Ask Jani” question, so Jani, here it is, “Can you please share some of your favorite Christian biographies?”

Biography Ideas

Here is a “shortlist” of 25+ Christian Biographies that have inspired and encouraged us in our faith! We pray that they might encourage you as well.

  1. Susanna Wesley — Arnold Dallimore
  2. The Hiding Place — Corrie ten Boom
  3. Stepping Heavenward—Elizabeth Prentiss
  4. Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee—Sharon James
  5. Mothers of Famous Men—Archer Wallace
  6. Abigail Adams—Janet Whitney
  7. Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington—John Perry
  8. Martha Washington—Patricia Brady
  9. It’s My Turn—Ruth Bell Graham
  10. Dream Big: The Henrietta Mears Story—Earl O. Roe
  11. Let Me Be a Woman—Elisabeth Elliot
  12. These Strange Ashes—Elisabeth Elliot
  13. Through Gates of Splendor—Elisabeth Elliot
  14. Amy Carmichael: A Chance to Die—Elisabeth Elliot
  15. Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History—Richard Hannula
  16. Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God—David McCasland
  17. Yesterday, Today, and Forever—Maria von Trapp
  18. Marriage to a Difficult Man: Jonathan and Sarah Edwards—Elisabeth Dodds
  19. Jonathan and Sarah: An Uncommon Union—Edna Gerstner
  20. Wives of the Signers—Harry & Mary Green; David Barton
  21. If I Perish—Esther Ahn Kim
  22. Evidence Not Seen—Darlen Deibler Rose
  23. I Dared Call Him Father—Bilquis Sheikh
  24. Mary Slessor of Calabar—W. P. Livingstone
  25. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—Eric Metaxas
  26. Faithful Women and their Extraordinary God—Noel Piper
  27. Becoming Elisabeth Elliot—Ellen Vaughn
View All Biographies

Jani: Oh wow, that’s a fun question. Maybe before I answer it, we can encourage our listeners who think, “Oh well, I just don’t have time to read this. This isn’t for me.” Let me encourage you before you turn it off, please think through this. What is reading? Why would we ever encourage each other to read? Well, first of all, reading is a gift. Not all people know how to read. We’ve had the education to be taught how to read. We can read communication that is written. Oh my goodness. It’s also a responsibility. When I read, I can learn to live outside of my own mental space. I can learn to live above my own life story. It’s a great advantage to be a reader. You get illustrations and Heidi and I will share some of those later on in the podcast from other lives. It really can help you. It gives you hope. It builds your vocabulary. I mean, it even helps in conversations. If you’re meeting someone and you don’t know what to talk about, you can always say, “Have you read any good books lately?” I hope that you’ll be a reader all your life until your eyes give out and then maybe even be a listener to good books. Books and reading, that gift of communicating ideas through words, is God’s idea. He’s the one who gave us the Bible in written form. Now, if you’re thinking, “Jani, okay, I hear you’re trying to motivate me to read, but you do not know my schedule. I can listen to your podcast as I’m working out or while I’m fixing dinner or putting on my makeup, whatever, but I can’t read while I’m doing those things.” In fact, Heidi, do you remember when our elder came to us and asked us to work on this podcast? He said to us, “Jani and Heidi, the younger generation doesn’t read. They listen.” Well, we’re glad you’re listening. We want you to listen to this podcast, but we also want you to read, and this is one way that helps me when I feel I don’t have enough time, I treat myself for motivation. So if I’m going to spend 20 minutes on my phone games, let’s say, then I need to read 20 minutes first. Or you know, sometimes I just fix myself a nice cup of tea and a cookie or a little bit of ice cream and say, all right, I can enjoy this over the next chapter in the book I’m reading. Let your children and husband see you read. Read out loud to them. Let new books be a real treat for your kids. Each Christmas, we used to give our children one new book. How about on birthdays? We used to give them a new book as well. Build a home library, make your home rich with books. Another thing that helps motivate me is to keep a list of books I’m reading throughout a year and another list of recommended reading books that people say, “Oh, this is the best book. You’ve got to read it Jani.” I put it on that list and then year by year I just take that list out and I can see what I’ve read through the years, but be a reader all your life. Now, Heidi, you’re a young mom with three kids and you have this farm. You’re trying to grow Christmas trees and you have part time jobs, not just with Renewal Ministries, but elsewhere. You’re a very hard worker. Your days are very full, but you also read, how do you find time? Can you encourage our listeners and then maybe share one of the books?

Heidi: Oh, I would love to talk about this. I love reading. And my first recommendation is if you’re reading a book and you’re trying to get into reading and you’re bored, please get a new book! Sometimes it’s good to read books that are hard for us, but if you’re getting into this habit, find something that captivates you. Try one of these Christian biographies. Friends, I love reading these stories and I will sometimes read them in a night because they’re so captivating and so encouraging. They cause my faith to grow. Just seeing the things that other women have gone through in their trials, they’re so much greater than what happens in my 24 hours a day and I just love it. So try to find a book that’s rich with the Lord, but that you also love. As far as practical things to do, once we put the kids to bed, Mike and I will try to read for 10 minutes. That’s one way we get through books. We also drive everywhere because we live 30 minutes from town. So if Mike’s with me, I’ll take my book and I’ll read in the car on our 30 minute drives and just find little pockets of time. If I have 10 minutes, I’ll just try to slip in and read a book. Reading good books helps keep me motivated. So an answer to this, “AskJani” question. I love Christian biographies. And Jani, you were one of the first ones to encourage me to read Christian biographies. It was in her discipleship group and it was one of our homework assignments. And what a great assignment it was. One of my favorite Christian biographies is called “Evidence Not Seen” by Darlene Rose. This is an amazing story about an amazing woman. She was a young missionary who, with her husband, went into the jungles of new Guinea to share their faith. I don’t want to give too much away, but I want to entice you to read this story. So while her and her husband are in new Guinea trying to spread their faith there, all of a sudden the World War II gets bigger and bigger and she gets taken into a Japanese prison camp and she spends four years in this prison camp and undergoes the most brutal things. And yet in the midst of it, Jesus shines brighter and brighter and brighter in her life. She sees the Holy spirit and the Lord taking care of her. It’s an amazing story. Tell me about one of your favorites Jani.

Jani: Oh, one of my favorites is called “A Chance To Die.” It’s written by Elizabeth Elliott, one of my personal heroes, and it’s the biography of Amy Carmichael, who was a missionary to trafficked children, particularly young girls in India. It’s a beautiful picture of giving one’s life over to Christ. I love the poetry in it. Amy Carmichael was a poet as well, and I love the reminder that my life can be an offering to God. It’s a beautiful opportunity to give him my life and say, “I’ve got a chance to die for Christ sake.” Now I will add this. I’m very sad to say I have loaned this book out to someone. Heidi you and I brought our favorite biographies this morning for this recording, but I couldn’t bring that. I have loaned it out and the hard part is there is a personal letter written to my beloved husband Ray from Elizabeth Elliot.

Heidi: Oh that’s so hard!

Jani: It is so hard and so Ray is trying to forgive me still. It’s a hard one. He’s a very gracious husband. But I know I’ve loaned it out and if I’ve loaned it out to one of you as a listener, I will pay big money. If you’ll just email me and say “Jani, I have it” I’ll come pick it up. I’ll send you money to mail it home. But if you have my copy of a chance to die by Elizabeth Elliott, will you let me know? If you don’t have it, go buy a copy. It’s really worth it. Heidi, how about another one?

Heidi: Another book I love is called, “I Dared to Call Him Father” by Bilquis Sheikh. Oh my goodness. What another fascinating story. This is about a prominent Muslim woman in South Asia, and how the Lord just on his own pursues her and comes to her. One of the things I love about this work is the evidence of the Holy spirit in her life, the ways that the Lord calls her. Eventually she comes to faith in Jesus. And in that time to come to faith in Jesus, in South Asia, and as a Muslim, you almost have to turn your whole family away or your family disowns you. Her entire life has turned upside down on her quest to find the Lord and then she struggles with with questions like, “How do I give myself to God completely?” and “What happens when I do?” The Lord does amazing things in her life and it really encouraged me to be mindful of the Lord’s presence in my life, minute by minute, hour by hour, day to day.

Jani: That’s good Heidi. Oh, I love that story. I’ve read that too and I recommend that for you. By the way, Heidi and I want you to know that at our website there will be a list of several of the Christian biographies that that Heidi and I have enjoyed and can recommend to you. So we will only share three or four today, but feel free to go to the website for that.

Heidi: I also wanted to mention Jani, that if you’re in a discipleship group with women or you’re mentoring someone, this is a great tool to use to spur on conversation and to draw closer to the Lord together. So if you’re mentoring and you don’t even quite know what to do, I would even suggest reading a Christian biography together. Well tell me another one of your favorite ones Jani.

Jani: All right I will, after I add a tag line onto that! That’s such a good suggestion and another way that you can mentor each other is even to read two different biographies and make a presentation to each other. You can learn how to bring a book into a 20 minute presentation that would be interesting and motivate a friend to read it.

Heidi: I love that. Jani, what a great idea to read different Christian biographies and then share them with one another.

Jani: Yes, it’s another way to learn a new skill. Well, I recommend a very old book. It was first published in 1908 and it’s called “Mary Slessor of Calabar: The Good White Ma Who Lived Alone” by W.P. Livingston. Isn’t that sub-title something? My life is so different from hers. She was born in 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland and she died in 1915 but my heart was drawn to her heart and her love for Christ and surely I just have so much to learn from her. She was single, she was poor. She ministered in Africa. Calabar was a little country on the West coast of Africa and she really helped stir up my own devotion to Christ. I was thinking this morning, even as I was pulling on my boots to come over here, Mary went barefoot all of her life there in Africa. She lived in tiny huts. She didn’t insist on purified water. She ate and drank what her fellow citizens ate and drank there that she was ministering to. One of the things that I loved about her was her strong character. Her strong character was evident really early in her life. She spent 14 years working 12 hour days. That’s like 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM in a factory to help provide for her mother and her six siblings. But you know that kind of strength doesn’t ensure greatness, only using that kind of strength to serve our King and that’s what set Mary apart. The unhappy experiences in her home life didn’t cripple her. Rather they prepared her for a lay ahead. This book would be a great biography to read if you want to ask the Lord to help you overcome pains from your childhood. I saw in this book that God can turn the pain of a difficult childhood into noble and eternal kingdom advances and that was worth everything to me.

Heidi: Jani, that sounds like such a great book. Thank you for sharing. I haven’t read that one yet.

Jani: I think you’d enjoy it. It’s, it’s longer. So it might be one of those that you don’t get caught up in, but I found it at the point in my life when God gave it to me, I needed it and it really helped me. Another one that I would highly recommend is called “Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God” by Noel Piper. Oh, if you guys are just getting into reading and you want to try reading a Christian biography and perhaps are a bit intimidated by the long ones, and don’t know if you have enough time, please, please, please start with this book. In this book, Noel shares the of five ordinary women doing extraordinary things for the Lord and serving his kingdom. And so each chapter focuses on a different woman and I just love that you can get captivated by one chapter and see one woman living for the Lord and her experience with Christ, but it’s shorter.

Jani: Yes. I love that book too, Heidi, thanks for mentioning it and one of the things I love about it as you said, is you can read one chapter. You don’t feel you have to read the whole book. You can get a lady’s life in one chapter and I was thinking of Lillias Trotter and how one of the things that she wrote, Noel quoted her in her chapter on Lillias, applies to what we’ve been learning on the first commandment about putting God first. Here’s what Lillias Trotter says in this book, “Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God.” “It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused and, if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning, where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God and ask him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and his glory. How do we bring things to a focus in the world of optics? Not by looking at the things to be dropped, but by looking at the one point that is to be brought out. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus and look at him and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from him.”

Heidi: Oh, that’s so good, Jani. That’s what I love about Christian biographies is they help turn my eyes to Christ. I’m not just reading to read, but as I’m reading I’m looking at Christ and beholding him and falling more in love with him by seeing him move in other women’s lives.

Jani: Yes, yes, Heidi. Oh, I hope our listeners are getting excited. I think I’ll mention one or two more. A biography I just finished is called “Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon.” She was the wife of Charles Spurgeon, the great famous preacher. It’s by Ray Rhodes Jr. and one of the reasons I wanted to read this is because I’ve been working on a book for pastor’s wives and I wanted to see if Susie had any hope for me and how to be a better pastor’s wife. Here is one commitment that Susie made that really helped me. This is a quote from her. She said, “It was the ever settled purpose of my married life that I should never hinder him in his work for the Lord, never try to keep him from fulfilling his engagements, never plead my own ill health as a reason why he should remain at home with me.” That’s the end of her quote. The author goes on to say, “Though, you need challenges associated with being married to a man who faced incessant demands of his ministry, his literary work, and the multiplied labors of his exceptionally busy life.” Those were overwhelming at times, but the Lord helped Susie to fulfill her secret promise. That promise has encouraged me and challenged me and chastened into me to say, “When am I a drag on Ray? Where do I hinder him? How can I free him and help him to serve the Lord more fully?” So reading this biography was really a challenge to me and I thank the Lord for this book. Let’s wrap this podcast up with one one final biography. It’s a shorter one. It’s called “Jonathan and Sarah: An Uncommon Union” by Edna Gerstner. If any of you appreciate the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, you must realize how important his beloved wife Sarah was to him. I really enjoyed this book. It’s shorter, it’s an easy read. But one of the things it helped me with was my own communion with God because Sarah had a very unique relationship with God that she was known for in her community as being particularly close with the Lord and spending beautiful time with him where you could almost tell she had been with the Lord. Another way that this book helped me was in how to teach children respect and the importance of that. Let me read a quote from this book. “While her husband Jonathan, wrestled with the great theologies of the faith, Mrs. Edwards walked like a child with her God, frequently ecstatic to be with him. Now the face she turned to those about her possessed this serenity she absorbed from those quiet times.” Amazing but true, it seems to be the fact that in raising a household full of children, Sarah Edwards had never been known to raise her voice. Oh my.

Heidi: May that be a set of me one day.

Jani: Yet she controlled her children. It was said she never let the children taste the heady whine of disrespect. Isn’t that amazing? They learned obedience with their very first steps. The heady whine of disrespect. That was so good to me that reminded me that respect is a quality we ought to teach our children early on, not wait until they go to school and teach them how to respect their teachers, but we teach them respect for God by teaching them to respect us. So this book was helpful for me because she was a busy mama with lots of kids!

Heidi: Thank you Jani and thank you for this question and for spending time with us today. I just wanted to remind you again that if you go to our website www.herestoresmysoul.org on today’s podcast, our transcript will have these books as well as other Christian biographies that we highly recommend and as Jani and I are lifelong readers, we would love to hear if there are any Christian biographies that we didn’t talk about that you would recommend? Will you help us grow our list? Would you comment? I would just love to know what you’re reading and how the Lord is stretching you these days. I pray that we would fall in love with reading and we would be a community of readers our whole lives.

Thank You

Thank you for joining us today. This podcast is generously funded through Renewal Ministries. If you would like to discover more about Jani and Ray’s ministry or make a donation, visit their website at renewalministries.com. If you have a question for Jani or would like to learn more about this podcast, please visit our website at herestoresmysoul.org.

Join the Conversation

  • Teri Selbher says:

    Where can I get the list of other biographies?

  • Grace says:

    Thank you for this wonderful list! I have enjoyed several of these biography’s so far!!

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    He Restores My Soul with Jani Ortlund seeks to encourage women with God’s renewing power for their busy lives. Episodes include relevant biblical teaching, stimulating gospel conversations with other Christians, and “Ask Jani” sessions where we talk about what’s on our listeners’ hearts.

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