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Aspiring to be a Hero: Lessons of Great Women and Men (Part 2 of 2)

Air Date 02/24/2017

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In a discussion based on his books 7 Women and 7 Men, Eric Metaxas offers an inspiring look at several key people from history, emphasizing how their faith helped them to overcome great obstacles and positively impact the world. (Part 2 of 2)

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Episode Transcript



Eric Metaxas: If you know something is right, you don't really care how long it takes. You do what you believe God has called you to do because it's about obedience to God; it's not about results. Wilberforce said, "I have no choice. God has called me to do this. God will make it work or He won't, but I have to be obedient."

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Insights about the lives of great men in history and what we can learn from them from Eric Metaxas and our host for today's "Focus on the Family" broadcast is Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us. I'm John Fuller.

Jim Daly: Hey, John, last time with Eric, we talked about Joan of Arc. We talked about Rosa Parks, Corrie ten Boom and the need for us to understand the character of these women and it was a great program. I loved it. And even, you know, my boys and I, we talked about it. This time we're gonna talk with Eric about seven men and we aired a program a while back with Eric about seven men, but we only had time to cover a couple of the characters there and we want to come back again and discuss two or three more important people of history and I'm lookin' forward to the discussion.

John: Eric is a radio host, a speaker, a writer and he's perhaps best known for his books about William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but he's really captures some great stories here. We did this broadcast, as you said, some time ago. It was really popular. We didn't cover all seven men though and that's what we're gonna try to do today.


Jim: We're going to. We're in New York City. You could probably hear some of the sirens in the background, but Eric, it is great to have you.

Eric: Hey, thank you for coming to New York City. This is so cool. You know I do a radio show from New York City. It does not compete with "Focus on the Family," so I could plug it (Laughter),

John: It's a fun broadcast.

Eric: Totally different from what you do, although I've had you guys on the program. Well, listen, [it's a] privilege to be able to speak to people about the things that I consider so important, it is a joy. I praise God for it and I praise God for what you guys do every single day.

Jim: We talked last time, like you said, about 7 Women. Let's turn the focus this time to 7 Men.

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: What compelled you to do this? I mean, why?

Eric: Yeah, 7 Men was the first book that I wrote and I wasn't even thinkin' about doing 7 Women.

Jim: Well, ladies should always go first, you know?

Eric: I'll tell you what. Well, I'll tell you, (Laughter) not in this case. (Laughter) Not in this case. I'll explain why. I've written, as you know, longer biographies. I'm working now on a biography of Martin Luther and the thing is, that you can't write a long biography on everybody in history who's great. And somebody said, "Well, why don't you write a book with a few people in it?"

And I thought, wow, you know what? We have a crisis of manhood in our culture right now. People don't understand what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a hero? There's a lot that needs saying. It's not being said and I said, what if I were to write a book called 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness and to highlight the lives of seven men?

One of them, of course, is Bonhoeffer. One of them is Wilberforce. In case people haven't read the long book, they can get the guts of the story. And then there are all these other heroes. And so, I really just thought I want to write this book.

And after I wrote 7 Men, people kept saying, "Well, you gotta write 7 Women right?" (Laughter) And I thought, you know, now that you mention it, yeah. But I wrote this book because I thought there's a particular crisis of manhood in the culture. What does it mean to be a good man? What does it mean to be a great man? What is God's idea of a great man?

Jim: Well, let's take a look

Eric: That's what I want to write about in the book.

Jim: Let's take a look at that. Let's start with William Wilberforce.

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: You wrote that biography, so you know him well.

Eric: Yep.

Jim: Who is he? Many people won't know who he was.

Eric: Yeah, a lot of people won't so know who he is and they're obviously not saved. (Laughter) All right, now let me tell you.

John: Catch the sarcasm in the moment.

Eric: No, yeah, yeah.

Jim: Give us the setting.

Eric: You better catch the sarcasm. No, basically, William Wilberforce, he's one of those figures from history that when you find out who he really was, you're embarrassed you didn't know and that goes for me. I remember hearing about him and learning about him and when I was writing the book on him, thinking how did I go my whole life without knowing this story? Everybody should know this story, just like you should know the story of George Washington or Columbus or you know, whoever.

Well, this is the man who because of his faith in Jesus, led the battle against the slave trade in the British Empire. Now you gotta put this in context. Slavery has been with us since the beginning of time. Human beings, because even though we're created in the image of God, we fell from grace. We're broken. We're sinners. What do we do? We abuse each other and we have empires filled with people abusing other people. And slavery has been at the heart of history from the beginning of human history.

And so, Wilberforce is born in 1759 and slavery is a big part of the British Empire. And he comes to faith in Jesus around his 26th birthday and he believes God has called him as a member of Parliament. I forgot to say he went into politics. And when he becomes a Christian, he says, what am I doin' in politics? I'm here for God's purposes.

And he decides to dedicate his life as a politician in Great Britain to stand up for the African slaves, to bring about the abolition of the slave trade. Keep in mind the year we're talkin' about. This is 1785, long before there's a strong abolitionist movement in America and it was led by a man who was led by Jesus. Make no mistake; he was not a political activist. He was somebody who was first and foremost a Christian. And he led a movement to abolish the slave trade and abolish slavery itself after the slave trade.

He's such a hero from history that the more I learned about him, the more I was embarrassed. I said, everybody needs to know this story, because not only did he abolish the slave trade, but he did 100 other things that by themselves would make him a famous figure in history and it was all done because of his faith and because of his biblical worldview, which let me say, most people in his time did not have a biblical worldview. He stood out like a sore thumb and he said, "I want to get people to see what I see. We're made in the image of God. The first thing is slavery. It has to be abolished," but it led to a host of other things.

Jim: But Eric, it wasn't like an overnight success. It took him decades to win this victory.

Eric: Yeah, well, it's kinda like the life issue of our time, the abortion issue of our time, that if you know something is right, you don't really care how long it takes. You do what you believe God has called you to do, because it's about obedience to God. It's not about results. Wilberforce said, "I have no choice. God has called me to do this. God will make it work or He won't, but I have to be obedient."

Jim: How many years did he fight that battle in the Parliament in England?

Eric: Well, that battle specifically was 18 years. Now let me tell you, he thought he had the votes in the first year. He was a young man and he thought, oh, this is simple. We can just convince the British people and that they've never heard this before and you know, there's some kind of a movement toward democratization and we've got some political people on our side. We can make this happen."

But the forces arrayed against him were the forces of Satan. This was not just about money. I mean, we know that Satan lives in the world of money. There were financial interests that would be crushed if slavery was abolished.

So, he had no idea what he was facing. He was facing a juggernaut of demonic power, because this was something so wicked, so evil that to simply say, "Oh, I'm gonna go in Parliament and give a few speeches."

So, he and a group of people—the Clapham Circle, I write about them in my book—they really prayed and prayed and battled and battled and it was a brutal battle. And it was really stunning that they even were able to ever do this, but it took 18 years. In those 18 years, let me just say, it was brutal. It was not a walk in the park.

Jim: Was there ever a sign that he was despairing of the path?

Eric: Oh, yeah, no, he really struggled.

Jim: I mean, that's very human.

Eric: Now I can say this. The short answer is no. He knew that he belonged to Jesus. He knew that Jesus had the victory. This was not some guy who was operating in his natural gifts in the sense that … that he was, you know, saying, "Hey, let's see how this goes." He knew God had called him to do this.

And so, did he struggle? Did he despair at times? Well, in some ways, yes, but did he ever really despair? No. I know that what is so extraordinary about him and it's a lesson to all of us, is that he simply knew that my job is to obey God and to do what He's called me to do. He will bring the victory. And there were people around him who didn't share that point of view and they did drop off.

Jim: Now that was one of two great objects that he wanted to pursue, the abolition of slavery. The other one was the reformation of manners.

Eric: Right, yes, they called it "manners," but what he really meant, that was, you know, 200-something years ago when they said "manners." They really meant "morality" in the culture, reformation of the culture.

Jim: Yeah.

Eric: Okay, so imagine that in 1787 he writes in his journey, I always say these are 20 famous words; he says, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners," meaning the reformation of culture, because he understood that it was a worldview issue.

If you have a worldview operating where people say we're not made in the image of God. We're just, you know, tryin' to get through life," and so, you're gonna have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Slavery, nobody loves slavery, but this is the way it works and we've got other ugly things goin' on. And you know, whatever.

And he said, no, no, no, not whatever. God has called me to bring redemption to this culture in the name of Jesus. The first thing is the abolition of the slave trade. That's the most obvious wickedness of that era. But if you have a worldview that says we're not made in the image of God, if you don't have a biblical worldview, there are 100 social evils oppressing people of every kind and he saw that, too.

And so, he called that "the reformation of manners," the reformation of the culture, because he said there are 6-year-olds working 12 hours a day in dangerous jobs. There's child labor that is so wicked, we cannot have this in a quote, unquote "Christian nation."

The prisons were like dungeons. People are dying in the prisons. He said, we have to have penal reform. Christians have to get involved in this. There was public animal cruelty, where they would do despicable things and the drunken crowds would come and watch animals being tortured and killed and you go on and on and on and on.

And Wilberforce said, if we as a nation are calling ourselves a Christian nation, we have to return to God's ideals and we have to step up and deal with all these injustices. And so, he worked with all kinds of people, some people who disagreed with him politically, who were totally pagan, but he said, "I don't care. I'm gonna work with whoever I have to work with, because it's about the people who are suffering."

In other words, just like in our day, if I have to work with somebody that is, you know, a philanderer and a drunkard, but they're gonna work with me on the life issue, I'm talkin' about the unborn. I'm not gonna judge that person. I'm gonna say, "Where is God's heart?" God's heart is in the unborn.

Wilberforce said, "God is with those who are suffering. What do I need to do as a politician to link arms with people across the aisle to get something done?" He was a masterful politician, so masterful that I hold him up. I sent a copy of my Wilberforce biography to every member of Congress, because I said politicians need to know that your calling as a politician can be incredible noble. Don't ever look at it as dirty business. If God is with you, you can do amazing things.

Wilberforce to me, is the ultimate politician. What he did when you read the breadth of it, it staggers me. You say, nobody could really do this. He really did it, but he would be the first to say, he did it with God's help.

John: And you can read more about William Wilberforce and the great work he did in Eric's book, 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. We've got the book and our previous conversations with Eric at when you call 800-A-FAMILY.

Jim: Eric, you can see the excitement here, because it's like mining. You can go all these different veins to better understand what motivated these men and women like we covered last time.

Eric: Right, yeah.

Jim: Let's move to Eric Liddell, because he's a character, it's a little quirky, but it serves a great purpose in describing faithfulness. Who was he and what did he do?

Eric: Right, well, yeah and part of what I try to do in all of these things is whet people's appetite' to go deeper. Eric Liddell is famous probably to our generation because of a movie that won all kinds of Academy Awards, one of the greatest movies ever made called Chariots of Fire. Now imagine a world where a movie made about a Christian standing up for his quirky Christian beliefs is the hero. Well, that's not that long ago. It's a world not different than the world we live in today, so it is totally possible.

That movie was an amazing movie and it brought Eric Liddell to the world Eric Liddell was the son of missionaries, a Scotsman, very, very zealous for God and he was the fastest man on the planet. (Laughter) And so, he was winning races and they put him in the 1924 Olympics. And they knew that Scotland would probably get its first gold medal, it's first medal ever in 1924 Olympics—big deal, national pride.

And then he finds out that one of the heats, because you know, we had the Olympics last year, the heats on different days, one of the heats that he had to run in for the 100-yard dash was on a Sunday. And this man had a particular conviction, as a lot of his religious brethren did of the day, that you don't do anything like that on a Sunday. I won't do it. I will honor God first, period, case closed. Well, the King, the Prince of Wales, everybody appealed to him and said, "Young man, this is for your nation."

Jim: Just run.

Eric: You must run. Surely God will allow you to run 100 yards in a [race]. He was of a conviction and we have to understand that time, he said, "Look, I'm not at liberty do this. I cannot run on that day." Now what it took to say no to what you would have to say was guaranteed historical gold, everybody knew that the Olympic gold medal belonged to this guy in the 100. It was his.

He said, "I cannot do that. I have to honor God." And it was [an] absolutely heartrending story, because, you know, people were angry at him. Why aren't you running? You're a religious freak. What's wrong with you, what[ever]. He said, "I have to honor God."

Well, a really bizarre thing happened, because he didn't run in that heat, but then somebody said, "Oh, well, maybe you could run the 400." Now the 400 was absolutely not his best race, as he was not a middle-distance runner. He was a sprinter and he was not gonna win the 400.

But he said that he would run the race and you know, he decides to run the 400 anyway. And it's like the Americans, they were the fastest in the race and so, the whole thing, I lay it out in the chapter in my book, 7 Men, because you have to know the details.

But the bottom line is, against every odd, I mean, really when you know the details it's insane; it's a miracle. He won the gold medal in the 400. Nobody even dreamt he would be a medal, maybe a bronze. He won the gold medal in the 400.

Jim: Which he hadn't even trained for.

Eric: No, no, like it doesn't even make any sense, but he won the 400 and he was feted as a hero of Great Britain and Scotland and his witness, I mean, he would go around and give speeches and people would show up to hear him talk about Jesus, because he was their national hero. I mean, it's an amazing story.

John: How old was he at that time, Eric?

Eric: I guess he was 24, I think. But the thing is, that this young man's goal in life was to go to the mission field.

Jim: Yeah.

Eric: And so, anybody who has watched the movie, Chariots of Fire, they think they saw his finest hour. But what's really, really freaky is that, that isn't as amazing as the second half of his life when he goes to China as a missionary. When he goes on the mission field, what he faced on the mission field makes what he went through in the first part of his life look like nothing.

Jim: Huh.

Eric: He's one of the most heroic figures of the 20th century. He has now been recognized as such. The bottom line, the punch line is that, he went into a concentration camp. The Chinese, the Japanese, I mean, as we know, the war was so nasty and for a missionary to stay behind, it was brutal.

And I've actually met a man who was a boy in that prison camp. They all called him "Uncle Eric." He treated them like his own kids. His kids, by the way, and his wife were safely in Canada. He was alone. They were apart from their father. But his Christian witness and his character glowed in the face of evil. And he ministered to the people around him.

He was a father to all these orphans in this camp and at the end of everything, he gave his life so that a woman could live. He said that they were gonna release him and he said, "No, let me stay. You take her." I mean, that didn't come out until 2008 when the Olympics were in China. He was recognized by the Chinese as this great Olympian who did this thing in China in 1944, whatever it was.

Jim: Yeah.

Eric: I mean, it's one of these stories that again, you could weep and probably people will weep when you read it because it's so beautiful. This was a man of God, serving God with his gift as a runner and then as a missionary. And I think if you don't know the story of Eric Liddell, you are missing something huge.

Jim: You know, Eric, when I hear you talk about it and after reading the story, one of the important things is, even when he was staking his heart's desire not to run on that Sunday, he did it in such a way that he didn't offend people.

Eric: Yeah, he was humble, very humble.

Jim: He was humble in it.

Jim: And I think the point is, people appreciated him and what he stood for and honored him because of the attitude in which he did it.

Eric: Oh, yeah. He was not grandstanding.

Jim: Right.

Eric: He was not saying this is about me. He was very humble and I do think that, that's very important for us who are tempted to kinda grandstand for some Christian cause. Be careful, because you want to stand for Jesus, but sometimes in standing for Jesus, you can come across like a big jerk. And if you're comin' across like a big jerk, you're not really standing that effectively for Jesus.

Now it's inevitable we'll be persecuted. People will hate us for doing the right thing, but we really have to look at people like this and Wilberforce is another example of there's a humility there that a lot of people see that. A lot of people and you'll never meet them, but they see your heart and his heart was very humble.

Jim: And what happens in that context is conviction occurs, because those that are mocking Eric and looking at that situation, it probably changed a number of people's hearts about God.

Eric: There's no doubt, and it's the same with Wilberforce, that people on the fence, because of the way he did what he did, there are many people on the fence whose hearts were changed.

Jim: Yeah. Let's talk about another of the seven men that you highlight in your book, Pope John Paul II. Now we in the Protestant community, the Evangelical community can go, "Whoa! Why are highlighting someone from the Catholic community?

Eric: Right.

Jim: It's important because these men and women stand for many of the same things we stand for and it's important for us to recognize their contribution and we have. At Focus on the Family, we have a number of Catholic listeners and we so appreciate them.

Eric: I mean, I'm not Catholic, but I'm a very pro-Catholic non-Catholic. And I think that sometimes we forget, again, things aren't always about theology, right? If I can link arms with somebody who says, the most important thing is saving the unborn, that person is a hero. I want to link arms with that person. I'm not gonna ask them what is their position on post-Trib, pre-Trib or whatever.

And I think Christians who get tangled up in theology at the wrong times, there's a time to talk theology, but there are things that are very, very important that are apart from theology. If we can't all agree that the unborn are human beings whose lives deserve protection—

Jim: Made in the image of God.

Eric: --and dignity, made in the image of God, I don't care who agrees with me. There are atheists who agree with that. There are Muslims who agree with that. If you're talking about that issue, work with the people who agree with you on that issue.

And Pope John Paul II was a hero on the issue of life in the world. He was one of the single voices, heroic voices standing up for the unborn in a way that I don't think you can name a Protestant or an Evangelical who could compare, absolutely powerful. And I would say that many of us who call ourselves Evangelicals, we were swept into the cause, whether we know it or not because of the leadership of John Paul II.

Jim: That's very true. It's very true and we need to be able to recognize that. Not only did he fight for life, he fought for life in a broader context, meaning the battle of Communism and some of the other things.

Eric: Yeah, he's one of these people, he was all over the place in the best way, right? I mean, he was first of all, he was a very young vigorous Pope. People don't remember. I remember I was in like junior high school and I remember that, you know, you have all these old popes and stuff and they had another pope and he dies after a month and then this guy comes in who is a vigorous young 50-something; he was an athlete; he was a genius. He had written plays. He had written poetry. He was this amazing figure.

And the whole world was captivated because you could see the love of Christ and he spoke about the love of Christ wherever he went. He was very bold in speaking about the love of Christ. He wasn't theologically mushy. Anyway, I hope people will read that chapter, but it's so amazing that the whole world was galvanized by this charismatic figure, talking about, "Be of good cheer," because Christ has overcome the world. I mean, he was so vigorous.

And he turned his attention to the life issue, to defeating Communism. Most people who know history know that there are three people who were involved in bringing down the Iron Curtain, the satanic, atheistic horror of the Iron Curtain. Those three people, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. If it were not for the leadership of those three people working in concert and probably John Paul II was the most powerful, if I had to pick of the three--

Jim: Sure.

Eric: --there is no way that we would be living in this post-Communist era where the Soviet Union has disintegrated. He was an enemy of Communism, because he had grown up and suffered under Communism in Poland.

Jim: In Poland, yeah.

Eric: He'd suffered under the Nazi's. He suffered under the Communists. He knew the wickedness, the aggressive atheism of Communism and how it treated people. And one of the singular things he did, he was Polish, of course, is he supported the Polish people in the solidarity movement. I mean, it is such heroic leadership. He gave them strength. He visited Poland and those people were galvanized with inspiration to fight against the wickedness of the Soviet Bloc that was trying to crush them.

Jim: That was the crack in the wall for the Soviets.

Eric: Absolutely and it would absolutely [be] like history changing and it's because of his Christian faith, that this Pope, he didn't lead just as a political leader; he led as a Christian leader uncompromised.

And so, he was one of the longest lived Popes ever. I mean, at the end of his life, he had terrible Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, I should say and he refused to quit. He basically said, I want the world to see that my dignity and my value does not come from able to give great speeches or whatever. It's just to stand as a human being, even if I'm drooling, even if I'm doddering with a cane, because of my being a human being, Christ has given me His dignity. And so, he really, for all the people who are dealing with end-of-life issues, euthanasia, he was a towering example of courage in the face of that.

Jim: Eric, this has been so powerful and I love the discussion on the impact people make who follow Christ and then follow conviction. One of the things that can be a little difficult is these people that you've described had a deep-rooted sense of what God had called them to do. In some cases, they even had a sense that they heard directly from God, that they heard His voice.

Eric: Some of them did, yeah.

Jim: Last time we talked [about] Joan of Arc.

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: What about that person in the modern world who's listening going, "God doesn't speak to me that way. I'm a teacher. I get up every day and I go teach children. How do I hear God that clearly to change the world in a dramatic way?"

Eric: Right, if you make an idol out of quote, unquote "hearing from God" like that, you're off. You don't need to. If God speaks to you that way, great and you can ask Him to do so and God speaks to us in all different ways. Some people hear audible voices. God has led me. In my Miracles book, I talk about how God has led me and other people in all kinds of ways.

But the bottom line is, we have the Bible. The Bible tells us what it tells us. You just say, "Lord, just lead me," if you try to do what you think is right, He will lead you in that. It doesn't need to be a mystical experience. It's real nice if it is, but you know what? Some of the greatest people in history haven't had those experiences. By the way, Wilberforce didn't have a mystical experience. Bonhoeffer didn't have a mystical experience. They were just doing what they thought God led them to conviction.

Jim: Convictional experience.

Eric: And I think that we all need to understand that everything you do can be holy unto the Lord—washing dishes, changing diapers, getting in a car and driving in traffic. We're supposed to do everything unto the Lord, praising Him, knowing that He wants to lead us more than we want Him to lead us.

Jim: Ah.

Eric: And so, all we have to do is have a heart and say, "God, lead me." And you know what? If I'm gettin' it wrong, correct me. We shouldn't make it into some big mystical thing. It's really important that we know that I am no different than the people I write about in these books. That's the point. None of us is different, God loves you exactly the same amount as He loves anybody in these books.

Jim: That's right and it's a matter of simply applying your life to His purposes.

Eric: Whatever that means.

Jim: That is, whatever it means. Hey, Eric, it's been great to have you, 7 Men and of course, we covered 7 Women last time, wonderful examples of how we should embrace the moment God has given us on this earth and live it for Him. I have been just enthralled with these examples. I can't wait to talk to my kids about 'em, too. It's important to teach them to our children.

Eric: Amen, I mean, that's my deepest hope, is that young people especially will get these books, because lives will be changed and I can say that these lives are so amazing that they will change lives.

Jim: Yeah.


John: Well, help us change lives by getting a copy of 7 Menand the Secret of Their Greatness here at Focus on the Family. Call us to get a copy. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or order the book online and get a CD or a download of this conversation, as well. Our website is

And when you contribute generous to the work of Focus on the Family today, we'll say thank you by sending a copy of 7 Men to you. It's a starting point for you to have this book in your home or to share it with somebody and keep the stories going.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

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Eric Metaxas

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Eric Metaxas is a New York Times best-selling author of numerous books including the award-winning biography Bonhoeffer which has sold more than 800,000 copies and has been translated into 19 languages. A prolific writer, Eric has authored essays, poetry, op-ed articles, book and movie reviews and more than 30 children's books. He is also a public speaker and host of the Eric Metaxas Show, a nationally syndicated radio program heard around the U.S. Eric can also be heard on Chuck Colson's Breakpoint radio commentary that's broadcast on 1,400 radio outlets with an audience of eight million listeners. He resides in Manhattan with his wife and daughter. Learn more about Eric by visiting his website,