So . . . What Is a Saint?

Kathleen Stephens

I grew up attending a conservative, evangelical church in a conservative, southern town. We did not talk about saints. The only saint I ever heard of then was St. Christopher. And I only knew of him because the lone Catholic girl in my class wore a St. Christopher medal around her neck and I could see it flying around when she jumped rope.

I was perplexed by that. Why did she need that medal of St. Christopher? Wasn’t Jesus enough for her? I always thought that if you had to wear something, it should be a simple cross (and I don’t mean the kind with Jesus nailed to it). Anything besides a plain cross, and especially anything with a saint on it, was suspect in my town.

In the years since then, I have become more open to saints. I’ve heard quite a few of their stories and am eager to learn more. No, I’m not Catholic, but I am profoundly grateful for these people. You see, I have this crazy idea that one person can make a difference in the world. The saints prove me right.

Because walking closely with God makes a person naturally humble, she or he often looks pretty ordinary on the outside. Add to that the fact that saints are—just like the rest of us—flawed human beings, and you’ve got a recipe for anonymity. So if saints are like the rest of us in so many ways, what sets them apart?

Seven Characteristics of Saints*

Here are seven characteristics of saints, according to Douglas Steere, a Quaker who played an important role in international social ministry after World War II and who arguably was a saint himself.

    • Saints live from the center. They have an integrity about them because every decision or action comes from their having said yes to God.

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  • Saints would rather be faithful than safe. When Mother Teresa was asked how she could keep on comforting the dying of Calcutta when she rarely ever saved a life, she answered, “God did not call me to be successful. God called me to be faithful.”
  • Saints don’t give up easily. Anna’s husband died seven years after they married. She remained a widow and was eighty-four when Luke said about her, “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37).
  • Saints are joyful even in tough times. At the same time that Paul was urging the Philippians to rejoice with him, he was locked up in a prison cell!
  • Saints are visionaries. Instead of seeing things as they are, they see them as they could be. You and I may see a drug dealer or an embezzler, but a saint sees inside to the person who was created to bear God’s likeness.
  • Saints are daring. They don’t just dream dreams, they attempt to act them out. Martin Luther King, Jr. did, even though it cost him his life.
  • Saints are prayerful. Douglas Steere started every morning with prayer, feeling as if he were leaning on the windowsill of heaven looking in. His was “a life of attention to and abandonment to the besieging love of God.”


*Adapted from “Kindlers and Purifiers of Dreams” by E. Glenn Hinson. Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 1996.



There are many saints whose stories we don’t know, some of whom may be alive today. Maybe you know one. Maybe you are one. Be on the lookout today for ordinary saints. They are evidence that one life completely given to God can make a difference in our world.


Kathleen Stephens is drawn to saints, no matter where they are found. A freelance editor and writer who lives near Nashville, Tennessee, she considers mountains to be some of the most sacred places on earth.

—from devozine (March/April 2010). Copyright © 2010 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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