Since we were children, we’ve gravitated to stories — we love to hear them and tell them. The best stories aroused connection, conviction, and compassion in us as we listened. They taught us and inspired us. They served as cautionary tales or models of faith to emulate.
Our parents told us stories from their childhood, our teachers read stories from books, and our Sunday school teachers shared stories from the Bible. These stories made us think, laugh, learn, and wonder, with the Bible stories forming the foundation from which our faith might sprout and grow.
In her book “Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World,” Laura Boggess writes, “Children know intuitively that stories help us make sense of the world. Stories have a way of opening us up to the deeper truths hidden in our experiences.” Jesus knew that not only children but also adults with spiritual discernment, with ears to hear, would comprehend deeper truths when He told parables — stories we would remember, reflect on, and retell.
Our own lives are unfolding as stories worth telling.
Truth and Trust Come through Story
The Bible offers wisdom through proverbs and poetry through psalms; it includes laws and letters, genealogies and prophesies, but much of God’s Truth is given in the context of story.
In fact, we’re banking our eternity on story. The plan of salvation is explained in New Testament letters, but the work of salvation is conveyed via stories told throughout Scripture — Old Testament stories set the stage for man’s sin problem and God’s solution to that problem, leading to the Gospels, which contain the climax of the story, as Jesus died once for all.
Through the ages, God’s people told and retold key stories helping us know the character of God; they preserved the stories so we have them today. The telling and retelling can be seen from one text to another: We find references to God’s parting the Red Sea not only in Exodus but also the Psalms (66:6, 78:13, 106:9, and 136:13), Nehemiah 9:11, and Isaiah (23:11, 43:16, and 63:12), where the writers are pointing to God’s track record. It’s as if Nehemiah were saying, “Remember how God saved His people then? If He did that then, we can surely trust Him now!” The psalmists, too, were pointing back to how God worked wonders long ago, as motivation to worship Him for His power. Over and over we see stories that pave the way for us to comprehend Jesus’ work — and over and over we see how reviewing the stories helps us trust and know Him more and more.
Like Nehemiah, Isaiah, and the psalmists, we, too, can look back at God’s track record to have confidence in Him today. When we tell and retell those stories to ourselves — by reading and rereading the Scriptures, by listening to sermons that expand on the texts, by sharing the stories with our children and grandchildren — we keep in front of us reminder after reminder of God’s power and favor so that when we face struggles, we can look back and see: God could be trusted then, and God can be trusted today.
“I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Stories Worth Telling
The Bible’s stories inform our own life stories, so we can find hope to step out in faith in the here and now, trusting a trustworthy God. And our own lives are unfolding as stories worth telling — stories that highlight our stumbling and sin, and our reaching for the Savior to find forgiveness and strength.
We all have a story.
Brandon Stanton, the man behind Humans of New York (HONY), publishes stories of people in New York City and other places he’s traveled. He asks permission to take a person’s photograph, and then asks simple, open-ended questions. He doesn’t rush. The first question he asks is, “What is your greatest struggle right now?” By showing genuine interest and inviting the person to speak, he elicits rich responses that he publishes alongside the image. People pour out heartbreak and struggles as well as joy and delight they’ve stored up inside. Readers connect with the storytellers, to commiserate, to offer compassion and concern, or to celebrate in shared human experiences. Stanton’s project reminds us that everyone has a story.
In an essay entitled “The Singular First Person,” author Scott Russell Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass.” Our stories are for others — they form a door that others see propped open. They peer in and gasp, “You, too? I thought I was the only one!”
As believers, our stories offer something more than the stories from most of the people featured on HONY. Our stories, ultimately, aren’t only about us; they’re worthy of passing on because we can convey and validate God’s faithfulness and goodness in our lives. People can hear our stories and respond not only with “You, too?” but also, “So that’s how you got through. Maybe with God, I can get through, too.”
Whether we’re telling stories of personal loss or of triumph in Christ, we can point people to God, taking every opportunity to share the good news of God’s work in our lives. From core testimonies of repentance and salvation to everyday stories of struggle and hope, our lives reflect the grand story of God’s work in this world.
Consider the simplest stories, like how we learned to tame our tongue on the soccer tournament sidelines or how we sought divine wisdom before responding to our spouse after a heated discussion. Someone in your life may need a reminder to seek wisdom or tame his tongue. Bigger stories, too, of facing rejection or a hard diagnosis may create a connection with a friend or family member — maybe even a stranger — facing grief or despair similar to what God has carried you through. When you share how God met you in that place, you create a connection — you create that door through which others may pass … and find hope.
Learn to Tell Your Story
Some people find it easy to tell stories, knowing intuitively how to build to a key moment and communicate the intensity of that moment, while others struggle to focus on the main point and hold a listener’s attention. We can learn to be better storytellers so when the timing is right, we’re ready: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Think through events in your life, even from as recently as the past few weeks. How have you been struggling? How has God been working? Take notes and figure out what you, as the protagonist of the story, desired but were kept from gaining. What conflict have you faced? Where have you needed help to overcome the conflict? Where is God in your story?
While we don’t have to be gifted storytellers like a Garrison Keillor or John Grisham, we can take a minute to think through how to highlight the struggle — the conflict — we faced and what happened as we faced it. How did it resolve? How did God seem to intervene or be present?
Generally we aren’t the heroes in our stories. As believers, God is the One who empowers and strengthens and provides help in our time of need. God is the hero. And God is present in our stories even when a story doesn’t say so explicitly, as with the story of Esther, where God’s name is not mentioned but His power is evident throughout.
Thinking through our stories, we find our place in His story. God is writing an ongoing story in your life and in mine. At any given moment we may be more like faithless Israel turning our backs on God or the prodigal son turning his back on the father, or we may realize we’ve been as bold as Joshua stepping into the Jordan or Peter stepping out of the boat.
When we take time to reflect, we not only improve our storytelling abilities — we find our place in Scripture’s master narrative.
What’s Your Story?
So, what’s your story? People ask that question to find out more about a person. It’s an invitation to launch into a narrative of our lives — to tell something from long ago or yesterday, something short or long, something that reflects who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
While you’re going to be ready to share your story with whoever asks, remember to ask other people about their stories. Invite someone to open up and share their biggest struggle, their greatest joy. People long to be heard and need someone willing to listen. You can be that person.
StoryCorps has been collecting stories of ordinary people from all walks of life by teaching people to listen. StoryCorps staff provide resources so people connect with each other during a focused time of interaction that the staff records.
For a while the organization sent mobile recording studios to cities across the nation. My brother signed me up to interview my mom. We climbed into one of their MobileBooths, and I asked her questions about growing up in a small Midwestern town during World War II. Mom’s stories, like those of countless others captured through StoryCorps, were recorded that day and are now stored in the Library of Congress for future generations who may wish to hear eyewitness details about life in that era.
When we see the hunger for story harnessed by organizations such as HONY and StoryCorps we know that people still crave stories — to hear them and tell them. Take inspiration and interview someone — a friend, a family member. Ask big life questions, like, “What do you feel most grateful for?” and “What is your happiest memory?” And then quietly listen to show respect to the storyteller and value what he has to say.
As we ask and listen, we’re building compassion as we begin to see through the storyteller’s eyes and walk in his shoes.
Save the Stories
A generation of people ahead of us carries rich stories that will be gone when they pass on. Who is listening? Who is saving these stories? Sure, StoryCorps is recording and highlighting some, but why can’t we do the same thing? What if we intentionally interview people in our congregations and families, recording their stories? After all, we have recording devices at our fingertips — almost every phone has a voice recorder app.
Let’s be historians of the faith stories in our midst. Let’s ask good questions and draw out stories that convey the tension of conflict and the hope of resolution — stories rich in sensory description that help us identify with the person in that situation. Ask permission to record what’s said.
Let’s save the stories.
Just think if the stories of St. Augustine, Eric Liddell, Corrie ten Boom, and Louis Zamperini had not been recorded for us to find encouragement and hope. Someone saved their stories — in some cases, the people wrote it down themselves as memoir. You can do that, too, not only recording others’ stories, but also your own. I plan to, because I need my own stories to look back on. They represent my spiritual heritage, evidence of God’s faithfulness and character I can refer to when I’m struggling to see evidence of Him at work at a particular moment.
Let’s use technology at our disposal and take time to preserve evidence of God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others.
My friend Carol is feeling this sense of urgency as she begins to record stories of God’s faithfulness in her life. Using Psalm 78:4-7 as a biblical precedent for embarking on this pressing, urgent task, she works to save her stories and pass them on to her children:
“We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done …
… he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God.”
As Carol explained on her website, she would never intentionally hide the stories from her children or grandchildren, “yet neglecting to share the stories of what God has done in my life isn’t much better than hiding them.”
John Calvin, in his commentary on Joshua 4:6-7, elaborated on God’s command to His people to share stories with the next generations:
“[T]he [stone] monument furnished the parents with materials for speaking, and for making the kindness of God known to their children. And here zealous endeavors to propagate piety are required of the aged, and they are enjoined to exert themselves in instructing their children. For it was the will of God that this doctrine should be handed down through every age; that those who were not then born being afterwards instructed by their parents might become witnesses to it from hearing, though they had not seen it with their eyes.”
Just as Psalm 78 exhorts parents to pass along the stories, Calvin notes that parents in Joshua’s time were not to hide the deeds of the Lord. They were to tell that story of crossing over Jordan, handing down to the next generation witness of the kindness of God.
Neglecting to share the stories of what God has done in our lives isn’t much better than hiding them, as my friend Carol noted. The Israelites forgot again and again the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord as they wandered in the wilderness. They forgot Who they belonged to, how they were set free, and what they were promised. Next thing you know, they craved Egypt and its leeks. God knew the forgetfulness of His people in the wilderness all too well. Joshua knew it, too, so he must have been eager to call people to tell their children the stories.
We, too, need to remember who we are and to Whom we belong — and then pass it along to the next generations. This act of telling and retelling our stories — and listening to and preserving them — is a way to remember, lest we forget.
The stories must be told and retold, to remind us that God has been at work across the centuries — even millennia — to bring His wandering people back into right relationship.
We stake our eternity on that grand story — the true story that starts in the garden and has yet to conclude with complete restoration ushered in by Christ Jesus Himself.
So, what’s your story?
Ann Kroeker is author of “Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families” (David C. Cook) and “On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts” (T.S. Poetry Press, 2014). She can be reached through her website, annkroeker.com.