If you’re new to the faith, if you’ve forgotten or were never taught some of these concepts, or if you’re just curious as to how your own story fits in with God’s story, this article is for you.
Human beings crave stories. From very young childhood, we’re entertained by them, cautioned by them, learn from them, and willingly pay good money to be mesmerized by them (i.e., taken out of our own story and immersed in someone else’s) for a few hours—whether in a book, a movie, a play, even a video game or a painting.
I’ve been thinking a lot about story lately in terms of the best-selling book of all time—more than five billion copies sold, and still the best-selling book year after year—the Bible. (The fact that these statistics are still true will hopefully cheer believers living in a post-Christian or nearly post-Christian America.)
The greatest of all stories.
Long before video games, movies, and even books as we know them today, Jesus, knowing the effect that stories have on us, used parables (short stories that illustrate a spiritual lesson) for teaching purposes throughout his three-year ministry. From their clueless reactions to many of the stories’ lessons and meanings, it might appear that his disciples were not always the sharpest knives in the drawer, being pretty obtuse when it came to understanding what Jesus was actually talking about. But to be fair, they were mostly unaware that they were in the living presence of the Savior of the world, God’s own Son, and who’s to say what our responses would have been in that situation? It’s human to be skeptical, even when witnessing miracles right in front of our eyes. We might view the parables as not terribly difficult to understand, but Christians today have the benefit of two thousand years of commentary and analysis, not to mention a firm knowledge of who Jesus is and what he came to do, so comprehension comes a little easier to the modern listener or reader.
But beyond the parables that Jesus told, the Bible is filled with story after story after story. The stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham and Sarah … and that’s just the first 15 pages of my 1,260-page Bible. The story of Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection story takes four entire books to tell, over and over. The history of Israel and the early Christians are told in story form (Exodus, Ruth, 1 Samuel, Esther, Acts). The poets and prophets are storytellers (Job, Daniel, Hosea, Jonah). End-times visions are told as story (Revelation). It’s no wonder we teach children about the Bible using books with titles like The Jesus Storybook Bible, The Big Picture Story Bible (my favorite), Baby’s First Bible Stories, and so many more.
What’s the purpose of God’s story?
Throughout the stories in the 66 short books of the Bible, God’s plan—the story that he’s written—is being worked out and revealed to us from beginning to end. It has an overall plot and many sub-plots, fascinating characters, dramatic and sometimes even funny narration and dialogue, surprising plot twists, parts where you want to close your eyes and turn away (hey, Judges), parts that are hard to understand, parts that make your heart soar or that can bring you to tears, and all the literary devices you were taught in school (foreshadowing, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, imagery, symbolism). Surprisingly, you can read and reread the Bible in almost any order and still understand the story God has given to us.
But even though there are 66 separate books that make up the Bible, and even though they’re split into the Old and New Testaments, and even though the New Testament is sometimes packaged separately like a stand-alone title, the whole Bible is actually telling one story: the story of love and redemption. It’s the story of God’s son, Jesus, and . . .
- why he was sent to us (literally, less than three pages into Genesis and human beings have already blown it, sheesh),
- what happened before he came (this takes a while to cover),
- what he did when he got here (those four books I mentioned above),
- what’s important about his death, resurrection, and teachings (the epistles, or letters, after the Gospels), and
- what will happen when he comes again (just one book at the end, Revelation).
It’s important to realize that it isn’t only the New Testament that’s about Jesus. Everything in the Old Testament (which is 2/3 of the Bible) points to him, too. Although that concept is much too big to explore in this article, if you haven’t read the Old Testament with this in mind, it’s an eye-opening way to understand God, Jesus, and our relationship to them and to one another.
I started reading the Bible in earnest when I was about 30 years old, and I sat under good teaching and preaching for many years after becoming a Christian. Still, it took me a long time to put two and two together and realize that the entire Bible was all about Jesus and why we need him. I remember quite clearly realizing, while reading to my children from The Big Picture Story Bible (intended for ages 2-7, and I was in my mid-30s at the time), that I’d been missing something in my own Bible reading: that the Bible was quite literally a story. Not just a compilation of many interesting stories, but one story. The story of Jesus, and of God’s love for his people.
Soon after, I began to wonder, what’s my part in this story? In 20th- and 21st-century America, my own timeframe, the world had always told me that I personally had a great and unlimited story. I only had to follow my dreams or believe in myself or (in today’s mantras) have grit or a growth mindset. The world also said that I was both the director and the star of my story. But this didn’t agree with what I was learning in the Bible, which seemed to de-emphasize the significance of me and turn my attention to much greater things. What to make of this disconnect?
What’s our part in this story?
One reason that we’re so drawn to stories, whether the Bible or any other story, is that we each have one of our own. In some ways, we’re the author of our story, because the daily choices that we make have both positive and negative consequences. We experience the outcomes of those choices and they’re interwoven into the story we’re living out (these choices make up our “free will”). But in a much bigger and more important way, God is the author of our story (this idea is “God’s sovereignty”). Our free will and God’s sovereignty are “both/and;” they co-exist and do not cancel each other out.
It may seem that if God is in charge, that we have no freedom, that we’re limited or restricted in some way. But as those who have been Christians for some time can tell you, the fact that God is ultimately in charge is actually both freeing and comforting. We are “free from sin” (this doesn’t mean we’ve stopped sinning, although that would be nice—it means that we are no longer slaves to sin; it doesn’t control us as it used to). We are now bondservants to Christ. In him we find rest for our souls because, as he tells us, his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30).
It’s difficult to see God as the author of your story while you’re right in the middle of it. It’s so much easier to see this when looking back (this is one of the advantages of growing older, for sure). Joseph famously discovered this when he realized that what his brothers had done to him, intending evil, God had actually authored and used for good—good not only in Joseph’s own life, but in the lives of countless others (one of the best Bible stories ever, found in Genesis 37-50). We can see, looking back, how God’s hand was always on us even during times of suffering or pain.
We’re a very small part of God’s story …
In one way, we are a very, very small part of the big story—God’s story. Here’s a shocking truth: despite our natural hubris, our excessive pride, and our great desire to rule over our own little kingdom of one, we are not the star of any story, even our own.
In Psalm 8:3-4, David, a king not short on self-confidence, asks God, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” In a world that constantly tells us from childhood that we are the master of our own destiny, the captain of our own ship, and that if we just believe (in ourselves) we can have or do anything we want, this concept is incredibly countercultural. Yet it’s freeing because the “master of our destiny” idea sets us up for disappointment when we can’t follow through, when our dreams die (and some will die), and when life doesn’t turn out the way that we were promised or had planned.
… and we’re also a very big part of God’s story.
But in another way, we are a pretty big part of God’s story after all. You can think of this using both a microscopic and telescopic view.
The close-up view says that God is paying attention to you, cares about you, and knows what is best for you. Jesus asks in Luke 12:6-7, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Psalm 139 begins by speaking of how deeply God knows each of us: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” Even more astoundingly, God has known you since even before you were born (v. 13-16): “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. … in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” The microscopic view points to a God who has given you a specific, key role in his story. He cares about every line you speak, every entrance and exit you make, and the others you interact with.
The far-off view takes a long-term approach, a perspective that is too wonderful for us to now understand, and yet it’s been promised by Christ himself: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40) To help us understand this in our limited, human way, he explains further, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3) This telescopic view is comforting because despite the twists and turns in our stories, despite our bad choices or the unfortunate hand we were dealt in life, God’s plan for believers has a better ending than we could ever imagine. We can look forward to a room in the Father’s house and eternal life with Christ: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
God’s great story is infinitely better than my small, imperfect story could ever be. Yet this is the story he’s given me, and it’s my job to live it out faithfully and to the best of my ability.
Jesus once told a parable—a story—about a master who put his servants in charge of his treasure while he was away. To the one who had made the most of his master’s treasure (in other words, he was faithful, diligent, and sincere in his desire to follow in his master’s ways) he said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21)
May we be faithful over our own little stories and the part we play in God’s great story.
Related article: Who Knows Your Story?