I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
When I was in college I went to Daytona Beach over Spring Break with Campus Crusade for Christ. The goal was to do beach evangelism, and they trained us how to use their famous tract, the Four Spiritual Laws, to accomplish that goal. The strategy was to approach someone on the beach, engage them in conversation, and then try to find some way to insert that tract into the conversation. We’d never done any beach evangelism before, so we naively just lapped up the training. I recall one of us saying, “What if they ask us some really hard questions?” The Campus Crusade person replied, “You guys are going to a Christian college; you figure it out.” So a few of us thought of ways to apply what we had been learning in class in case we had to use it in a debate, such as Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God or all of the proofs of the resurrection that we had read about in Josh McDowell’s book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which was a very popular apologetics text at the time.
So after an eighteen hour van ride we reached Daytona, and got up bright and early the next day to hit the beach. One of the first things I noticed was that people had a hard time looking at us because the sun was reflecting off of our pasty white skin. In retrospect I’m convinced that our master evangelism strategy was to glare them into the Kingdom. I went up to one guy and started talking to him, and he responded politely enough. Then I whipped out a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws and laid one of my evangelism pick-up lines on him: “If you were to die today, why should God let you into his heaven?” And I’ll never forget his reaction. He physically fell away from me, as if his body was involuntarily recoiling against the suddenness of the question. It was as if he were saying, “OK, you came up to me and started asking me questions as if you wanted to get to know me and be my friend. And then you go and violate that friendship with a question like that?” That reaction was typical of what a lot of us ran into on that trip. Here I was, all spun up and ready to go, and I couldn’t even win an audience, much less an argument.
So let me flash forward to a conversation I had a couple of months ago. A colleague of mine at work knows that I’m ordained, so he asked me, “What made you want to become an Anglican priest?” So I said, “Let me tell you about a really hard time in 2003, when I was finishing off my dissertation and fighting health problems, and God used both of those stressful things to give me a call to preach, and to call me to marry the woman who is now my wife.” I went on to tell him not only the story of my ordination but also the story of my sanctification, how God had worked in my life over the years to bring me to that point. One of the differences between Daytona Beach and now is that I have replaced syllogism and subterfuge with story. And I have discovered that story not only wins me an audience, but it also sustains that audience in a unique way.
Here’s a question for you. Let’s say your new neighbors invite you over for dinner so that they can get to know the people in the neighborhood. In the course of conversation they find out not only that you go to church but also that you are a true believer in Jesus Christ. “Why?” they ask you. What do you tell them? Or let’s say that a big deadline is coming up at work, and your supervisor asks you to work the weekend to meet it. You reply that you’re happy to put in extra time to help out, but that you’d prefer not to work on Sunday mornings so that you can attend church. “Why is church so important to you?” he asks. What do you say?
A Reason for the Hope that is In Us
A well-known passage in 1 Peter chapter 3, verses 13-17, encourages us to be ready in advance to respond to questions like these. The context of the passage is the reality of suffering for our faith, and the assumption seems to be that the questioners are somewhat antagonistic, which is often the case today. Let me briefly summarize this passage. Peter passes on four points of advice to those who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. First, don’t fear your persecutors or be troubled by them. Second, honor Christ as holy in all that you do. Third, always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you. In other words, anticipate this kind of question, and be prepared to respond in advance. Of course, this assumes that people can actually see the hope that is within you, that you are truly letting your light shine. Finally, Peter gives a warning that no matter what you say, you should expect to be slandered at times, but that you should live lives that are so unimpeachable, so Christ-like, that those who slander you will be put to shame.
But here’s my main point, the thesis of my entire article. We often assume that the “defense” that Peter recommends that we prepare in advance as a response to questions—the reason for the hope that is within us—is a sustained rational argument, an exercise in apologetics. However, I contend that the “reason for the hope that is within us” can be a story, not just a logical argument; more specifically, it can be your story of salvation and growth in grace, or the Story of Sin and Redemption. Especially in our postmodern age, which is allergic to proselytizing and any claims to absolute truth, story is a communication medium that will actually gain us an audience, unlike (for most people, at least) logical debate or even preaching. And the great thing about story is that it engages the emotions, not just the mind. I’ve heard it said that if you want someone to know the truth, tell them the truth. But if you want them to love the truth, tell them a story about the truth. Story is also subversive, because we can smuggle in absolute truth through the Trojan Horse of our relative experience, and embed the “Old, Old Story” of salvation in our own stories, which ends up telling the New Old Story.
Biblical Examples of Story
I’d like to suggest that there are at least three kinds of situations in the Bible itself where the response to questions was a story. The first situation resulted in a testimony, a story of someone’s life experience. An example of this occurred in the Gospel of John, chapter 9, when on a Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who was born blind. The Pharisees were infuriated, and interrogated the man, then his parents, and then the man again. The ground truth that the Pharisees could not overthrow with their questions was the man’s simple story of his own experience: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” What I find interesting is that the man didn’t allow the Pharisees to trap him into making abstract speculations about Jesus. All of his conclusions about Jesus were based on the concrete facts of the story of his encounter with Jesus. And the Pharisees couldn’t argue with the blind man’s story, or even with the conclusions that he drew from his story. Why? It was his story, his experience of Jesus. Besides, he used to be blind, but now he sees. How do you argue with that?
So a personal testimony is one kind of story we see in the Bible in response to questions. A second situation where a story is told in the Bible in response to questions involves a story of redemption, the history of salvation itself. An example of this occurred in the Book of Acts, chapter 17, when the Apostle Paul was in Athens speaking on Mars Hill to an audience of Epicureans and Stoics. They wanted to hear about his “new teaching,” and he responded by rehearsing the story of redemption for them. But he did so subversively, drawing them in by seeming to appeal to their preconceived ideas of truth, and then unexpectedly providing a Gospel twist at the end. The Apostle Paul begins by praising the religious nature of his audience, and identifies their unknown God with the creator God of the universe who made from one man every nation of mankind. The Stoics were probably flattered, and would have been saying to themselves, “Preach it, brother!” because the universal brotherhood of mankind was one of their common themes. Paul continues to support this thesis with quotations from their own poets, and insists that God is near us, not far away, and not locked up in man-made idols of gold or silver, fashioned during times of ignorance. By now the Stoics were probably saying to themselves, “Amen! Somebody!” because he was hitting their hot buttons—the immanence of God and the ignorance of man. Then came the twist; Paul asserts that this creator God has now called all people to repent, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” The Stoics would have been reeling from this turnabout and scratching their heads in confusion; their view of history was cyclic, not cataclysmic, and they certainly did not believe in a resurrection from the dead in preparation for a final judgment. As a result, some mocked Paul, but others wanted to hear more. The takeaway here is that Paul told a story, the Old, Old Story of redemption and glory, and he told it subversively, drawing them in from a position of common ground, and only tugging on the line when the hook was in their mouth. He also told a better story than the Stoics did, a better narrative of reality that integrated the data of human existence into a more coherent drama of redemption centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Let me summarize a bit. The answer to questions about “the reason for the hope that is within us” can be a story, not just a rational argument. And we see at least three kinds of such stories in the Bible itself. One kind of story we find in the Bible in response to such questions is a story of personal testimony. A second kind of story is the story of redemption, the history and future of salvation itself through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now we’re ready for a third kind of story, an indirect or oblique story, which serves as an indirect response to a sensitive or controversial situation. One example is in Luke chapter 15, where Jesus was accused by the Pharisees and scribes not only of hanging out with sinners, but also of becoming intimate with them by eating with them. Jesus responds indirectly to their allegations by telling them a special kind of story, called a parable, in this case the three familiar parables about Lost and Found. In the first one, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd with a hundred sheep who lost one, and left the ninety-nine in the meadow and scoured the land for the one that was lost. When he found it, he not only rejoiced to himself, but he also invited his friends and neighbors to share his joy that he had found the sheep that was lost. Jesus makes this interesting parenthetical comment at the end of the parable: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.” In the second parable a woman had ten silver coins—the equivalent of a biweekly paycheck—and she lost one, and turned her house upside down until she found it. And when she did, she too called in her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. And Jesus made the same kind of parenthetical statement at the end of that parable as well: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And then comes the most famous Lost and Found parable of all, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But this one is “Lost and Found with a Twist:” the son lost himself, and while he was still a long way off he was found by his father, at least in terms of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
Through these parables, these special kinds of stories, Jesus was indirectly telling his accusers that sinners weren’t worthless in the sight of God; instead, they were priceless, and worthy of dropping everything in order to find and redeem them. Instead of grumbling about Jesus, the Pharisees should be rejoicing, like the angels, that the lost were being found. Because Jesus spoke in parables he didn’t come right out and say it, but the implication would have been hard to miss: “You Pharisees and scribes might think that other people are sinners, but you are sinners too, just like they are. Like them, you have lost yourselves, and you need to repent and be found by your Father in Heaven.”
Emily Dickenson wrote a wonderful poem about just this kind of communication strategy:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Stories and parables are great ways of telling the truth slant, especially if the subject is sensitive or controversial, and that’s precisely what Jesus did here.
Telling Your Story
At this point you might be asking yourselves, “OK, what do I actually do with this?” Let me make three suggestions, along the lines of the three story categories that I mentioned earlier. First, always be ready to tell the Gospel through your own story, your story of conversion and growth in grace. You can do this individually—one-on-one with friends or neighbors or colleagues—and you can do this corporately; perhaps you can bake a time of testimony into each Sunday worship service. So let me gently challenge you. What’s your story of faith? How has your life been changed by the Gospel, by knowing Jesus Christ as your Savior? Do you know anyone whose story might also be changed because you told them your story? Second, always be ready to tell the story of redemption and salvation itself, the “Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love,” the “elevator speech” of the Gospel. You know what an “elevator speech” is, right? It’s a concise speech that comes to the point quickly and achieves its purpose in the time it takes an elevator to travel from the bottom floor to the top floor, because sometimes that’s all the time and opportunity you have with someone. But this begs a question—how well do you know your Bible, especially at an overview level? Can you succinctly summarize the story of redemption, from Genesis to Revelation, as a way of presenting the Gospel to someone? My final suggestion is to be prepared to address controversial issues indirectly, through story or parable, telling the truth of the Gospel but telling it slant, so that what you have to say will actually be heard. Tell it slant to a world that often only listens slant. Art is a particularly good vehicle for this, so let me make a plea to you artists out there—fiction writers, song writers, poets, painters—to communicate Gospel truth by telling stories through your art.
Remember—our God is a God of Story, because he not only entered the story of humanity in the incarnation and death of his son, but he is writing the story of our own lives even as we speak. What’s more, he is writing the story of time itself, and when it reaches the ending that he desires, he will close the book and a new story will begin, the story of Eternity in Glory. So let us join together in that great Circle of Story, where the story of the love within the Godhead spawned the stories of Creation, Fall, and Redemption; where the story of redemption in Jesus intersects with our own story; and where our story intersects with the story of others, to come continually full circle again by magnifying the Glory of God and reinforcing the bonds of love within the Trinity.