My mother sat down on the edge of my bed and tucked me in for the night. My brother and sister were in the same room, and we all waited eagerly for the story. What was it going to be this time?
My mother had amazing adventures growing up. She told us about the time she fell out of a moving car when the door flew open as they rounded a corner, about the bull that fell into the creek, about sailing weekends away with my grandad and grandma, about exploring around the lake that all the local kids reckoned was so deep it was bottomless.
Many of my mother’s stories were about the creek that ran through their property. She told us how she and my aunties and uncle never drowned in the creek because my grandfather had told them, “If you ever drown in that creek, I’ll give you the biggest hiding you’ll ever have!” So, they never did.
From a very young age, just from hearing that story, I learned to be very careful about playing around with water. I made sure I didn’t drown! From her stories I also learned how to catch an eel in a creek with just a piece of string and bit of meat. I knew how to catch an eel long before I ever saw one.
My father used to tell us stories at bedtime too. He would make up adventure stories for us and often include our friends. We were the Famous Five, and in his stories, we would solve crimes, stop thieves, have adventures, and always do what was right and good.
My father’s stories taught us that we can be heroes, that we can stand up for what is right, and that there is more to us than we ever thought possible. He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but through his stories, he set us up with principles and ideals to motivate us to live up to our potential.
The power of the story is in the emotions and feelings it engenders.
My parents could just easily have lectured my siblings and I, telling us to stand strong, always watch ourselves around water, and do what is right. Maybe they did. But it was the lessons we extracted from the stories that had the most impact on us. We didn’t even realize those lessons were having an effect. Only after thinking back over them 40 years later, I realize what a powerful influence they were in my life.
The power of the story is in the emotions and feelings it engenders. Facts hit the head, but emotions hit the heart. Emotions are far more powerful. Certainly, many of them are persuaded by logic, but when logic and emotion meet, they become an unstoppable force.
Take, for example, the time when an expert in the law asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29 NIV). He and Jesus had just been talking about the greatest commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (v. 27).
But now, this expert in the law wanted to know who to count as his neighbour. Jesus could have gone into legalistic detail, describing from the law exactly who his neighbor was. However, if he had done that, the expert in the law would have disagreed and the argument would still be debated today. Instead, faced with the question, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus responded with, “Well, let me tell you a story…”
Yes, we all know the story he told; it was the story of the Good Samaritan. A man was beaten up and left for dead. Two noble Jews who came past should have taken care of him, but for various reasons, they walked by and left him to die. Finally, a despised Samaritan came where he was and took care of the wounded man, going the extra mile to see him cared for.
We have known the story since our Sunday School days. You have felt the emotions that go with it–the hurt, the rejection, the need, the pain, the guilt, the injustice, and the compassion. No doubt the expert in the law felt it all too. Then as Jesus finished the story, he asked the expert for his opinion. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v. 36). The reluctant lawyer had to admit that it was “the one who had mercy on him.” (v 37). Then Jesus took the story to its highest level, saying, “Go, and do likewise.”
If it hadn’t been for the story, the expert in the law would never have been convinced of the definition of a neighbor. He would never have had a change of heart or compassion toward people in need. His life, and the lives of countless others have been changed by the power of the story of the Good Samaritan.
Storytelling is so effective when it comes to teaching about God that Jesus used it all the time. We learn about his teaching that “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Matt 13:34). Those who were truly interested would make the effort to look beyond the story to the message behind it, but the story would remain to point the people toward God. Even now, the four gospels are essentially books of stories from which we grow to know Jesus.
Stories are much easier to listen to than a list of facts and they are easier to remember later. One of the greatest story tellers I remember from the many Bible Schools I have been to, was Bro. Bob Lloyd. All I need to do is remember a story he told, (the newspaper boy, the chauffeur interview, or his “don’t let the glow go” story) and the lessons come straight back from it. We find it easier to read a novel than to read a work of non-fiction. Again, if a novel grabs me I will read one in a matter of days, but a work of non-fiction—even a good one—can take months.
Storytelling has been a part of every culture since Adam and Eve had children. It may have been Lamech who told the first work story when he got home from the office that fateful evening: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” (Gen 4:23 NIV). Stories can be used to ingrain powerful lessons into the lives of both children and adults, as no doubt Lamech’s story put fear into anyone who heard it.
God took the tradition of storytelling and commanded Israel to use it to teach the next generation all about Him. Of course, He tells us to teach the facts as well, so let’s start there. Moses had just recited the Ten Commandments to Israel, when he said, “These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live.” (Deut 6:1-2 NIV). Then he said, “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (v. 7). That’s a lot of talking, and it doesn’t sound much like stories–but wait there’s more.
God was asking the Israelites to tell the story of what He had done for them so that the next generation would come to know Him. And then He gave them a word-for-word story to tell. Of course, reciting the story word for word would have been a minimum requirement, but anyone who had experienced what God had done in Egypt and through the wilderness could have expanded on the story to no end.
Imagine the awed faces on the children as their parents tucked them into bed and told them stories of what God had done for them: Real-life miracles! Blood? Was it real blood? Did frogs jump into your bed, daddy? Did you see any fish when you went through the sea? Did you run? Was it scary? And the children would fall asleep knowing the strength of the LORD, with confidence in their trust of Him, because of the stories they were told.
God knew the best way to help our children and grandchildren to get to know Him is through stories that describe His power, love, and faithfulness. Listen to what the psalmist had to say about it:
I realize you probably skipped through that long quote so you could get back to the story, so let me summarize it in a sentence: Listen to God so you can teach the next generation all the stories about Him so they will be faithful and put their hope in God.
Another psalmist describes a terrible time in his life when he was in total distress. When he had finished describing it, he said, “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD.” (Psa 102:18 NIV). In other words, the story of the troubles the psalmist went through and his faith in God was to become a bedtime story for future generations. People were going to come to know God because of his story.
Psalm 145 encourages us to tell stories to our children about the glories of God’s kingdom. He says, “One generation shall commend your works to another, they will tell of your mighty acts …. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.” (Psa 145:4, 11-12).
Not many people in the Bible did what Jesus did when, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27 NIV). A lot of studies and background work must go on before we are able to teach that well! But That’s not what Jesus called us to do. As he gave his last instructions to the people around him before he was taken to heaven, he said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIV).
People will always stop to listen to a story
A witness is someone who tells their story: “This is what I have seen,” or “Let me tell you what Jesus has done for me!” They are asking us to tell our own personal story of his influence on our lives. Our personal testimony is a great way of preaching, turning people to the Lord, and making a difference in the lives of our children.
People will always stop to listen to a story, but they are much less likely to listen when we lecture them or try to change their opinions! Jesus told us to tell our stories. Just look at the difference Legion made when Jesus told him to “Go to your home and to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you, that he had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19 NET). As Jesus left, the people were hostile against him, but when he returned later, after Legion had told them what God had done for him, the people came out in droves to meet him. (Mark 6:53-56). Legion’s story had done its work.
Every one of us has a story to tell. Stories are a powerful force for getting God’s truths into the hearts and minds of the people around us. Let’s use the power of stories to teach and inspire our children and grandchildren, to encourage and instruct fellow believers, to spread the word about the saving power and love of God to the people he puts in our lives. No one can resist a good story. Let’s use the stories God has given us to give him glory.
Pakuranga Ecclesia, Auckland, NZ