August 23, 2017

In The Study: Three Stories

ssss.jpgIn my preaching to students from all over the world and many different backgrounds, I am always looking for shorthand ways to communicate the Bible’s message.

For example, I’ve taught my students over the years to say “He (Jesus) lived a perfect life for us, and died a perfect death in our place.” I use this sentence over and over, hoping the Holy Spirit will use it to implant the essence of the Gospel into their memories and hearts.

I routinely talk about the Christian story as “Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost,” using these four holidays as a way to talk about the major points of the New Testament message. We are invited into each one of these stories, often on several levels.

Recently, I’ve been using another shorthand reference that seems to be effective. In characterizing spiritual beliefs, I talk about “three stories.”

The Feel Good Story: In The Feel Good Story, the point of everything is whatever makes you feel good. God is there to fill up your wish and want list. You should be having a good time. The big problem is that you don’t have what you want. The point of your personal beliefs should be, first of all, feeling good about yourself.

The Feel Good Story doesn’t ignore God, sin or spiritual truth. It claims to know a lot about all these subjects, but the point of that knowledge is for you to know just what it takes to have a “great life” all the time. You are in the center of The Feel Good Story.

The Feel Good Story is easy to listen to, and it fits very easily into what a lot of churches want to say to those who aren’t Christians (and, more and more, to those who are.) It goes well with “church growth” and “prosperity” messages. The culture we live in is all about “feeling good,” so it’s not hard to find people who are looking for a God who will help them get what they want in order to feel good.

But The Feel Good Story isn’t the story of Jesus or his offer of salvation. It uses Jesus as a “happy pill” to get whatever we want. And what we want changes as often as the culture can send us a new product or suggest a new experience. The Feel Good Story has a simple, pragmatic point: God wants you to have everything you want now.

Beware of The Feel Good Story. It always lies and it always disappoints. Following Jesus sometimes feels wonderful, and sometimes it feels hard, lonely and difficult. God’s promise of a pain-free life without disappointment are always for a world to come, not this world.

The I’m Good Story: In the I’m Good Story, religion gives us rules to obey so that we will know we are good and others are bad. This can be very simple or very complicated, but the bottom line is that religion tells me what to do, I do it, and as a result, “I’m good.”

The I’m Good Story has always been around, crowding out the Gospel with the more appealing, easier to control story of how each of us can do more good things than bad and know that we deserve God’s love, favor and, of course, heaven.

The I’m Good Story seems to have a lot of the Bible on its side. Everyone knows the Tern Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. There’s plenty for us to do, and if we make a serious effort, we can say that, in comparison to others, we love others, do what is right and avoid what is wrong.

In fact, The I’m Good Story misreads the Bible and misses it’s most important message: God’s gift of grace that counts those who aren’t good, as good, and gives us a new reason to be good.

The other side of the I’m Good Story is being able to easily know who isn’t good. Again, in comparison to one another, it’s obvious that most religious people are “better” by their own scorecard. The I’m Good Story enjoys pointing the finger at those who are different from us, and concluding they are “bad.”

There are many different versions of The I’m Good Story. Some are quite childish, but others are very sophisticated and complex. In the end, all of them tell us we’ve accumulated enough “good boy/girl points” to be in good standing with God.

Sadly, you can hear the I’m Good Story at all kinds of churches that ought to know better than to use it to try and produce “good” behavior or people who care about others. Righteous actions come from the story of God’s grace through faith, and the work of the Spirit in shaping our characters around that story. While similar actions can come from obeying God’s law, if that obedience isn’t grounded in faith, what is produced will not be the fruit of the Spirit.

Beware of the I’m Good Story, and it’s false security of having impressed a scorekeeper God who is playing a religious game with us.

The Grace Story: The Grace Story is immediately different, because it is not so much about us, or about what we feel and do, as it is about God and what God has done for us that we cannot do for ourselves. God’s love, acceptance and continued kindness to us are undeserved. Nothing makes them come to us or stay with us. God simply loves us, and we can be assured and insured by that love, in this life and the world beyond.

The Grace Story is told to us in the many stories of and about Jesus, such as the lost sheep and the lost son. In all of these stories, God finds what is last, least, lost, lonely and even dead and brings it all back to life. We watch Jesus living out The Grace Story in his actions and ministry.

The Grace Story invites us to recognize the grace of God, and to join in a life that relies on that grace for everything. The Grace Story isn’t the Feel Good Story, but it finds its joy in the grace of God more than in the gifts of God, so there is real joy overflowing. It’s also not the I’m Good Story, though it gives us the greatest motive for obedience and the assurance that we still belong to our loving Father even when we fail to “be good.”

The Grace Story magnifies the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It shows us a covenant-making, promise-keeping God who puts forward his Son as the mediator for a broken and hurting world. The Grace Story empowers worship and fills all of life with a worshipful meaning.

Each time we come to the table of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, we’re coming into The Grace Story that tells us “Jesus is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” We’re invited to sit, to stay, to eat, to share and be be accepted into the Kingdom of God by the grace of Jesus alone.

The Feel Good and I’m Good Stories do exactly what we expect them to do: give us what we want and confirm that we are good people. The Grace Story does the revolutionary thing; the truly unexpected thing. It treats sinners and undeserving people as honored guests. It doesn’t do what we want, but meets us at a place of joy and fellowship with God that we have been taught to deny, erase and ignore.

The Grace Story has the potential and the power to change our lives not just at the level of feelings or behavior, but in our deepest motives and identities. The Grace Story removes the pretense and meets us at our worst and most vulnerable with God’s perfect, all-sufficient agape love.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is the grace story. Jesus came as the God-man at Christmas, lived a perfect life that we had not lived, died in our place and for our sins on Good Friday, rose from the dead on Easter morning, then ascended and sent the Holy Spirit into the world on Pentecost. This is the story that God’s people tell again and again. It is the story they invite you to believe when they as you to “accept Jesus Christ as Lord.” The Grace Story is an invitation to believe and belong.

These three stories allow me to talk about the Good News of Jesus in contrast to other ways of seeking to find meaning and significance in life. They aren’t a full systematic theology of Gospel explanation, but I can say as much about sin, etc. as I choose in any of the stories.

Perhaps this will be helpful to some of you. I think they work in everything from a children’s sermon to apologetics with adults.

Comments

  1. Great stuff. In relation to the “grace story” being about what God has done rather than what we do, the Lutheran seminary professor Dr Norman Nagel apparently coined the phrase, “Who’s driving the verbs”? A question to be asked of our approaches to evangelism, salvation, worship, sanctification, the life of the church……

  2. This is such a good post.

    I teach a diverse group of students (grades 6&7). From September to December, we learned nothing but Luke’s Lost Things. It was the Grace Story from every angle we could manage. We did drama, crafts, games with fragile balloon sheep, and chocolate coin hunts. We looked at the art (thank you Henri Nouwen), we mulled hypotheticals, and by the end, when I talked about God’s people, they nodded with the confidence that I was talking about them.

    I do this because I’m battling the other stories you’ve fleshed out so well.

    Thanks for the refining material.

  3. You should write a book, Michael. You should write a book. You could plug it in the sidebar, set up a paypal account to accept credit card orders. I’m just saying it’s good stuff, that’s all.

  4. #1 sure seems “to sell well” around the suburban area where I live. I saw a quote by Earl Creps the other day that went like this, Jesus didn’t come to make our life better; he came to be our life. Unfortunately, I know too many people who fall for #2 and others who have been hurt by it. #3 is really so amazing, as John Newton put it.

  5. I’ve found that a similar approach is useful in talking to people of other religions. It feels weird to have a sentence or a concept when God gave us thousands of complicated pages of inspired revelation, though.

  6. Just for Quix says:

    Excellent.

    I like to think of that defining moment of the realization of Grace as, “I’m Good Enough. I’m Smart Enough. But Gosh Darn It, God Loves Me Anyway!” 🙂