The Life-Shaping Power of Story: God’s and Ours
Desiring God 2008 National Conference
The Power of Words and the Wonder of God
This message appears as a chapter in The Power of Words and the Wonder of God.
“IN THE BEGINNING, God . . . ” (Genesis 1:1).
“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” (Job 1:1).
“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2:1).
“There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John 1:6).
“Jesus said, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers’” (Luke 10:30).
God is telling the world a story. It begins in eternity past and stretches into eternity future. It climaxed two thousand years ago when God entered into his creation in a new way. It could reach its temporal conclusion today — or in five thousand years. The theme of the story is shalom: all things in their created place doing what they were created to do in loving relationship with their creator. And, amazing grace, it is a story into which God invites you and me as characters.
Human beings are story-shaped creatures. We are born into stories, raised in stories, and live and die in stories. Whenever we have to answer a big question — who am I, why am I here, what should I do, what happens to me when I die? — we tell a story. The Ur-story, the foundational story, is the story of God’s love for his creation, and all other stories are to be measured against it. The single best way of conceiving of faith, and of a faithful life, is as a story in which you are a character. Your life task is to be a character in the greatest story every told. It is what you were created for.
If faith were primarily an idea, the intellect alone might be adequate for dealing with it. Since it is instead a life to be lived, we need story. Story, as does life, engages all of what we are — mind, emotions, spirit, body. Faith calls us to live in a certain way, not just to think in a certain way. It is no surprise, then, that the central record of faith in human history opens with an unmistakable story signature: “In the beginning . . . ”
A Story from My Life
I will begin a defense of all these claims with a story from my own life. My earliest memories of movies were formed in drive-in theaters. It was at a drive-in, in the 1950s, in Santa Barbara, California, out by the airport, that I first witnessed the parting of the Red Sea.
Don’t think you understand the parting of the Red Sea until you’ve seen it through the eyes of a nine-year-old on a huge outdoor screen through your car windshield, holding a bucket of butter-wet popcorn. Charleton Heston stood up on that rock, with the weaselly Edward G. Robinson whining about the approaching Egyptian army, and he said something about the power of the Lord and raised his staff and — yousers! — the waters boiled for a moment and then separated into towering walls on either side of a strip of dry land. Then the nation of Israel marched right through the middle of the sea!
It was enough to make me stop chewing on the popcorn and start chewing on the idea that God was God and that, when he wanted to, he could do eye-popping things.
Compare that experience with presenting a nine-year-old boy with the following proposition: “God is powerful.” Certainly true. Nothing I would disagree with, then or now. But also nothing that would make me stop chewing on my popcorn.
“God is powerful” is a proposition, an abstract declaration of fact. It elicits an intellectual assessment — true or false. It tells us something important, but in a very limited way. A story showing — better, embodying — that God is powerful, engages not just our intellect, but our whole person.
“Human beings are story-shaped creatures.”Tweet
When I saw those waters part, I felt it in my stomach as well as in my brain. My breath caught and my pulse quickened just a bit. I was not just seeing something, much less just thinking something; I was experiencing something. I was, for those moments, in the middle of a story — in fact, in the middle of the sea — standing with those frightened Jews, caught up in a miracle. And it was literally awesome. It is now many years and a few educational degrees later. I can reason as carefully as the next fellow. I understand the value of propositions and evidence. I still believe we must start with the stories.
Stories Are from God
Stories are God’s idea. God is the one who created story — the form of story — and us as story-shaped creatures. He has chosen story as the primary way to present himself to his creation. The Bible does not simply contain stories; it reflects God’s choice of the form of story as the primary means by which to tell us about himself and how to be in right relationship with him. It is also the form God has chosen to preserve that knowledge over many, many generations.
Consider, for instance, the story in the book of Joshua of a second miraculous crossing of water in the Old Testament. It is not as famous as the crossing of the sea in Egypt forty years earlier, but just as instructive. This is the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Moses has died and the nation of Israel is now under the leadership of Joshua (a leader, by the way, being primarily a steward of a story). They arrive at the river and find it at flood stage. How are they going to get across?
God tells Joshua to have the priests carrying the ark of the covenant step into the river. When they do so the river stops flowing, and they stand in the middle of the riverbed while the entire nation crosses. When everyone has crossed, God does an interesting thing. He tells Joshua to appoint one person from each tribe and have them go back into the riverbed where the priests are standing and for each of them to pick up a stone.
They are to make a monument of these stones on the other side “to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. . . . These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:6–7).
This is a passage about the importance of memory, about the importance of telling stories. The nation of Israel had a problem with memory lapses. The prophets (who were primarily storytellers) were always telling them to remember the stories of the past because they were the key to the present and future. Think of the prophet Joel commanding the people: “Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation” (Joel 1:3).
When Israel remembered the stories that told them who they were, where they had come from, and who their God was, they prospered. When they quit telling the stories, they no longer understood who they were, and they invited disaster. And the same is true with us. This is why Joshua ordered each of the tribes of Israel to contribute a rock to commemorate God’s provision for them in leading them across the river Jordan. The rock monument in their midst is a story prompt. It will cause the children of the next generation to ask, “Why are these rocks here?” That question will prompt the story, and a new generation will understand the power of God.
Stories and Propositions
This story in Joshua ends with these words: “He did this so that all the nations of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you may always fear the Lord your God” (4:24).
The Lord is powerful. That is a proposition. A declaration of fact. A statement.
It is true. But by itself it doesn’t have a lot of impact. It hangs suspended in the land of abstract assertion. To be meaningful to human beings, it must be given the body and blood of story.
How do we know the Lord is powerful? Let me tell you a story.
What does it mean to say “the Lord is powerful”? Let me tell you a story.
Let me tell you a story about the time the nation of Israel crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land . . . , a story about the time Gideon routed the enemies of Israel with a handful of men . . . , a story about the feeding of five thousand people . . . , the story about the empty tomb.
Propositions are important. The Lord is powerful. The Lord is good. Jesus is the Son of God. Christ did rise from the dead. But propositions depend on the stories out of which they arise for their power and meaning and practical application. The story provides the existential foundation on which the proposition rests. If no story, then no significance for the proposition.
Imagine having all the propositions of the Bible but none of the stories. No Genesis or Exodus, none of the historical books of the Old Testament, no Gospels, no Acts — only Romans, parts of the Epistles, and scattered assertions and commands from here and there. Those assertions and commands would still be true, but we would have very little idea of what to do with them.
Belief is a whole-body, whole-life experience. No one believes anything important with the intellect alone. If only the intellect is involved, it is not belief but merely an idea. That is another reason why we do well to think of faith as a story in which we are characters. Faith, like stories, engages us as whole persons, not as parts.
Belief or faith enlists all the various aspects of the mind — intellect, analysis, intuition, memory, curiosity, imagination. It also engages the emotions — desires, affections, fears. And believing also involves the will — intention, purpose, resolve, motivation, perseverance. Further, what and how we believe is influenced by personality, temperament, and character. And, yes, by the body, as shown by my boyhood reaction to Charlton Heston parting the waters.
And, of course, all the things above are deeply influenced by our life experiences. Our beliefs about God, right and wrong, life and death — and about endless specific issues such as abortion, terrorism, race, immigration, homosexuality, the role of women, and so on — cannot be separated from thousands of life experiences, conscious and unconscious, subtle and overt. And we capture these experiences in story.
How obtuse then to think that we arrive, or even should arrive, at our important beliefs through any single faculty, least of all through leaky reason. Reason is a powerful tool, but it is a tool that will serve any master, including the most odious. We do well to reason as clearly as we can, but we are foolish to pretend that reason alone or any other single mental function can tell us what is true, what is important, what to believe, or how to live.
Do not organize your life around anything that values only one aspect of what you are. If it respects only the reason, it is inadequate. If it appeals only to the emotions, it will let you down. If it values only will power and discipline, it will crack and crumble. Instead, you and I need a story to live by that takes seriously every aspect of what we are as created beings.
Propositions are shorthand for the stories. When we are trying to explain something or correct something, we often cannot take the time to tell all the relevant stories. So instead we use the proposition — the short, hopefully clear assertion. The proposition stands in for the stories, but the propositions also depend on the stories for their ultimate significance.
Fortunately, neither God nor the Bible asks us to choose between propositions and stories. We are provided both, because both have their purpose. Stories and propositions need each other. Each provides a limit that the other must respect — a kind of mutual check.
The propositional truth acts as a check on how we interpret a story. Consider, for instance, the story of Christ’s crucifixion. A fashionable interpretation of that story in some academic circles sees it as a story of divine child abuse, an angry parent demanding the sacrifice of his child to appease his wrath. In this case, it is helpful to test that interpretation against the assertion, clearly stated throughout the Bible, that God is love. The proposition that God is love, distilled from many stories, should cause us to reject as false this absurd interpretation of this particular master story.
Similarly, a story (or stories) acts as a check in how we interpret and apply certain propositions. The Bible teaches clearly that God hates sin and punishes sinners. That truth, however, needs to be understood and lived out in light of stories such as that of the woman caught in adultery. In that story, Jesus rejects both the legalist, when he tells the woman “neither do I condemn you,” and the relativist, when he says “go and sin no more.” Stories offer the richness and specificity and motivation necessary to keep the proposition from being merely abstract, reductionist, inert, shallow, or legalistic.
“Propositions are shorthand for stories.”Tweet
Furthermore, it is helpful to see that the propositions of the Bible are usually embedded in a story. The Ten Commandments, the most famous assertions of all, arise within the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Why these ten? There are hundreds of other commands in the Old Testament, so why highlight these ten at this time?
One possibility is that they are the ones most needed at this point in Israel’s collective story. Israel has come out of a nation with many gods and is surrounded by other nations with many more. They need to keep uppermost in their minds that there is only one God and that he is jealous of their worship. Likewise, they are living in intense community — on an extended road trip together, for better or worse. So they need commands about how to get along within the same tent (with father and mother) and with those in the next tent (with the temptations to envy, theft, adultery, and even murder).
The point is that there are very few propositions in the Bible, and in life generally, that do not originate in and depend upon stories. We are told in Deuteronomy 4, for instance, that “the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the covenant he swore with your ancestors” (verse 31). Note how the assertion about God’s mercy, an abstract proposition, is tied both to their past (“ancestors”) and future (“will not abandon”) stories. Stories and propositions interact to create life-shaping meaning.
Some who emphasize the centrality of narrative in the Bible do so because they are nervous about truth claims. If we can just call them stories, they reason, we can set aside troublesome questions about historical truth (did these stories take place in time and space?) and focus on other kinds of truth — psychological, symbolic, or spiritual. I see the attraction, but I’m not interested. If Christ did not physically rise from the grave, then he joins a huge crowd of “good people” who at most provide us with distant “examples.” If he did rise, he is the Savior of the world. That’s a reality-changing difference, and I am not interested in using the concept of story to blur it.
Others, however, want to define faith primarily in terms of assent to propositions. Give us a list of assertions about God and if we agree to them we are believers — people of faith. These people get nervous when you talk about story, because they suspect, not without reason, that you want to turn faith into a weak broth of comforting tales and do-goodism. Their antidote is vigorous assent to clear assertions about God and his creation.
One problem with this approach is that, by itself, it does no more than put you in company with the demons. In the book of James, we are told a bit sarcastically, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (2:19). Mere assent to a set of propositions is not a demonstration of faith.
There is more than one way to fall off this horse. Separate stories from historicity and a high standard of truth and you turn the most important stories into mere illustrations. On the other hand, separate propositions from stories and you turn them into abstract ideas, uprooting them from the soil that gives them life. Instead, we should affirm the core propositions but never let them get far from the stories and from our own participation as characters in that story.
Passing on the Stories
The Bible understands that stories are not only central to faith, but they are also the natural carriers of faith from one generation to the next. The people in the Old Testament are constantly reminded of their master story — they are the people God rescued out of Egypt — and are admonished to shape their lives around that fact. Build rock monuments by the Jordan as a story prompt, read the newly rediscovered Scriptures by the wall of Jerusalem as you rebuild, hear from the prophets the stories of God’s faithfulness in the past and the possibilities for the future. When God rescues you, tell the story, as Psalm 102:18 instructs:
Let this be recorded for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.
Who is this future generation for which the story has been recorded? It includes, among others, you and me. How is it we have the opportunity to know the God who created us? Because someone lived the story, and someone else told the story, and someone wrote down the story, and others chose to repeat the story, and many were willing to die for the story. And so, generation after generation after generation, the story of God’s love for his creation has been told — and we are the beneficiaries.
Which prompts a question: are we going to be the generation that does not pass on the story? Stories are never more than a generation from extinction. Our institutions for the elderly are filled with stories that are disappearing every day, just as the elderly are. So will the story of faith, unless we tell it — in ways that draw people to make that story their own.
The Bible is many things, but among the most important it is a big storybook devoted to memory. Not memories in the sentimental sense, but memory in the crucial sense of understanding where you come from and what you are to do. And the key to memory is story. The Bible is a book of stories in many different forms — poetry, biography, song, history, letters, and more. It is a collection of stories that are chapters of the one great story: the story of God and his love for his creation. This is the meaning, says the Bible, of the story we call human history: God made us, God loves us, God calls us. That is the master plot of the greatest story ever told.
If you do not understand this story, you will never correctly understand who you are or why you are here. Americans have a great preoccupation with the self — self-analysis, self-help, self-fulfillment, and on and on. Do you want to understand yourself? Do you want to know the meaning of life or what you are to do? Let me tell you a story: “In the beginning God . . . ” That is the opening line of the story of God’s relationship with his creation. It is the story by which all other stories, including our individual stories, are to be understood.
“Are we going to be the generation that does not pass on the story?”Tweet
The Bible offers a master story that we are invited to make our personal story. We become characters in that story. If we join that story, we have both rights and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to remember what God has done and to tell it to the next generation.
The Power of Stories to Change Us
If you want evidence that stories involve us as whole persons — or that the use of story is central in the Bible — consider the story of David, Bathsheba, and the prophet Nathan as told in chapters 11 and 12 of 2 Samuel. This is an example from within the Bible itself of how stories shape us.
We start in the middle of an ongoing story. David has abused his power as king in order to sleep with Bathsheba and has made her pregnant. To cover his failure — morally and as a leader — he has her husband called back from war, assuming Uriah will sleep with his wife and thereby cover David’s tracks. David, however, has not counted on Uriah’s integrity and loyalty. When Uriah refuses the comforts of home while his fellow soldiers have none, David resorts to arranging for his death and brings Bathsheba into his household.
This is a powerful story in itself, and yet another story appears within the story that will signal a change in the direction of David’s life and in that of the nation of Israel. God sends Nathan the prophet to David to tell him a story. The story is a trap or, perhaps better, an instrument for revelation.
And Nathan tells it masterfully, with a storyteller’s sense of timing and irony and pathos. It goes like this:
There were two men in a certain town — one rich and one poor. The rich man had great flocks and herds. The poor man had nothing but one little lamb he had bought. He raised that little lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It ate from the man’s meager fare and drank from his cup, and slept in his arms like a baby daughter. One day a traveler arrived at the home of the rich man, but he was unwilling to take an animal from his own flock or herd to prepare for the traveler. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest. (2 Samuel 12:1–4)
Nathan’s story has the “once upon a time” feel of fiction — “There were two men in a certain town” — more than of a recounting of an actual historical event, and yet David is totally engaged by the story. Historicity is crucial in some stories, but not in this one. Not all stories have to have happened to be true.
David is enraged by the actions of the rich man in Nathan’s story and proclaims in all his royal indignation, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!” All of David is engaged in this story: his intellect, his moral sense, his emotions, and, yes, his body (his heart no doubt is beating faster). That is, he responds to Nathan’s story as a whole person — and it is exactly the response Nathan must have hoped for.
At this climactic moment, Nathan unleashes the lightning bolt of revelation as only a great story can. We can picture him reaching out his arm and pointing at David as he shouts, emphasizing each word — “You . . . are . . . that . . . man!”
Nathan then makes explicit the connection between the story he’s told and David’s story:
David is the rich man and Uriah the poor.
David has been given much and yet has taken from the man who has little.
David has been blessed by God, and he has responded by breaking God’s law.
This story about David and Nathan shows not only that God uses stories and that we are wired to make and respond to stories, but it also shows that stories are about choices and their consequences — as is the life of faith.
The essence of stories is characters making choices, especially characters making difficult choices with uncertain outcomes. “What will happen if he opens that door?” “Which suitor will she choose?” “How will Solomon decide which woman the baby belongs to?” It is the tension of choices that draws us to story. And there is always the implicit question: “What would I do if I were in this situation — if it were my story?”
In the Bathsheba story, David makes disastrous choices and they have disastrous consequences: a woman abused, a faithful subject murdered, a baby dead, the character of the king compromised and therefore the community put at risk (Nathan tells him that because of his sin, Israel will never know peace in his lifetime) — all because David isn’t satisfied with everything God has given him. He wants more; he wants something else. But this story also indicates yet another quality of story: stories have the power to change us. And what is faith about if it isn’t about changed lives? David’s failure and its consequences are revealed by a story, but it should also be pointed out that Nathan’s story also leads David to repent.
David is shown his own story within Nathan’s story, and, unlike his predecessor Saul, he reacts appropriately. He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” That confession spares his life. And although it does not save him and Bathsheba from the loss of their son, it makes possible the subsequent birth of Solomon, the son who will eventually carry on his line.
Powerful stories have this potential to change us. They do not exist to kill time but to redeem the time. They are quite aggressive in a sense. They say, “You must be different because of what you have heard. Your life cannot be the same now that you know this story.” David could not hear Nathan’s story — and Nathan’s interpretation of the story — and pretend he could go about his normal business. He might be king, but kings must pay heed to stories too.
And the same is true of the gospel story. Once we have heard it, we are not allowed to stay the same. The gospel story judges our story and finds it wanting. It is a judgment we are invited to accept or reject. If we accept it, then we choose, like characters in a story, to change the plot of our lives. In so doing we do not give up who we are; we become more of who we are, that is, more of who we were always meant to be.
The most important stories are, in this sense, directive. They tell us we must be different and we must change, and they often tell us how we must change. The contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that stories from many sources tell children what life is like and what role they are to play in it. “Deprive children of stories,” he claims, “and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue [University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, 1984], 216). Stories teach us our lines.
Story logic dictates that if we know our lines, then we are responsible for saying them. That is, we must act. Nothing kills a story faster than a passive protagonist. Characters must act for a story to have meaning, even if they act disastrously. This is another reason why it is helpful to see faith as a story to be lived rather than just a set of propositions to be believed.
Some suggest it is illegitimate to act in faith if one has doubts, if one is uncertain. “I am not sure about what I believe, so it would lack integrity, even be hypocritical, for me to say I am a Christian and try to act accordingly.” Story says otherwise. Characters in stories continually act with less than complete knowledge or certainty, including in stories of faith. Abraham set out on his life journey “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Moses was sure he was unqualified for the job God assigned him. “Send Aaron,” he begged. Even Jesus pleaded in the garden of Gethsemane for a change, if possible, in the plot of his story.
If faith is primarily an intellectual puzzle to be solved, based on verifying a set of propositions, then perhaps we are justified in waiting to act until we have solved the puzzle. Every serious question about what we believe — and those questions are endless — offers an excuse to wait and think some more before acting.
Powerful stories change us.Tweet
Story, on the other hand, tells us that we have things to do — doubts or no doubts. This train is about to move out of the station. Get on board. Bring your doubts with you. There’s room. But you must get on board — or not. You must, to change to the most common biblical metaphor, walk this path. The form of story is rich and deep and flexible enough to contain mystery and ambiguity and paradox and uncertainty and, yes, even your doubts. It’s why, as human beings and as people of faith, we keep returning to stories.
I began these reflections with a story, and I will end with one. This is a story about a young woman named Rachael. I got to know her when she joined a group of students that I took to Cuba to study writing and Hemingway and to get away from a Minnesota January.
I have in front of me three photographs from Rachael’s wedding day, taken not too long after that trip to Cuba. The first photograph is of a serious Rachael on her solemn day — solemn in the medieval sense of the word, meaning (as Thomas Howard reminds us) both joyous and weighted with significance, as in a solemn occasion, like a wedding or a coronation. In the second photograph Rachael is laughing extravagantly, as she often did. She is standing in her long wedding dress, looking down at her new husband, taking pleasure in him and in the occasion.
I believe that Rachael could laugh this way not only because it was part of her personality, but because she had a story to live by. She was not just a believer, someone who believed certain assertions about life; she was someone deeply and passionately caught up in God’s story for the world and her part in it. Rachael was incurably curious; she was smart, she wrote excellent poems, she did everything she could to squeeze all the juice out of life.
When she was a child, a teacher asked her to identify something she was afraid of. She wrote, “I am afraid of having a mediocre life.” And she lived so as to defeat mediocrity: she went twice to Spain and with us to Cuba; she was game for any adventure — physical or intellectual or spiritual. She was devoted to friendship and to literature, and she soaked herself in Bible study and prayer with a kind of discipline rare among Christians of any age. Rachael actually thought it was possible to be godly — that is, to live her life in the reality of God — and she thought she should try.
When she went to Spain the second time, she told her best friend that they could not e-mail each other but only write letters, because letters meant more. Her biggest fear in life was missing out on anything that life had to offer, especially missing something because she was afraid to fail or was passive or indifferent. She had all the energy and intensity and idealism of youth and yet, somehow, it didn’t seem naïve. Those who knew her got the feeling she had some wisdom about ultimate things that we did not, and that it was our skepticism that was naïve.
From Spain she wrote the following to her friend:
Remember: as far as I understand it in this world, it’s not good versus evil, love versus hate. No! It’s love versus nothing. So fight against nothing, the mass nada. Love against the lack of love.
Hope. Hope because there just might be a tomorrow. Hope brings into existence . . . that which we want to be. Don’t accept the pessimism. Recognize the problem. Hope in God — “for I shall yet praise him.”
And Rachael knew about being a character in God’s story and about having her own actions shaped by Christ’s actions. When we went to Cuba, I told the students to bring small gifts, practical things like aspirin or writing pens or even bars of soap. When we were in Santiago, Rachael was approached by a little boy, around four or five, who asked her in Spanish for money — to buy some candy, he said.
Because she had committed herself to learning Spanish (German and Japanese were next), she was ready for the question. She got down on her knees so that she could look the little niño in the eye and said to him in his own language, “I don’t have any money, but how would you like this?” And she pulled from her bag a shiny, new baseball.
Living in a country where we saw poor kids playing baseball with a tree limb for a bat and wadded-up tape for a ball, his eyes got huge. He was so stunned by his good fortune that he could not move. It was a simple act of kindness, one quality of a healthy life story.
I have felt Rachael’s kindness myself. Before we went to Cuba, she was in one of my classes. If you remember anything about school, you perhaps know that teachers sometimes get the feeling that no one is listening, no one is serious about learning, and they think that maybe, just maybe, they should have taken that job in advertising after all. Sometimes it shows on their faces or in little cynical comments they make in self-defense. Perhaps Rachael saw or heard that from me, as her teacher, one day. Whatever the reason, I found a handwritten poem on my door with no name on it. It ended something like this:
Speak on, oh grey beard, Some of us are listening.
Rachael sent me this poem anonymously, as an encouragement. It was an act of kindness.
How do I know it was from her? I found out at a memorial reading we had for Rachael at our university, from her best friend, Amber, who helped her write it. For you see, the photographs from Rachael’s wedding served double duty. They were also used on her funeral program a few months later.
Rachael had been to a shower for her soon-to-be sister-in-law, whom she told how thrilled she was to finally have a sister. And a few minutes after Rachael left the shower, her car was hit by a truck, and she was killed, sent suddenly into eternity. That third photograph from her wedding shows her leaving us — and so she did.
It is good that Rachael had a story to live by, because, unbeknownst to us (but not to her), it was chosen that her life be short. If Rachael had waited to find a story to live by, waited to have all her questions answered, she would never have found one at all.
Life is too precarious to live even a single day without a story.
In another of her letters from Spain, Rachael quotes from St. Teresa of Avila, “a saint to learn from in the short course of my life.” She gives Teresa’s words in Spanish and then translates them herself: “You must always remember that you don’t have more than one soul, you have but to die one death, you have nothing more then one brief life, there is nothing more but one glory, and it is eternal, and so give your hands to many things.”
Rachael gave her hands to many things, and so should we. She committed herself to a story, one that told her how to live, and she lived fully if not long, just as her Creator intended.
I attended Rachael’s funeral with deep sadness and a great sense of loss. This was my second funeral for a former student at this same church, and as I sat at Rachael’s funeral I also thought of Joe’s, a young man who died of AIDS and who was full of faith and the acts of faith. Joe was sent off to heaven with a rock band and an audience that included people who did not look as if they often went to church. As we sent off Rachael to heaven, I thought of Joe, and I thought of the certainty that someday I will be the one in the casket at the front of the church.
How do I know Joe and Rachael went to heaven? How do I know there is such a place as heaven? How do I know there is a God who awaits you and me in heaven?
Because my story tells me so.
Other stories say it isn’t so; it can’t be so. You are free to choose those stories. I choose this one. I believe it is true — in all senses of the word — or I wouldn’t choose it. I am glad this is my story. It lets me go to my students’ funerals and sing and clap my hands.
More Messages from Desiring God 2008 National Conference
War of Words: Getting to the Heart for God’s Sake (Paul David Tripp)
The Bit, the Bridle, and the Blessing: An Exposition of James 3:1–12 (Sinclair B. Ferguson)
How Sharp the Edge? Christ, Controversy, and Cutting Words (Mark Driscoll)
Words of Wonder: What Happens When We Sing? (Bob Kauflin)