“There was a man who had two sons . . .”
“There once was a king who . . .”
“In a certain town there was a judge . . .”
When Jesus wanted to reveal what the kingdom of God was like, he often told stories—stories about widows and tax collectors, farmers and kings, robbers and strangers, fathers and sons.
A master storyteller, Jesus harnessed the gift of imagination to invite his listeners to consider, for example, how a patient and extravagantly forgiving father reflects the heart of God. Or how a generous, unconventional employer reveals the Lord’s grace. He also invited his listeners to find themselves within the stories. He challenged them to consider how they were like a wayward son or a resentful older brother, or how the quality of soil (shallow, rocky, thorny, or fruitful) could be a picture of their receptivity—or resistance—to the Word of God.
Jesus invites us into the same process of reflection, to prayerfully enter his stories and, through the power of the Spirit, learn about both God and ourselves.
Just like people’s response to Jesus’ stories in the Bible, something happens the moment a preacher or teacher says, “Once upon a time . . .” or “Let me tell you a story.” If our minds happen to wander during a sermon or lecture, we tend to tune in and listen with renewed interest the moment a narrative begins.
Stories are invitational. They encourage our participation. Stories are also stealthy. They can stir, confront, comfort, inspire, and penetrate our hearts when we’re least expecting it.
We tend to let our defenses down when we hear or read stories. We open ourselves to being drawn into characters’ lives, to inhabit their worlds, to journey with them. Good characters can become mirrors for seeing ourselves more clearly. Good stories can enlarge our worldview, help us understand a stranger, deepen our compassion, and remind us we’re not alone. Good stories can pursue us long after we’ve heard—or read—the last word.
This was my desire when I began writing the Sensible Shoes series. Through the characters’ journeys with God, I wanted readers to see themselves mirrored in the longings, fears, struggles, and hopes of these four imperfect women who are seeking to draw closer to God and to one another. I hoped the stories would facilitate a reader’s encounter with God, that someone might glimpse God’s love, presence, and grace in unexpected and life-transforming ways.
I could have written a nonfiction book about how to practice ways of prayer and other spiritual disciplines—which is what the characters are invited to do—but I wanted to provide an opportunity for readers to connect with God through narrative and imagination. As a writer, I wanted to take my own journey of “What if?” and “There once was a woman who . . .” and see what emerged. The process of discovery is part of the joy of both writing and reading fiction.
What might you discover about yourself and God while reading novels or short stories? A simple exercise to practice as you read is to pay attention to the things that stir you, both positively and negatively. Contemplate the ways you’re challenged, comforted, provoked, agitated, or inspired by the story.
Then, prayerfully consider the reasons behind your responses to characters or plotlines. What might the Spirit be revealing, inviting, or healing? And then, welcome others into conversation about what you notice. That’s the gift of story, too—that we can read the same words on the page and be impacted in such unique ways.
“A reader went off to read and . . .”
May the Lord inspire you and reveal his heart to you in the journey.
This is a guest post by Sharon Garlough Brown, the author of the Sensible Shoes series, which began with the bestselling book Sensible Shoes. Buy it here.