This article will ask you to do something nearly impossible by its end: to become a better storyteller.
The first step towards this task is simply admitting that you are a storyteller. Life can only be experienced through story. Whenever you bump into an event in life, something miraculous and marvelous happens in your brain: you formulate a narrative for why the event is happening.
The second step towards this task is confessing that you often tell yourself the wrong story. For instance, when you’re late to an event, it’s because your alarm clock failed. But when others are late to an event, it’s because they’re irresponsible. Your tardiness is the result of circumstances, but the tardiness of others is the result of character. One event, two stories.
Christians, when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t just baptize our bodies, we ought also to baptize our storytelling.
James 1:1-4: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Even the early church was made up of storytellers. James, in act of correction, is commanding the church to do something nearly impossible in this text: to become better storytellers. In the moment in history, James wrote this letter, the church across the globe is experiencing incredible persecution, and like us, as they bump into these events of persecution their brains are scrambling to formulate narratives for why these events are happening. The story James commands us to write, I think, has two dominant features: 1) our present experiences should have a future focus, and 2) our future focus should have an immediate result.
Present experiences should have a future focus: The word “for” in verse three has a world of force coiled within it. Circle it, highlight it, underline it. The word “for” is how James peels our eyeballs off our present trials and glues them to a future hope. And the future hope he glues our eyeballs to is the hope of steadfastness.
When you are rightly hit by the force of the word “for” in verse three, verses two and three should feel this way: “when you experience all sorts of difficulties, get the eyeballs of your soul off the present pain and fix them to the future quality of steadfastness that God is creating in you.”
Why? Because the hope of steadfastness is superior over the experience of trials. Because it’s better to have a hard life than an unchristlike life. Because God cares more about who you are becoming than what is happening to you. Because God sovereignly uses “what’s happening to you” as a submissive tool for creating “who he wants you to be.” Because in the testing of your faith, God wants you to experience the joy of being deeply pierced by hardship and watching faith ooze out of the wound’s pain.
Your future focus should have an immediate result: But, if we stop our storytelling with only a future focus, I fear that we will be trite and superficial storytellers who give the impression that we are indifferent to the present time. James teaches us that though our story-telling arrow ought to point itself forward into the future, the arrow should also return itself to the present.
Look at the word “count” in verse 2. It’s a present tense word. The gist of this verse is: “your natural common sense is going to tell you that these trials are to be counted as reason to despair. But because of your future focus, these trials are to be counted as reason for present joy.” Right now. Oddly enough, Paul is not actually advocating for delayed gratification. He’s advocating or immediate gratification in the Lord. There’s a dash of right-now-ness to our story-telling.
This is the bottom-biblical-line for your inner-author: you can interpret the event according to man’s motives, or you can interpret the event according to God’s motives.
Is this not the story of Joseph in the Old Testament? Gifted a beautiful coat by his father, hated by his brothers for it, deceived into the bottom of well, and sold into slavery. His version of the story? “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” One story, two interpretations. Is this not the story of Jesus in the gospel? A pleasure to the father, a perfect life of righteousness, betrayed by his friends, mocked by his surroundings, and nailed to the cross for sins not his own. His version of the story? “Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” One story, two interpretations.
The gospel is the paramount pinnacle of Christian storytelling: what’s happening to me is meant for evil by the world, but more than that, it is meant for Christlike joy by my sovereign God! Are you able talk to yourself like this? If you can, you will feel one of the rarest, most godly, most emotionally complex fruits rise out of the muck, soil, and thorns of hardship: you will experience God’s goodness in the midst of worldly evil; steadfast joy growing in the soil of circumstantial sorrow.
So, let’s lace-up boots around this theology of gospel-centered storytelling. Here are three applications for better storytelling, applications that I pray would be infused into the fabric of your week.
Memorize this text like your life depends on it: Because it does. Memorize this one phrase from our text like your life depends on it: “You know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Maybe you’re not experiencing trial, difficulty, or hardship right now, and so the urgency for this application feels to you more relaxed than it should. But I promise you if you don’t do the hard work of memorizing now, when you bump into trials it will be too late to do the intellectual labor of scriptural memorization. The killing and eating is to be done before winter comes.
Preach this text like your life depends on it: Because it does. Your subconscious life is dominated by this smaller, meaner, uglier version of yourself who roars like a preacher with a bully pulpit every second of the day. When he or she begins to tell you a story different than the one in James, preach back. Martin Lloyd-Jones famously wrote, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?”
This is so important. Every story written by the ink of the world rather than the gospel is ultimately evil. And here is what’s so evil about these stories: they cast you as the protagonist and others as the antagonist. That’s directly the opposite of the Christian story: you (and your sin) are the antagonist, and the other (Jesus Christ) is the protagonist.
Things are not primarily happening to you because the world is against you, because your wife is your adversary, or because your boss is cranky. Things are primarily happening to you because Jesus wants to create steadfastness in you with such weight and glory that you can count all that happens to you as the reason to rejoice in Him.
Watch this sermon like your life depends on it: This article is the fruit of a sermon planted by a pastoral love for the local church. Open your Bible to James 1:1-4 and prayerfully watch the sermon here.