This is the third post in an ongoing series. Find the full series here.
Over the past few days, I read the novel Where the Crawdads Sing. I loved every bit of it—the writing, the characters, the storyline. If you’re looking for a heart-wrecking summer read—a modern-day Tess of the D’urbervilles—this one ranks up there.
Reading it revived my desire to write fiction, something I have not done in a long while. Reading other’s stories often has that effect on me in one of three ways.
First, there are books so well written that you despair of ever writing anything. The author’s talent and mind are so obviously superior to yours that you doubt you could ever write anything so wonderful. Such reading is essential precisely because it humbles you, removing any allusions that you are God’s gift to fiction.
Second, there are books so poorly written that you know without a doubt that you could write better than that. That might sound like pride; it could be pride. But humility is the quality of thinking rightly of ourselves, not poorly. It can be humility to read a work and recognize you possess more talent than the author. This reading is critical because you suddenly realize that, if they got published, then there must be hope for you!
Finally, there are well-written books that leave you saying, “You know, I think I could do that!” You know (if you have any experience writing long-form fiction) that it will take time, effort, and quality feedback and editing—but it is possible. The first two examples are important, and each should be present in a writer’s life. But this one is essential. It leaves one with neither despair nor delusions of grandeur, but with a quiet resolve to do the hard and painful work of trying, getting feedback, revising, being edited, revising, and so forth until what you began is brought to completion.
In sum, reading others’ stories should make you willing to be edited. Willingness matters. Editing only works if an author is open to being edited.
So too with discipleship, we must be willing to be made into a disciple. We must be willing to allow others to see our lives, know our thoughts, understand our hearts as we try to follow Jesus. If we put on a show, they can only offer feedback on the fictional character, not the real us. They can only address pretend-qualities, not our authentic selves.
As with writing, we need to hear the stories of others. Others’ stories are one means the Lord uses to make us willing to submit to discipleship. There are discipleship parallels to the three examples above.
First, some stories seem so perfect that we despair of ever being Christlike. Some of these are useful; some are damaging.
The damaging stories generally appear in the form of hagiography—biography that idealizes its subject. This happens in preaching that presents bible-characters as models of faith without flaws. (There are characters whose stories the Bible recounts without flaws, Joseph and Ruth being two examples. Though even with these, there is an oft-unnoticed flaw—they die and stay dead. That fact alone demonstrates that we are waiting for another redeemer.) It also happens in biographies and autobiographies that do not paint their subjects “warts and all.” Knowing that we could never be as godly as that person, we despair of trying. All because we failed to realize that the “true story” was historical-fiction.
The useful, despair-inducing story is that of Jesus. No one with an ounce of humility can read the Gospels—seeing how Christ answered every question, resisted every temptation, rebuked and taught with authority, and demonstrated remarkable grace and faithfulness—and conclude, “Yeah, I can do that!” When we look at the Messiah, we see what we ought to be but are not—and what we know we lack the ability, in our flesh, to become. Such reading is important precisely because it humbles you, removing any allusions that you are God or God’s Messiah. (The hope comes when you see how the Incarnate Lord loved people just like you, promising that he will make his people just like him.)
The second type of story we need to hear are those lives so poorly lived that we tremble and say, “I will never be that.” That might sound proud, and it would be if we thought we possessed the ability to do it ourselves. But discipleship is the process of bringing people to profess faith in Christ (baptizing them) and then teaching these believers to obey everything Jesus commanded. They set their eyes on the Lord with confidence in his free grace. One aspect of being trained in faith-fueled obedience and perseverance is hearing these “poorly-written stories.” The Apostle Paul speaks of those who made shipwreck of their faith, encouraging Timothy to keep the faith. The author of Hebrews tells the story of the Israelites who perished in the wilderness and warns his readers against becoming like them. These stories matter because, by God’s grace, they cause us to fear falling-away and strengthen our resolve to hope in God’s grace.
Finally, there are well-written stories (stories this world does not deserve) that we read and say, “It will cost me everything and be a painful journey. But, by the grace of God, that will be my story.” Scripture is filled with the stories of believers who, though far from perfect, were men and women of whom the world is not worthy. Such worthy stories are of those who God promises his people in the future is better than what the world offers now. So, they are willing to take up their cross and follow the Savior who died for their sins, rose from the dead, and entered glory for them. They have confidence that he who began their story will bring it to completion in Christ.
Outside the Bible, these stories include properly written biographies and the testimonies of living saints. These narratives leave one with neither despair nor delusions of grandeur, but with humble resolve. We will do the hard and painful work of dying to ourselves and being made alive in Christ, putting off the old man in the flesh and putting on the new man into whose image we long to conform. We are willing to bear this cross—which includes being rebuked and repented, being taught and corrected, being led and encouraged—because we know the end of his story and ours, a resurrection to eternal glory.
These three types of stories are means God uses to produce the willingness needed to submit to the painful process of discipleship. (You are one of those stories—and the Christians in your life need to hear it.) You need to listen to those stories. Invite them, hear them, and learn from them as you (and the Author) bring your own story to completion.