The Power of Stories

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 78:1-4

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.

Biblical truth often is communicated in less-than-obvious ways. This piece of Psalm 78 reminds us of the power of stories and our need to wrestle with what we hear in them.

The psalmist says, “I will speak to you in parable.” Christians tend to associate “parable” with the stories Jesus told to reveal an astonishing truth. In today’s psalm, the word has a slightly different meaning, in that the psalmist is referencing historical stories passed from one generation to the next.

The underlying principle is the same, however. We should take those stories, turning them round and round and upside down. We should peer inside of them as deeply as we can. We meditate on them, we chew on them. Our goal is to discover something deeper about God and what God wants for his creation.

I get the sense that average Americans struggle with defining “truth” today. We confuse the search for truth with the acquisition of undisputed facts. As hard as it is these days to come up with an undisputed fact, it is still a much greater challenge to seek truth.

Searching for meaning in the stories of the Israelites and in the stories of Jesus is, I believe, the best way to fathom God and his mysterious love for very sinful humanity.

I can tell you God is merciful, but you’ll remember this truth better if you dwell on the story of the fall in Genesis. Focus in particular on the pause God takes while doling out punishment to show pity for the shivering, terrified, naked humans

I can tell you God loves you and longs for you to return to him, but you’re going to better grasp how deeply God loves you if you spend significant time meditating on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Look at the story through the eyes of father, son and brother and consider what they feel and why.

I know, this involves us slowing down and truly absorbing a story, a skill we’re losing rapidly in our modern cultural rush. But if you want to deepen your ability to search for truth in Bible stories, I can recommend a couple of books to get you started.

Fairly Simple: Any of the “Parables from the Backside” books by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Dr. Kalas was one of my preaching professors, and he was the master of shifting to an unusual perspective within a familiar story so we can see truth in a new way.

A little more challenging: Henri J.M. Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” Nouwen offers his meditations on a Rembrandt painting depicting the moment the son returns home. This book is considered a modern Christian classic.

Whatever age you are, whatever education you may have, there’s more to be found in the Bible.

Lord, as we explore what you have revealed to us through stories in your holy word, may we find joy, excitement and a deeper sense of purpose. And give us the opportunity to pass on these truths to a new generation. Amen.


✟ To subscribe to LifeTalk devotionals, enter your email address in the box found on any page of the Methodist Life website. ✟

The Well-Guarded Path

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 1 (NRSV)

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.

Understand God’s will and live according to it, and you will find joy, prospering in all you do. Ignore God’s will, and life will be misery and loss. It is a classic theme of wisdom literature from the Near East.

On the surface, these are beautiful ideas, concepts that fit our desire for justice. Without further development, though, they can at times seem quite empty.

If Psalm 1 represented the only theme of Scripture, I would have long ago discarded my study of the Bible. The idea being expressed does not consistently match the reality of what we observe.

Too often, seemingly good people suffer. Too often, the wicked flourish. Fortunately, Psalm 1 is just one part of an elaborate picture.

The Book of Job is an equally ancient piece of wisdom literature, and it takes us in a whole different direction. You may remember the story of Job. As it begins, he fits the pattern described in Psalm 1. He is a righteous man, walking with God and prospering mightily in terms of family and wealth.

The problem arises when Satan goes to God and speculates that Job is righteous simply because life is so good for him. Let me strike at him, Satan says, and Job will curse you, God. First, Satan is allowed to strike Job’s possessions and family. Later he’s allowed to strike at Job himself, afflicting him with terrible diseases.

In all of this, Job does not curse God, and he does not relent in his assertion to friends that he has done nothing wrong. He does complain mightily at times, though, and once he begins, he moves beyond his own problems and complains about how the wicked flourish and abuse the righteous, including orphans and widows, and God seems to do nothing.

You reach a story like Job’s in Scripture, and you realize the Bible deals with some very deep subjects. We may not find satisfying answers in Job to these deep questions about evil’s persistence, but at least the questions are asked. (There is a hint in Job 19 regarding the answer to come centuries later.)

This is why it is so important for us to engage with the Bible continually throughout our lives. If we hear what seem like simple stories and lessons as children, but never return to the Bible as we experience more complex lives, we will think Scripture is irrelevant. And in the process, we will miss so much that is useful as we grow older.

When Jesus arrives in the Bible story, his teachings help us wrestle with the deeper questions while simultaneously emphasizing the early truths we have learned.

Parables are a good example. Jesus uses them to perplex us until we ponder for a while, and in pondering we discover powerful new truths. Through Jesus, we learn that God loves us in ways the Jews had scarcely imagined. God pours out on the world what seems, from our perspective, to be a most illogical love, a love unearned and undeserved.

At the same time, Jesus teaches us to never let go of what we learned from the start. We are to come to God with the faith of a child.

Thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, it is possible for us to be placed on God’s holy path simply by believing. That alone is enough to align us with God. We are made righteous and good even though we don’t deserve these labels, and all we have to do is remain firmly planted in the grace God offers. And by the way, in the end, right and wrong will be sorted out.

Psalm 1 is true. It simply needs to be read in the context of the whole Bible story.

Lord, may we rest in a secure understanding that you are the source of righteousness, and then live accordingly. Amen.