When I go into churches and speak to children, I ask them two questions:
“First, how many people here sometimes think you have to be good for God to love you?” They tentatively raise their hands. I raise my hand along with them.
“And second, how many people here sometimes think that if you aren’t good, God will stop loving you?” They look around and again raise their hands.
These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about.
Beyond Good Answers
They are children like I once was. As a child, even though I was a Christian, I grew up thinking the Bible was filled with rules you had to keep (or God wouldn’t love you) and with heroes setting examples you had to follow (or God wouldn’t love you).
I tried to be good. I really did. I was quite good at being good. But however hard I tried, I couldn’t keep the rules all the time, so I knew God must not be pleased with me.
And I certainly couldn’t ever be as brave as Daniel. I remember being tormented by that Sunday school chorus “Dare to be a Daniel” because, hard as I tried to imagine myself daring to be a Daniel, being thrown to lions and not minding, who was I kidding? I knew I’d be terrified out of my skull. I knew I would just say, “Okay, yes, whatever you say! Just don’t throw me to the lions! Don’t pull out my fingernails! Make it stop!”
I knew I wasn’t nearly brave enough. Or faithful enough. Or good enough.
What Do We Learn from a Story?
How could God ever love me? I was sure he couldn’t.
One Sunday, not long ago, I was reading the story of “Daniel and the Scary Sleepover” from The Jesus Storybook Bible to some six-year-olds during a Sunday school lesson. One little girl in particular was sitting so close to me she was almost in my lap. Her face was bright and eager as she listened to the story, utterly captivated. She could hardly keep on the ground and kept kneeling up to get closer to the story.
At the end of the story, there were no other teachers around and I panicked and went into automatic pilot and heard myself — to my horror — asking, “And so what can we learn from Daniel about how God wants us to live?”
And as I said those words, it was as if I had literally laid a huge load on that little girl. Like I broke some spell. She crumpled right in front of me, physically slumping and bowing her head. I will never forget it. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we artificially turn a story into a moral lesson.
The Power of a Story
When we drill a Bible story down into a mere moral lesson, we make it all about us. But the Bible isn’t mainly about us and what we are supposed to be doing; it’s about God and what he has done! When we tie up the story in a nice, neat, little package, and give simplistic answers all the difficult questions, we leave little room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave little room for the child. Little room for God.
When we say, “Now what that story is all about is . . . ” or “The point of that story is . . . ” we may, in fact, be totally missing the point. The power of a story isn’t in summing it up, or drilling it down, reducing it into an abstract idea, or changing it into something else.
Because the power of the story isn’t in the lesson. The power of the story, under God, by his Spirit, is in the story itself and what he does in us through it.
Rules Don’t Change Anyone
That’s why I wrote The Jesus Storybook Bible. So children could know what I didn’t: that the Bible isn’t mainly about me and what I should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done. That the Bible is largely, though not only, a great story — the greatest story of all, the story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them. That — in spite of everything, no matter what, whatever it cost him — God won’t ever stop loving his children . . . with a wonderful, never-stopping, never-giving-up, unbreaking, always-and-forever love.
That the Bible, in short, has a marvelous, coherent storyline — it not just a collection of rules — and that there is only one Hero in the story.
I wrote so children could meet the Hero in its pages. And become part of his magnificent story.
Because rules don’t change you. But a story — God’s story, by the power of his Spirit — can.