How to Tell Difficult Stories

Excerpted From
Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality
Edited by Mimi Larson and Robert Keeley

I am not advocating just gathering a bunch of preschoolers together and telling them all the stories they have not heard before. That is neither helpful nor educationally sound. But we can share these difficult stories and do it well if we remember several important things.

God Is the Hero of the Story

It is incumbent on us, as church educators and as parents, to present these stories as stories of what God has done and what God does, instead of messages about how we should behave. If we try to turn the story of Judah and Tamar into a lesson about sexual morality, we will twist ourselves into knots trying to teach that sex outside of marriage is wrong while admitting that Tamar was rewarded for acting like a prostitute. When we read the story of Cain and Abel or of the Israelites and the golden calf, students know that God was not pleased with the sin of his people. We can talk about God’s punishment and make it clear that God wants us to live holy lives. But we should also teach the more difficult stories of Scripture. These stories require more nuance and explanation, but they often teach us that God brings grace to our brokenness. These are not moral tales, like Aesop’s Fables. The hero is never Judah or Joseph or Samson or David. The hero is God, and the way we tell these stories needs to show that Scripture is, above all, a story of God and his faithfulness to his people. These stories point to the gospel of salvation, showing us that through Jesus’ victory over death, the stain of our sins is washed away. They draw our attention to the larger story of the gospel of grace.

Tell Stories in Age-Appropriate Ways

Before you rush out to tell the story of Judah and Tamar, or the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19) to ten-year-olds, make sure you are prepared to share them in age-appropriate ways. There is a time to add some of these stories to the list of passages we share with children and a time to wait until they are a little older. Yet sadly, most of the teens in our formation programs have never heard these stories at all. Even working in a Christian university, I find that many students don’t realize these stories are in the Bible. And that’s a disservice to them.

One rule of thumb in telling these stories is that one should never tell something that is not true about a story. Telling an untruth is different than leaving things out. For example, telling the story of Noah without mentioning the drunken episode at the end of the story (Genesis 9) makes sense for young children. Leaving it out is not being untruthful or giving them a false impression of the story, as long as we don’t paint Noah as the hero.

You Don’t Have to Know Everything

Much of the Bible is mysterious. Why did God choose Samson to be a judge (Judges 13–16)? Why did he give us the story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19–20)? Why did Jesus only take a few of his disciples with him to the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26)? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I have some guesses and some ideas about how to start thinking about these things, but I have no answers. It is good to let children know that. Mystery is an important part of our faith. A God we can fully grasp is a God who is too small. These difficult stories are part of what makes our relationship with God full of mystery.

We should be authentic. It is fine to say that we don’t know something. But then explore that together with children. Wonder together about what things might be behind wanting this story in our Bible. Children will learn more about how a person of faith addresses tough sections of the Bible in that exploration than they will if you try to give them a pat answer.

While it is important to highlight God as the hero of the Bible’s grand story, the church also needs to prepare kids and teens for a life that includes hard questions and hard stories. We need to teach the Bible in a way that readies our students to face the hardship of seeing grandma’s deterioration in the nursing home or a young classmate who receives a diagnosis of leukemia. They will quickly learn that people who lie and cheat may get ahead, while others who try to live with integrity face one setback after another. If we never present the hard stories of Scripture, our students won’t have these stories in their hearts and minds when they face the hardships of real life. They will not see how God is present in their own suffering and sin.

We need to come alongside children, ask them what they need, listen to their responses, and walk with them. This isn’t a radical new idea or program—this is simply giving kids and teens the story of who God is and what he does. The “big story” is found in the little stories we know well, as well as the little stories that we don’t. Our students will be better prepared for life if they know more of the story. And it’s a great story—the best story! Let’s make sure we give them all of it.

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Excerpted from Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality edited by Mimi Larson and Robert Keeley. Zondervan Reflective. Copyright 2020. Used by permission.

Mimi Larson & Robert Keeley
Mimi Larson & Robert Keeley

Mimi Larson is visiting assistant professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College and children’s ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church North America

Robert Keeley is professor of education at Calvin University.