The rest of the Bible story
Is Scripture filled with Bible stories or fairy tales? When all our Bible stories end with “they lived happily ever after,” our children and students get a distorted view of how God acts. (Adapted from The Why Files: Are There Really Such Things As Ghosts?)
I don’t like the ending of Pinnochio.
As a child, I could pretend that a wooden marionette could come to life–no strings attached. But to believe that the “live” puppet could become a real boy was too much for me. So, for a second-grade writing assignment, I rewrote the ending and had the wooden Pinnochio die a painful, prolonged death of Dutch elm disease.
I still don’t like unrealistic endings, which is why I don’t like the ending of Job. “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10). And I have no problem if that’s how God wants to deal with Job. I do have a problem with preachers and Sunday school teachers who give the impression that we can expect God to answer our prayers in the same way He answered Job’s.
This idea of “happy endings” have been reinforced with Bible story books and flannel graph lessons. Beautiful pictures show Daniel petting the friendly lions, but not one of early Christians being mauled to death by the big cats. Flannel figures of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego chatting with the heavenly Visitor in the midst of the fiery furnace are displayed, but where are the Christians that Nero used as human patio torches to light his garden parties? We find drawings of Peter being miraculously rescued from prison, but nothing about James being beheaded just a few verses earlier!
But we do have biblical accounts of the “rest of the story” in, of all places, the “faith” chapter. Hebrews 11 recalls incredible stories of God’s miracle- working power. But it ends this way–
“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again” (Hebrews 11:32-35a).
This is great preaching and teaching material! But, wait, there’s more!
“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:35b-39, italics mine).
Where are the flannel graph pictures—and sermons—for these stories?
We must provide children and adults a more complete view of how God acts.
When all our Bible stories end with “they lived happily ever after,” our children and students get a distorted view of how God acts. All of our Red Seas will part and we will walk across on dry land. Goliath will fall at our feet. We won’t get burned in the fiery furnace. We’ll escape from prison. All our prayers will be answered. All our diseases will be healed. That’s the way most “Bible stories” end, but not most of the stories in the Bible. Moses, the liberator, never enters the promised land. King David’s family and kingdom falls apart. Wise Solomon dies a fool.
Many children and adults have rejected God because of an incomplete view of Him.
Randy, a seventeen year old, wanted the weekend off at his part-time job to attend a retreat but his boss at the factory told him, “You either be here Saturday or your fired.” The new Christian was totally discouraged because his family desperately needed the money. I promised to pray for a solution, but Friday night Randy called to say he couldn’t go. He had to work.
As we were loading the vans Saturday morning, Randy’s Camaro came squealing into the church parking lot. “You’re never gonna believe it, Pastor Jim. I went into work this morning and the union guys walked out on strike! The plant’s closed. Man, I’ll never doubt God again!”
Shortly after, Randy found out his mom was dying of cancer. For the next six months, I watched and prayed as he struggled with unanswered prayer. “If God can cause a walkout at a factory, why can’t He heal my Mom?!” But through the struggle, Randy’s faith grew. His mom accepted Christ as her Savior. It looked like a treatment might save her life. And then she died.
It would have been a much better story if Randy’s mom had been miraculously healed. It would even be a good story if Randy would have continued in his growth as a Christian, even after his mother’s death. But he didn’t. Randy has lived an inconsistent life ever since then. I wish the Christian life always ended like Job.
But I’ve seen too many wonderful Christians prayed over and anointed and still die. I’ve seen Christian parents, who brought their children up “in the way they should go,” shed tears over their wayward children. Christians guilty of only loving their Lord are dying in prisons around the world. And each time that the “God of the flannel graph” doesn’t act in the way we have been taught, our faith is snipped away piece by piece.
We must tell of the many the ways God may choose to act.
After working with teens for over twenty years, I’ve become convinced that a young person’s concept of God must grow up with him or her or be left on a chair in children’s church. Admittedly, James’s severed head on the flannel graph may be too “graphic” for young audiences. But as children mature, so must our teaching.
We need to let them know that while Daniel was spared the appetites of lions, thousands of early Christians weren’t. That, unlike Peter walking on water, many Christians drown. That ten of the original disciples died violent deaths by crucifixion, beating, and beheading. Only by seeing that God doesn’t always choose to rescue believers from deadly situations, can our students and children cope with the realities beyond the Bible story book.
I don’t have any answers, except the encouragement of St. Paul who prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed—without success.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all- surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
The Greek word for “perplexed” means to be confused with no solution in sight. And yet Paul could use two words with confidence–“but not.” He was pressured, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but not crushed, in despair, abandoned, or destroyed. I can relate to this realistic Paul of flesh rather than Saint Paul of the flannel graph.
We must encourage others that “all’s well that ends well.”
While Paul provides overly optimistic believers a much-needed reality check, he is not pessimistic.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
So, while every Bible character—and modern disciple–doesn’t live happily ever after, “all’s well that ends well.” Tragic events come upon believers and unbelievers alike, but Christians know that in the end they will live eternally “happily ever after.” Even if their human life has been less than a fairy tale! And that is why the famous faith chapter ends on a sobering, but encouraging note as well:
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised”–here on earth.
Copyright © 1996 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.
Drawing: Phillip Martin