“Once upon a time...” That’s how we’re used to saying it these days; but it’s the same thing. “In the beginning...” It’s an opening to the history of our world which is still being written and read. Our English word “history” comes from the Latin historia, meaning, “a narrative, account, tale, or story.” The terms story and history weren’t even distinguishable until the late 15th century.
Naming the human experience not merely as history but also as story is helpful because of what the idea of story uniquely imparts to our conceptual understanding. It comes with the assumption that behind its pages is a personal author who, in writing, is pouring out his deepest perspectives, priorities, passions, and personality with every page. An author through whom “all things came into being” (John 1:3).
When the Enlightenment brought about the Age of Reason, western culture began segregating history's past, present, and future and began thinking about it largely apart from its origins. John’s gospel account helps us avoid that weighty error by reminding us, once again, that we are characters in an epic story that, like all stories, has a deeply invested and involved author who is committed to all his created characters and to the grand conclusion he has in mind for them.
Unlike other stories, however, the characters in ours are not merely passive reflections of the author’s pen but, rather, active and contributing participants. Our divine author has given us the ability to choose how we will participate in our own narrative. It’s a mysterious paradox that an author has written and is writing every detail of our story while we, the characters, have at the same time so much impact on the events and relationships in it. It can be confounding; but then, isn’t it good to know that God is bigger than our ability to contain him in our limited, mortal minds?
When the Apostle Paul writes about this mystery in Romans 9-11, he ends by simply saying, “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his judgments and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him anything that he would need to pay it back? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” It’s humbling to recognize the bigness of God. And for those who know that his bigness works in favor of his creation, it leads to humble worship.
Of course being actual contributing participants in our own story can lead to problems. Sometimes we complain about how long it’s taking to get to that big conclusion we’ve heard so much about. You know the one... golden streets, sinless beauty, etc. Or sometimes we lament the nature of our present chapter when circumstances are troublesome and life has become hard. It’s as though we believe our author has made some wasteful mistake by allowing this present part of our story to go on or else has forgotten us all together. Of course, when you think about it, there is something very empty about reading the last few happy pages of a book without taking the surprising and often painful journey that gives those last pages their full significance.
Cinderella’s wedding is nothing more than a few snapshots in a Hollywood tabloid without her tragic beginning, impossible predicament, and magical intervention that led her from cruel slavery into the tender embrace of her Prince Charming via one very unique shoe. Her crown and those loving arms were made most meaningful because of the old chains that once bound her and the former arms that once struck her.
- “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
The perspective of human history as a real story with a personal author implies that the end product, our grand conclusion, is neither significant nor truly even possible without the many exhilarating and tedious, clear and confusing, joyful and tragic pages that make up the journey leading us there.
- “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
It makes one think harder about the now... the right now. The now in which you read these words. The now you had this morning. The now you will have in a little while. The now with which we are interacting and to which we are contributing. The now that was wrought in the wisdom and imagination of our divine author. The authoritative author on whom we were designed to utterly depend. The author who lovingly breathed life into us with words and is still breathing words... even now.
And what is he saying? What is he saying now, in this present moment in which we breathe and think and choose and act? What does he desire to write in us, on us, through us, around us? Do you know? Have you asked him? It will be very hard for us to knowingly and willfully participate in the intention of our author if we do not know what it is. It leads to the realization that for us to successfully “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” we will have to run while constantly, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.”
It’s true, “The mind of a person plans their way but the Lord directs their steps.” But how much better is it to pray, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust . . . Make me know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me. For you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day” (Psalm 25:1-2, 4-5). Or, again, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; let your good Spirit lead me on solid ground” (Psalm 143:10)
Again and again God encourages us to seek his kind intention in our moment by moment decision making. He promises that if we seek we will find and if we ask it will be given to us. He continually offers gracious invitations of the biblical promise like this one, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in justice, and he teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth to those who keep his covenant and his words. For Your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my sin, for it is great. Who is the one who reveres the LORD? He will instruct him in the way he should choose. His soul will abide in prosperity . . . The secret of the LORD is for those who revere him, and he will make them know [i.e. experience] His covenant.” Those are the words of Israel’s King David... a sinner like us who, despite his habitual failure, continually returned to God with a compelling desire for his gracious author to lead him in “the way.”
Many of us forget that God actually has a way for us. It’s easier for us to grasp that, in broad terms, he has a kind of a way... one that can be expressed in practical generalities and taught to wide and diverse audiences. But then, he also has a specific way for each one of us. It’s been referred to as, “good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Jesus, living a perfect human life, knew that each living character breathed into existence is created with a uniquely crafted destiny revealed through moment-by-moment interaction with the Author. Allowing people to embrace their destinies as a matter of choice was God’s design for fostering cooperation, mutuality, and attachment. It was the design Jesus himself lived and often spoke of to his disciples.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19).
“I can do nothing on my own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16)
"When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught me” (John 8:28).
“For I did not speak on my own initiative, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father abiding in me does his works” (John 14:10).
How amazing would it be if we could all have access to the Father like that? Can you imagine pausing at any moment, asking God what he would have you say or do, and actually getting an answer? The remarkable truth of Christ’s example is that it is just that... an example. A life lived intentionally on display for all his followers to imitate.
Before his death and resurrection, Jesus explained the connection between his experience and the experience of his followers by describing the unique ministry of God’s Spirit.
- “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. He who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will disclose myself to him. . . If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine, but the Father's who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:20-26; emphasis added).
Another way of understanding this reality is by Christ’s often misunderstood exhortation, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness...” (Matthew 6:33). I like how Dallas Willard clearly and simply defines the kingdom of God as, “the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done”. In line with that, seeking God’s kingdom is about us surrendering and conforming the range of our effective will to his... where we do what he wants done. The thing about such a command is that it makes little sense if we’re not actually able to discern what God wants done.
Fortunately, God knows this.
- “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1: 5).
So here is the first kingdom characteristic we discover... That since the beginning and even now, Jesus, our loving author, as God and with God, has been putting the living ink of history on the living paper of time, moment by moment, page by page, interacting with us as active participants in the grand narrative of creation, fall, and redemption.
- “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:15-17).
The story is not ours, but his. He writes it according to the kind intention of his will in all wisdom and insight, and invites us as living, contributing characters in his story to seek, discern, and willfully participate in his author’s intent, partnering with him even as we utterly and dependently surrender our whole selves to him.
- “May those who fear you see me and be glad because I wait for your word” (Psalm 119:74).