Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“let your light shine before others, 

so that they may see your good works and 

give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” 

(Matt 5:16)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus told a lot of stories.

The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1991) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Biblical stories serve the same function rehearsing events from the past with current emotional and relational relevance.

Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis. Still, even under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing rather than issuing directives. These stories of healing allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance while giving the patient a template for resolving their issues on their own (Rosen 1982).

Recognizing Stories during Pastoral Visits

Savage (1998) suggests using stories to identify emotional content in the context of pastoral visits. Savage cites five classes of stories as particularly helpful to recognize:

1. Reinvestment stories where our loyalties change dramatically, as in switching careers—economist becomes pastor is one of my stories.

2. Rehearsal stories where events from the past have current meaning, such as Bible narratives.

3. “I know someone who” stories which oftentimes mask the true storyteller.

4. Anniversary stories which occur regularly at a particular calendar time, such as Christmas.

5. Transition stories which are three part stories, such as a trip to the hospital (why, what happened, and what comes next) (Savage 1998, 95).

Savage makes the point that we cannot help but tell our stories. It is particularly interesting when you catch yourself telling a story, perhaps one that you have told for years, and suddenly realize that that story captures a painful experience that you had either forgotten or suppressed.

The Parable of the Sower

Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, which is found in three of the four Gospels accounts, stands out because after telling the parable he explains its meaning to the disciples allowing Gospel readers the benefit of both left-brain and right-brain versions of the story.

Jesus’ use of this parable provides a template for preaching. Hearers of the Gospel not only have different responses to the message, reflecting the different types of soil that seeds can fall on, they also learn differently. Some respond to allegory and metaphor; others just want to have things explained. A sermon can accommodate each of these needs through use of prayers, personal stories, scripture readings, and didactic lessons. If the sermon’s theme is also reinforced in the music, then the worship service can be a highly integrated means of communication.

The Good Example

Bad examples litter the landscape of the postmodern world where drug use is being de-criminalized, prostitution is being promoted as just another vocation, and shoot-them-up gaming has become a competitive sport. Even our news, kid shows, and prescriptions are subject to advertiser’s narratives. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you, as the saying goes.

With our eyes on Christ, each of us as Christians should strive to be a good role model. Much like good writers try to “show rather than tell” their stories, good Christians work to act out their faith on life’s stage where the lights never go out. Hypocrite is the Greek word for actor, who steps in and out of roles. Our role extends from birth to death. This is why we strive to improve our characters and habits with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Showing rather telling becomes particularly important in witnessing to people afflicted with pride, who refuse all straightforward attempts to offer advice much like Erickson’s psychiatric patients. Extremely intelligent and wealthy people often view themselves as too clever for everyone else, much like many teenagers. This implies that they need to learn for themselves, reflecting on the examples of others or stories told through film, theatre, conversation, or a well-chosen book.


Bettelheim, Bruno. 1991. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Orig Pub 1975). New York: Penguin Books. 

Rosen, Sidney. 1982. My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Show Don’t Tell

Also See:

Value Of Life

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