Anyone who has read the New Testament knows that Jesus used a lot of stories and analogies. In fact, it was so bad that the disciples complained that he was not being plainspoken enough. It makes you imagine a kind of eastern scene where some guy trying to get wisdom from the master and the master says something about a lotus blossom.
There is a method to this madness. It has to do with the fact that people are deaf. Sin causes us to be unable to hear. I mean we can physically hear the words, but the ability to really understand the realities of God? It makes no natural sense to us because of the thick sludge of sin.
So God is kind of in a Helen Keller situation. He’s got to teach us the language of heaven from nothing, using what we know. He can say the word “grace” but what does that mean? It means nothing until he gives it a meaning? How can he give it a meaning when most people have never experienced anything like it in real life? “Love.” It’s a nice word, but what if you’ve never had anything like that in your life? It has no meaning until you experience it. And maybe you can only grasp the concept through a story, something you can relate to.
Well as the pastor, you are helping someone to learn the language of heaven. Helping them not to get the concepts confused. To understand what God really means when he said “grace” and how it really feels to be loved. Your tools are the same tools that Jesus had — analogies and stories from this world.
Jesus knew this: people are much more blind concerning themselves than they are concerning others. The nature of sin is that we give ourselves a pass and are harsh toward others. Therefore if you tell a story, a person will very often be able to see exactly what is wrong. It can be a way of helping them see their own behavior more clearly. This is exactly the technique that God told Nathan the prophet to use with David, and it is the basis for many of Jesus stories, and interactions with the Pharisees.
Therefore I love to teach people through the stories of other people. You may not be able to see your own flaws, but you can easily spot the same flaw in someone else. I don’t share names, but I love to share pastoral stories with people that I’m pastoring. “Hey there was this one guy I worked with that did x.” This can be a way of helping someone see in a lot more color what they are doing, especially if the story is dramatic. For example my friend who married a supermodel because he didn’t know how to be real with other people, and ended up divorced. It makes a great story, but it teaches something. It teaches the importance of being real, and it teaches how you can have everything but still be empty and heading for the rocks.
The second kind of story I use is a personal confession. Jesus obviously didn’t have anything to confess in that sense, but the rest of us do. We all have stories of things we’ve struggled with and tried to overcome. The way you tell it matters. If you come off as if you’ve just got a quick answer or solution, or like you are just this amazing guy, then your story will backfire. Your story needs to be told with humlity, like you’re sharing with a friend. Now the fact is, I do not share a lot of personal, vulnerable stories with people that will just see it as weakness. I share them with more mature believers who I am helping to take to the next level. Someone who is immature will just think your story means they are better than you, foolishly failing to realize that this kind of thinking is exactly why they are still at square one.
The third thing is an analogy. Using some kind of visualization is very powerful and helpful, especially if you can find nne that is particularly relevant to that person. Jesus was talking to an agrarian society, so he used a lot of sheep and cooking and grain. He mixed in some banking and war stories for the more political urban types. I might talk to a construction worker about framing a house, or a tell an athlete about moving a ball down the field. I need to speak your language. I may only know a little about framing a house, but when I say it, it conjures up something very real and rich for the hearer. Jesus may have never herded sheep, but he could see how similar it was to what God wanted for his people. I try all kinds of analogies looking for the ones that stick most or communicate best to that person. Once I have something that sticks, I use it over and over again until they really get the depth of it. It’s a tool for helping them learn the language of heaven.
Concepts are made real by examples. And examples are given meaning by the concepts. The two go together. If you just give a speech about what the right thing is, it will be hard for the person to really get it. If you just tell the story they will not understand exactly what it means for the rest of life. The Bible, and Jesus Himself move from example to principle and back all the time. When you tell a story, especially a real story, it makes things real to someone. Then you give the moral of the story and it becomes something that they can take with them everywhere.