Finding Our Place in God’s Story

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All of us have wished at one point or another that we could be part of a more fulfilling story. We’ve wished, at least once, that we would have taken a different path in life, chosen a different major in college, a different spouse, or a different set of friends. We’ve wished that we hadn’t wasted so much time trying to fit in, trying to be popular, or climbing the corporate ladder.

We all want to be a part of a story that grants real significance. We want to die knowing that our life had meaning beyond a paycheck and a Facebook profile. We want to sense that we were a part of something larger than ourselves, and that it wasn’t just a waste of time.

And from time to time, when life slows down, we realize that this fulfillment doesn’t come by making money, selling records, or even seeing a lot of beautiful people naked. It just doesn’t. Ask Lennon. Ask anyone who’s ever made it. The truth is: fame is shallow, beauty fades, and dollars die with you. It’s not melodramatic. It’s just the truth. And from time to time we sense this reality, whether we are rock stars or housewives. And when it hits us, another realization comes close behind. You don’t just need a better job, a thinner spouse, or stronger medication—you need a better story. You need to be a part of a story that actually matters.

The Scriptures give us a glimpse of that story. They point us toward a Story that is big and true and beautiful enough to give us meaning. One that is, ultimately, God’s Story: revealed in creation, the fall, Israel, Jesus, church, and new creation.

1. Creation

In the beginning of this drama, we meet an Artist-God creating from and for community. He creates from and for loving, personal relationships. In a world charged with conflict, the Scriptures paint a portrait of a universe born out of an embrace:

Father, Son, and Spirit;
Adam, Eve, and earth;
Stars and angels singing;
Creation and Creator.

God’s Story begins with the kind of authentic belonging that many of us can only imagine. Rather than giving us a scientific text on exactly how and when the world came to be, the Scriptures offer us a glimpse into the soul of creative community. Father speaking, Spirit brooding, Son begotten like a Word of life. It is a picture of life the way it was meant to be: naked communion.

And because our story starts this way, we are forced to grapple with the fact that God designed us to live deeply together. Rugged individualism may be the foundation of the American ethos, but it is fundamentally contrary to the God who is Trinity. We cannot take the Bible seriously and at the same time talk about a spirituality that revolves around “just me and Jesus.” This has nothing to do with the script of Scripture. Our script begins in an embrace. The first chapter of God’s story may teach us many other things, but this one thing is certain: we were made from and for a kind of holy, loving communion.

2. The Fall

Chapter 2 is about the way communion falls apart. Unfortunately, this part of the story is often told in such a way as to make the Creator look like a legalistic schoolmaster, taunting people with forbidden fruit and then punishing them when the apple goes off like an A-bomb in their faces.

This is one way to view the fall. But there is a better one.

We might see the “apple” as an opportunity. From this perspective, God’s command about the tree and the fruit is not a pointless bit of religious legalism but an opportunity for humanity to crush the head of evil before it worms its way into everything. As guardians of God’s good garden, Adam and Eve are called to exercise the will of their King—to image him, and to rule as he would. They are given the authority and the occasion to do what the tale’s audience would know was to be done to traitors under trees. They are called to judge the evil one.

But as we often do, humans stumble in the story, and an opportunity is squandered. In distrusting God, we find that we can no longer trust each other. Sin enters the equation and community unravels. Genesis 3–11 shows how things fall apart both then and now. And for each of us, the story is familiar. The fall is not just about something that happened; it is also about something that happens now, to us.

The story of the fall reads like a chapter in our own biography. It reminds us of our own sins, missteps, and missed opportunities. As Paul says, “we have all sinned and fallen short” (Rom. 3:23). Because of this, none of us have the right to claim the exclusive moral high ground. We’ve fallen too. And this knowledge serves to guard against the kind of (Christian) arrogance that comes so easily.

Chapter 2 is a call to humility and repentance. The good news, however, is that the fall is not the final chapter. Because as we said, in the Scriptures, not even talking serpents get the final say.

3. Israel

As the dust settles over Genesis 3–11, a rescue operation is in the works. The third movement in our grand Story begins when God does something unexpected to bring about redemption. What he uses is a (somewhat) dysfunctional family. The Creator calls the children of Abraham to be the bringers of his hope. He marries himself to them through a covenant and calls them Israel. As a people, they must wrestle with the unfathomable reality that they have been blessed to bless the nations. God chooses the one for the sake of the many.

But there is a problem with God’s family. They are just like us. They are fickle and selfish and broken. They wander to Egypt but end up enslaved. They are delivered but end up grumbling about the food. They have a covenant but want a king. So like a jilted lover who just won’t let go, God gives his beloved people what they want.

Over the centuries, the wrestlers repeat a familiar pattern of exile and return; penalty and repentance. There are bouts of faithfulness and bouts of rejection. Israel is called back to God by prophets and poets. Yet, in time, a sad reality becomes apparent. Despite their best attempts, the wrestlers themselves are still in need of rescuing.

The family called to bring the solution to sin and evil has itself become part of the problem. Israel is unable to keep the heart of God’s law and, in so doing, she alternates between fits of idolatry, exploitation, and religious pride. One day she wants to be like the pagan neighbors, the next she wants to see them burn. We are like the Israelites in this, and like them, we need rescuing.

Over time, a painful fear begins to break upon God’s people like an ocean wave. Perhaps it was too much to think that rescue could come through Israel. Perhaps old man Abram misheard. Perhaps the whole story was simply a myth. Perhaps. But amid the doubts and questions, something peculiar happens. Under the boot of yet another pagan superpower (Rome), an unmarried Jewish teenager gets pregnant. And the rescue takes an unexpected turn.

4. Jesus

In the birth of Christ, the Creator steps into the storyline. As an Israelite himself, he will fulfill the promise that rescue would come through this unlikely family. And when we glimpse God in the face of Jesus, all we know of religion must be readjusted. In most cultures, the gods were but monstrous amplifications of human power, violence, and vindictiveness. Yet in a Galilean Jew, divinity becomes small and humble.

God becomes a Jewish peasant, and his lineage proves the purpose of calling forth this family in the first place. Through the Law and Prophets and all who went before, the Creator was cultivating a culture in which the work of his Son might be made intelligible. Jesus comes as an Israelite, but in another sense, he comes as Israel. He is the true Israel, the Suffering Servant, the true representative of all humanity. He is the Second Adam, and he must do what God’s people could not do alone. He must face down sin and death, absorb them in his broken body, and reveal what it looks like for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Through the broken-and-resurrected body of Jesus, God wins the decisive victory over sin, death, and the devil. In his life, death, and resurrection, the entire narrative pivots into a whole new phase. In this phase, evil still lives but as a kind of death-row criminal whose time is short. Its fate is sealed as we glimpse our future in the resurrection of the Messiah.

By living as a peaceful revolutionary, Jesus reveals what our own lives must look like. We must be advocates for justice and compassion. We must confront the threefold evils of religious pride, pagan self-indulgence, and imperial arrogance. We must spend ourselves on behalf of others and in so doing we must imitate the way of our Savior. We must be his body.

5. Church

There is, however, a problem with being God’s body. We are not like God. We are sinful, and we tend to act more like the dysfunctional family of the Old Testament than the carpenter from Nazareth. We may be forgiven, but we are still broken. And most days, the brokenness is readily apparent. In other words, we have a tendency to become a part of the problem too.

For this reason, the fifth movement in God’s plotline is about the gift with the power to transform ordinary fishermen, plumbers, and gym teachers into entirely new people. The gift is God’s Breath. Or, if you prefer, his Holy Spirit.

Through the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Jesus community is empowered to reach out to a world that does not know the news about King Jesus. We are made new (over time) both internally and externally. As believers, we are blown by this Wind toward a more loving and generous existence. The Bible calls this “holiness.” And as it did for the first disciples, God’s Breath compels us to set aside our prejudices in favor of a new reality: the ever-expanding family of God. While membership in this family used to involve an ethnic and national identity, now there is but one stipulation: allegiance to King Jesus.

Just as it did for the early Christians, God’s Holy Spirit compels us to speak the language of outsiders, to be bold yet humble, and to invite even the most unlikely folks to join the revolution. In this way, the church is not a business, but a body. We are not a corporation, but the corpus Christi here on earth. As Christ’s body, our mission is not just saving souls for heaven, but joining the Spirit of the Creator-God in renewing the totality of creation here on earth: everything from economics to agriculture, foreign policy to after-school programs. In these and other ways, the Spirit goes about the quiet work of making all things new. And just as it was within the book of Acts, this humble work of restoration often goes unnoticed by the powerful and proud. But it is no less real because of that.

6. New Creation

We are motivated to live this life of reckless love because we believe in the resurrection—not just that of Jesus, but of ourselves and of our world too. While some may be content to hunker down under the protective bubble of the Christian subculture until a time when Jesus beams us up, the Scriptures speak of something quite different with regard to the final chapter in God’s Story. In addition to being with Christ (spiritually) upon death, the Scriptures also speak of a day when God’s kingdom will come fully on earth as it is in heaven. The earth itself, as Isaiah said, “will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (11:9). And on this day, all things will be made new. This is the hope of new creation.

We await the return of Jesus, not because it provides a chance to be whisked away from this evil world, but because it promises the redemption of God’s broken creation. Evil will be judged, and truth will be vindicated. As Paul states: “the dead in Christ will rise” and “we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:16–17).

History will end in the embrace of loving community. There will be a celebration. Wine and worship will flow together at a marriage feast. And we will praise the Creator who brought beauty out of chaos and crafted the greatest drama of them all: the Story of redemption.

We read the Scriptures to find our place within the messy masterpiece. But just knowing the movements isn’t enough. The goal is not accumulating answers for Bible trivia. The goal is living in such a way as to join the Hero in seeing things end well. Because whether we know it or not, the Author is moving the composition to its beautiful conclusion.

When that happens, our common hope will be realized. The same ache that once drew us into stories of all kinds will be healed. The deep human fissure will be mended. And on that day a greater story will begin. The page will turn in God’s grand novel, and we will spend our days in headlong pursuit of the One who “reconciles the ill-matched threads of our lives and weaves them gratefully into a single cloth.”*

Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements by Josh McNall is perfect for: 1) Newcomer classes 2) College or Young Adult Ministry 3) Home groups 4) Neighborhood Bible studies 5) Sunday School.

As you walk through this book, you will: Learn the big story of Scripture as a seamless whole; engage with a highly readable book; ee challenged to think about familiar stories of the Bible in fresh ways. “Joshua McNall in his engaging and witty little book Long Story Short, can help you understand the storied world in and of the Bible, and perhaps more importantly help you understand how actually you are in the story, and you must embrace it as yours.” (Dr. Ben Witherington III)

Get the book from our store here.

*Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), I, 17.

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Dr. Joshua McNall is Assistant Professor of Theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with his wife Brianna and their four children. In addition to preaching and teaching roles, he blogs regularly at joshuamcnall.com.

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