From his parables to his conversations, Jesus sought to gently open up the heart of the listener. He knew how to pinpoint the real hunger in every life. Jesus’ message was for the whole world, but his method was clearly Eastern.
When we look at Jesus’ message, we must consider his method, which is part of the gospel story. He appealed to reason, to prophecy, and to testimonials. But the centerpiece of his method was how he told stories.
In my travels around the world, I sometimes speak to the same audiences more than once. Without fail, people tell me that they remember my stories most clearly. The illustrations seal the argument.
But it is more than that with Jesus: he knows my story. And, he knows me.
An African American apologist, Lisa Fields, says that Christians need to fashion their arguments for the faith with the diverse histories of their listeners in mind. Fields believes her ministry is filling a gap. “‘I realized that [most] of the apologetics books I was reading were written by white men,’” she told Christianity Today. “I thought, ‘A lot of this material wouldn’t appeal to a lot of people in black churches because the illustrations aren’t relevant, and some of the issues aren’t as relevant. There needs to be a bridge builder.’”1
That interview suddenly turned on a light for me. African American history is a story that has birthed the arguments and questions of African Americans, not the other way around. That is why I believe a typical apologetic text doesn’t appeal to many in wounded or subdued cultures.
Suppose I were to package a meal and advertise it as “the best meal you’ve ever had.” If I then choose to add a dessert to the lineup and again advertise the new combination as “the best meal you’ve ever had,” the discerning consumer will grasp that I will resort to any hyperbole to get him or her to buy my product. Sadly, that is frequently how the Christian message has been packaged—and why the Easterner sees himself or herself as buying a Western product. We add layers of appeal, and skeptics can see through it all. Meanwhile, we have ignored people’s personal struggles and authentic needs.
Their stories need to be understood, not treated as being of no importance by the simple approach of “receive Jesus and all your troubles will vanish and you will be really happy.” They listen to the Christian’s logic and mutter to themselves, You have a great message but the wrong audience. You don’t understand me.
Christian, we do not just have a message to share; there is another’s story we must understand first. If we don’t, that person will never be able to grasp the beauty of God’s story.
Jesus, however, is the master storyteller who comprehends my story—and your story—better than I do. He enters my world understanding my struggles. Consider one of many examples in the Gospels: the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. She was startled when Jesus told her everything about herself. She had just come to draw water. The beginning of their conversation had seemed so ethnically and religiously contoured, as all the while she was guarding her deepest need. The woman talked in general terms about broader issues, but Jesus brought the conversation down to the particular—to her specific need and the narrower hurt with which she lived.
She had started off by saying, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9). In effect, she was saying, “You are from an elite class; what do you know about my need?” Jesus stunned her with his knowledge about her life and what he uncovered for her. Her practical and impersonal questions about where to worship and what bucket he was going to use to draw water dissolved into the reality of what he told her about herself. The shortcoming was not that Jesus didn’t have a bucket, she came to realize; it was the deprivation of her shattered life. If he could uncover her malady, was it possible he would even provide a cure?
So often we live behind a mask, afraid to expose our utter unworthiness. Our biggest shock is coming face-to-face with God and discovering that he comes, not merely offering us forgiveness, but that he knows who we really are and still offers us forgiveness. He knows our debt, and he alone has the resources to cover it. This is the story of grace beyond our understanding.
The Samaritan woman leaves her water jar, returns to her town, and says, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29). Nathaniel’s experience with Jesus was the same, as was Peter’s, as was Paul’s. Jesus Christ knew their individual stories.
Every participant in a conversation with Jesus, whether it was Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, or the woman at the well, carried a heart-load of their own beliefs and hurts to their questions. That, to me, is what makes the Bible so relevant.
The gospel is a story. It is a true story. It is for the world. It is propositional, with multiple authors telling the same story across vast chasms of time. It is relational. It is general and particular. It celebrates my origin and points me to my destiny. It teaches me to respect from where I came and to respect others who treasure their ethnicity. Our backgrounds are not chosen. They are part of God’s path for our lives from where each of our journeys begin.
How thankful I am that Jesus is the master storyteller who comprehends our stories better than we do. He enters our world and understands our struggles. He knows my story, and he knows me.
Ravi Zacharias, who died of cancer on May 19, 2020, at age 74, is survived by Margie, his wife of 48-years; his three children:—Sarah, the Global CEO of RZIM, Naomi, Director of Wellspring International, and Nathan, RZIM’s Creative Director for Media; and five grandchildren.
1Jasmine Holmes, “Rethinking Apologetics for the Black Church,” Christianity Today, July 18, 2018, www.christianity today.com/women/2018/july/rethinking-apologetics-for-black-church.html.