The Power of Stories to Change Our Lives

By Keith Miller | November 9, 2009

Keith, over the years you have said in a number of different ways that God uses stories to change our lives in specific and deep ways.  Can you give a specific example of your hearing a story told by someone you did not know that changed your life in a specific and significant way (as Jesus’ stories evidently did in his listeners lives)?

That’s a very good question.After almost 50 years of listening for the truth in stories, I am deeply touched more and more often with stories people tell about their own lives.

Here’s a recent example. On the final evening of a large conference I attended a man in his 40s spoke about how he became a Christian. He was an award winning writer from a very famous and artistic family, whose actor-father had captured the hearts of America with roles he had played on two of the most watched TV series of all time.

The young man had wonderful memories of his early childhood—especially about his father. When his father came home he would spend a lot of time talking to him, being silly with him, and giving him lots of hugs and kisses. The man speaking to us said, “My dad meant everything to me. Everyone loved him. In fact looking back, I can see that he was my god.”

Then one day when the boy ran in from school, his red-eyed uncle met him at the door, saying, “Something terrible has happened. Your dad has left, and your mother’s upstairs crying. She needs you.”

He went into his mother’s room to find a weeping, broken woman.

The man at the podium before us was obviously recalling that moment, and the surprise on his face was still present. Since his parents had never fought in front of him, he had no idea their marriage was in trouble.

He then described how he slipped into the drug and alcohol life of many of the children of wealthy families in Hollywood. Finally, one night he totaled a fine car his father had bought him when he was old enough to drive. To console him for wrecking his own car, his father gave him his Lamborghini sports car—evidently an example of the way the father dealt with the vacuum in the boy’s life.

Then that young man told us with unforgettable sadness that his daddy had died, and they had never been reconciled.

The story continued, but my heart was suddenly torn in two. It was no longer the heart-break in the speaker’s life that was so agonizing to me. A door had quietly swung open in the basement of my own heart as he told us that his recurring memory still was of when he was very young, and his dad held his hand and laughed as they went to the studio. He shook his head and said something to the effect of, “He just didn’t get it that the extravagant gifts were not even in the same playing field as the grief I was experiencing, as I disappeared into the world of alcohol and addiction for several years.”

The speaker moved on to tell about a woman who worked for his mother. She kept urging his mother to go to church, and eventually she had gone. And much later he had more reluctantly gotten talked into going with them, and finally got converted.

But I can’t tell you the details of how that happened, because from the moment he spoke of walking proudly down the street with his father when he was a small child I had begun to cry, struggling to hold in deeper sobs. I was caught completely by surprise. I guess I was surprised because my children were almost grown when I left home and got a divorce, over thirty years ago. And I hadn’t realized how theirchildhood memories would be affected. For years I had tried to apologize and make amends to them, but I could tell that they knew something was still terribly wrong with me.

That night God used that simple story to break through my entrenched defenses. And I understood for the first time in the thirty-plus years something more about what had happened in our family. I had forgotten that hundreds of people who read my books responded to my writing and speaking with love and gratitude as if I were some sort of movie star or great athlete. And I realized in agony that in my children’s eyes I had been as much of a celebrity as the speaker’s father had been to his audience. But it was that picture of father and son holding hands that got through my defenses and denial, and broke my heart.

I saw that it was not that what I had done was unforgiveable to grown daughters—many people get divorces that are horrible. I saw that my leaving had shattered the memories of the only childhood life they had, memories of a father who had loved them. It wasn’t that I had been an awful father when my children were young; it was that when I left, the memories of the life we had known together were damaged irreparably.

Later that night, away from the crowd, I could not stop crying as gut-wrenching grief enveloped me, and I sat again in agony on the edge of despair. I realized to the bottom of my heart the enormity of my Sin, and that there was nothing I could ever do to “make it right” for my own daughters. But after a while I was filled with a deep gratitude, that even if I could not change the past, I had been given the gift of experiencing the reality and depth of my Sin and self-centeredness, and could turn to God as I had heard that night’s speaker tell about the pain that had driven him into the arms of a loving Father—who will never desert him.

I realized that my Sin had done the same thing for me that his grief had done for him, and I prayed that my children’s grief and anger had done it for them too.

What is that worth? What is the truth worth—that our sins and failures can lead us beyond our irreparable pasts to a new and deeper life with God?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve learned that not all Christian stories that have changed my life—and helped me grow up and be more responsible—are happy ending stories in the usual sense. But even though I will never get over the effects of my actions, and I cannot undo the harm I have done, I do believe that God can forgive me. And I know that God can use simple stories like this one to give me a far deeper and more transforming resolve to live the rest of my days as a more honest and loyal child of God… and father to my own children.

“…I tell stories to create readiness, to nudge people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.

(Matt. 13:13,The Message)

“It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn. As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Those things that hurt, instruct.’”

(The Road Less Traveledby M. Scott Peck, p.16)

“What we need to know…is that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.”

(The Magnificent Defeatby Frederich Buechner, p. 47)

Dear Lord: Thank you that you continue to give us direction, insight and hope—even through our worst failures and sins. Thank you that you have set up ways that we can confess our sins to one another and pray for each other, so that we can live together more whole and healthy, become more honest and loving, and grow closer to you and the other members of your family. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on The Power of Stories to Change Our Lives
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