December 2, 2020

iMonk Classic: Does the Story Matter?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Dec 22, 2004

The other day, we were talking about Jesus’ command to “judge not,” and I said this in a post about how I have learned to think about judging others.

Connected to this is the humility that needs to accompany all claims of knowledge of other persons. Boy oh boy oh boy have I learned this at OBI. I may know the behavior, but I don’t know the story, or the journey. Every day I ask God to keep me humble in what I say about a student’s behavior, because I had a pretty normal childhood, and many of these kids haven’t had the first normal day yet. So when I “judge”- and I have to, as do we all here- I try to keep in mind that I see very very little of the big picture.

A commenter posted the following response.

QUOTE: “I may know the behavior, but I don’t know the story, or the journey.”The story and the journey do not matter. Sin is sin. Saul had a story and journey behind his consulting the medium at Endor. Uzzah had a story and journey behind reaching out to hold up the ark. Ananias and Sapphira had a story and journey behind lying about the money they had given.

The scourge of our age is that no one takes responsibility for their sin. There’s always a story and always a reason and always some other thing that shifts the blame.

But when God says “don’t,” you don’t. End of story (and journey, too.) That’s our problem–we just can’t leave it at that. Relativism and the postmodern mindset has instilled in this generation the idea that motives count more than truth. That’s been wrong since The Garden and will continue to be wrong.

Now, if you noticed that I never said the actions in question weren’t wrong, you are a good and reasonable reader. If you noticed that I never suggested excusing anyone for things done wrong, you are also a good and calm person. I commend you.

It made me think about a story. It’s one of those stories that I think is very important in my life, because I have thought about it over and over, and it always means more each time. It’s a story about something I did wrong, and how my father handled it. It also seems to be a story about God, and it is my answer to the guy who says our stories and journeys don’t matter.

I was eighteen, and my pride and joy was a 1965 Chevrolet Biscayne. Navy Blue. It was really a sweet car, and I enjoyed driving it. It was also my dating car, and that was the start of this problem.

I had a date with a girl from work. We’d been out a few times, and on this date, we wound up on a dark country road, out in the corn fields. I’m not going to explain that. If I need to, you are too religious.

I decided I wanted to back my car into a smaller road just off of the road I was travelling. This small road was over a very, very large ditch. I backed in, but I misjudged the location of my car, and one of my back wheels went hanging over the ditch. My car was rear wheel drive, and I couldn’t move forward. Fortunately, the car didn’t fall into the ditch, though that was something of a miracle.

I did all I could to get the car to move forward. I raced and raced and raced the engine, but the wheel that was hanging free just spun and nothing happened. I ran the engine so fast and hard, that the heater core burned out, and the car filled with smoke.

I decided to get out of the car and try to push it forward. For some stupid reason, I didn’t get out on the passenger side. I thought the ditch was very shallow, and I got out on the driver’s side. I was wrong. The ditch was deep- almost over my head, and full of freezing water. I could easily have drowned, but instead, I was just felt really stupid.

I made it out of the ditch and tried to push the car forward, but nothing helped. I realized I had to get some help. There was a farmhouse across the road, so I got my date and began walking to the farmhouse, soaked in muddy water.

I don’t remember much about that conversation, but it’s safe to say this man wasn’t glad to see me, wasn’t overwhelmed with compassion, had seen several of my kind before, and thought my twenty bucks wasn’t enough for a tow. He had little to say, but he pulled us out with his tractor, and took my money.

I drove my date home, and then headed to the house. The car was a mess, and the burned out heater core was still smoking.

Now, I need to say that my dad got mad at me a lot, about all kinds of things. He gave me a very hard time about things I deserved and things that really didn’t matter. He was a very anxious, and often angry, person. He had bought the car I was driving, and we didn’t have much money, so I was supposed to care about the car. He maintained the car, changing the oil when I acted oblivious to how a car worked. He loved the car a lot more than I did. As I drove home, I assumed that either I was going to lose my car, or possibly be in more trouble than I had ever been before. I was afraid. Really afraid.

Added to my fear about my dad’s reaction to the damage to the car was my fear of what my dad would do when he realized what I was doing out in the middle of a corn field. He wasn’t dumb. I was really more frightened by having to tell dad that I was on a date out in a corn field than I was telling him about the damage to the car. The damage was stupid. The date in a corn field was wrong, and embarassing. Especially since I was a preacher, because preachers don’t do things like park in corn fields with their dates. They pray and read their Bibles.

I arrived home, and it was obvious from the look of the car, and the smoke coming from under the hood, that I had a mess on my hands. The mud told the story of where I had been. I was thinking of some kind of lie as fast as my mind would work.

I do not recall the conversation. I just recall that my dad didn’t react at all. He sensed something, and something in his own life, probably in his own past, came to mind, and he treated me with grace and kindness. He didn’t yell. I didn’t have to tell a tale, because it was obvious that he wasn’t going to ask about the details. He even put his arm around me and said everything would be ok. Maybe I was a lot more upset than I recall.

Now I know that heater cores are expensive, but dad never made me pay for it, or grounded me, or punished me in any way. I completely dodged the bullet. I was so grateful. I think I decided God was real.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate what was going on here. I didn’t appreciate that my dad’s story caused him to treat me with compassion. His own journey had included some similar mistakes, and on this occasion, he remembered something that birthed kindness towards his stupidly wrong son.

The commenter above is, of course, quite right that we live in an irresponsible time, a time with lots of excuses for behavior. We also live in a time when people use their life experiences to try and manipulate our emotions and reactions. I don’t want to be like that.

But our stories do matter. Our journeys do matter. God brought us though those journeys. He brought us on the paths we’ve travelled to give us our stories. Some of us have very painful, lonely stories that have caused us to want to find love from other people, and some of those relationships were stupid and wrong. Some of us don’t do what is right very often, because we’ve grown up around people who never taught us right and wrong. Some of us have cruel and mean aspects of our personalities, because of what we’ve experienced that make us suspicious and distrustful of others. Some of us have suffered, and we do things out of fear of hurting again. Some of our stories include terrible things that we can’t think about, and they affect us in ways we don’t understand at all.

Sometimes when I see someone doing something that is bad or wrong, I wonder what happened in their journey that made that bad thing seem good for a moment. What made the rage or the promiscuity seem right at the time? I know there is more to what has happened than just the “sin” that I can see.

Return of the Prodigal Son, Murillo

Does God care about our stories? I think he does. I think he knows our stories a lot better than we do, and I can picture him reading our stories and being sad at some parts and angry at other parts. I don’t think he misses any of our sins, and I don’t thing he misses any of the reasons for why I do what I do. I believe the father of the prodigal knew what the boy was doing in that far country with all his money, and knew for years that his son was a selfish and impulsive child. Maybe the father knew why he was that way. Either way, he forgave and restored his son, and didn’t make any kind of a scene about the boy’s mistakes. He didn’t even give him a lecture about being responsible, or I told you so, or do you know how worried I’ve been? None of that.

I am sure that when the boy hugged his father, it was hard to realize that his dad knew all about him, but if he did realize that, wouldn’t it mean that his father loved him more than he ever thought was possible? Isn’t that why the Psalmist says “search me and know me?” Not just to know my sins, but all about me? Because we can trust God’s knowledge of our stories to be compassionate.

I know there are people who think God should be like a big computer, only noticing that we didn’t put in the right numbers, and caring about nothing else. My dad could have ignored his heart, and punished me for all that I did wrong. But he didn’t, and I’ll be it was because my dad was a forgiven person who knew about the kind of love God shows to sinners in Jesus. Mayby that’s why my dad cried every time he prayed at dinner.

There is so much wrong in my life, but all of it has a story. That may irritate some people or sound like an excuse, but it is true. I can’t understand a lot of my own story. Some of it makes me angry, and parts make me sad. I have to trust God to know all of it, and to one day put it all together in a resurrected life of perfect happiness. He can hold my story and my journey as a perfect thing in his fatherly hands, because he sees it all in his own purpose, and in the story of Jesus.

Finally, his story takes all of our stories, and puts them together into something wonderful.


  1. Amen.

  2. Considering a sinner’s keeps us from pridefully condemning them because they violated a Bible verse. It is for us to behave like Christ to the world, and leave the judging to God. He’s smart enough to figure it out for Himself.

  3. This is coming from an agnostic but I tired over how sins were treated in the chruch when I was a Christian. My own sin confession in confidential channels created problems, and I learned how many Pharises exist. What also contributed to the diffiiculty was how quick some were to lash out without knowing the entire story. Did the Pharises I knew care to know that I couldn’t get plugged into a mega church? No. Did the Pharises care to know or even sympathize with how my accountability partner for years lived a double life while I got hammered? No. Did the Pharises in the church know what grace and mercy is and that grace can be used as a means to love and rehabilitate someone? No…you can’t show grace…that would be condoning something and that would risk showing approval. It’s best to throw that person away.

    Hence that was how I went from someone who was a student leader in Campus Crusade, who did mission trips, and who also took a job on faith trying to follow God; and made that person into an agnostic. The fellowship I enjoy now in the local Secular Humanist Assocation is healthier than within the church.

    Becuase let’s face it….Christinaity for many is an act. Its a facade you have to play, look, act, etc.. Which also means you have to be dishonest to survive in that culture.

    Yup…I’m glad I’m gone. After my strained expereinces Matthew 10:14 shows what I did to Christinaity and God as a whole. Just dust off your feet and move on.

    • The church is full of hypocrites and sinners and those who think they aren’t.

    • Eagle, if you “did that to Christianity and God as a whole” as you claim, you wouldn’t be reading Michael Spencer. Reading iMonk proves that whatever you did was not “to Christianity and God as a whole.” You may be gone from the organized church, but “God as a whole”? No way.

      • Bob-

        I hang out here (and many other post evangelical forums) to read the posts and experiences of others. I still find Christinaity to be interesting, and I am still trying to close the chapter on that part of my life. I have lots of questions and do want answers. But the take away that I read in the comments here and other blogs/forums is that I am not alone. Others realize how toxic evangelical Christianity is. For me I took it a step further and threw away a lot more than than evangelicalism..

        I’m tired of what I’ve heard about Jesus…
        I’m tired of the manipulation…
        I’m tired of the false pretenses…
        I’m tired of the control….
        I’m tired of the Bible being used as a weapon…
        I’m tired of sin being subjective and defined through the prisim of white, upper middle class suburbia…
        I’m tired of the elitism…
        I’m tired of the ongoing “us” vs. “them” mentality…
        I’m tired of all of it….

        You know when I was in college I was involved with Mormonism and was really burned. The second time was with evangelical Christianity. After seeing how harmful Jesus and Christianity (I’m not sayng that Mormonism is Christian…) can be I promised myself never to get involved in a “Christian” faith system. Tim Keller and others are right to label agnosticism as faith and I don’t dispute that point. I have no plans of stepping into another church anytime soon….


        • Eagle, I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you never step inside another church building. And, heck, it’s not like God actually lives inside these “holy temples” we’ve spent billions upon billions to build and adorn in the name of religion — and it’s not that He loves people who regularly visit these buildings more than He loves people who don’t. If we’re seeking Him and His Spirit lives inside us, then we are His temple and His prefered dwelling place. All this other stuff — the grand facilities, the big productions, the rituals and traditions, the doctrinal systems — are at best ways to encourage the reality of God within us … and at worst a substitution for the real thing.
          And I really can relate to where you are on your journey. I grew up in the church, drifted away from it and into agnosticism in my early twenties, and from there I descended into nihilism. But even during that time when I claimed to believe in nothing and regarded with contempt anyone who did, I would occassionally have these little moments of spiritual clarity — moments in which I would cry out to God to come fill the big pit of emptiness inside me. And, during those moments, I would give Him permission to do whatever He thought necessary to break through my defenses and break me out of the intellectual prison I had created for myself. And then came a season in my life when He did just that. You might even say He ambushed me when I wasn’t looking — and for that I am very grateful.
          But I guess the manner in which my journey has unfolded has taught me the necessity of owning my faith and my own relationship with Jesus in a way that is not dependant on organized religion. I have chosen to be a follower of Christ — and I’m not about to let a bunch of despotic religious leaders or a mob of smiling, backstabbing hypocrites stop me from following Him. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that I or anyone else can really go it alone. But I’ve discovered that finding other believers to encourage you and uphold you and help you along in your journey doesn’t necessarily require stepping inside a church building or participating in organized religion.
          But you are where you are on your journey — which (I’m sure) is very different from mine. And I hope and pray that your journey ultimately leads you to a good place.

        • Your posts are very repetitive, Eagle, you are seemingly still working out a great deal of frutration. I’ve been through some things myself, so I get that, but your point seems to be that because of x, y, and z, the Jesus story is not to be trusted. And those telling the Jesus story are not to be trusted.

          I’ll just mention that as real as your experiences are, there are MANY whose story is as bad or worse than yours who still cling to the Shepherd of their souls. Who still believe IN SPITE OF all that (very real) crap that got dealt to them.

          I salute those who have not given up on Jesus and the gospel because of all the hyposcrisy thrown at them. Maybe someday you’ll join them. I’m hoping so.


    • The church, after all, is full of humans, meaning it’s full of screwed-up, hypocritical, arrogant, selfish people. I believe that most Christians are like you, bombarded by the law, unable to stand up to it, and whereas you walked away from Christianity, they just pretend that their lives are on track so they can fit into the system. Then they start to believe it, and then it becomes easy to judge your fellow man.

      Once I finally admitted to myself, my wife, and God how freaking screwed up I really am, and how ridiculous the church is (and that church wasn’t helping me), it made it much easier for me to believe in grace. I have come to discover the astonishing wonder of mercy, and the relief of not having to live up to anybody else’s standards.

      • “The church, after all, is full of humans, meaning it’s full of screwed-up, hypocritical, arrogant, selfish people.”

        After reaching the same understanding, and after really letting God’s grace sink in, only then was I ready to return to church.

    • I wonder how many people posting have had a similar experience as Eagle. I certainly did. I was sold Christianity as moral improvement and how much I committed myself to Christ. After attending Campus Crusade events and spending time in a campus small group I found no moral improvement, only struggle, and felt that it was not for me. I could not live the lie. I was given the diagnosis but never given the medicine.

      For the next 13 years I climbed my own ladder of self-righteousness, trying to earn Gods favor. That did not go so well.

      I heard the law so much that I kept pushing things away. Law preachers on TV, law preachers in churches who assume everyone knows the gospel, law parenting from Christian parents, a law sibling. Law Christians in the news. Law, law, law. Where was the gospel? Help, please help. Then my wife found a church that “I might like”. Then I heard the gospel, that I was forgiven. Corporate confession and absolution from a pastor who said I was forgiven (at Christ’s command and stead), reminded me that in my baptism He made me His, and He brought that forgiveness to me in communion. Events outside of my worthlessness brought this forgiveness to me, despite my currently sinful nature.

      Why is it so hard to hear the gospel? Why is it so protected as if we will abuse it?

      Eagle is screaming honesty.

    • Lot of similarities between moralists and bullies. Self-righteousness just takes on different forms outside religion. With or without religion, people feel the need to prove their worth by making others feel worthless.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Zero Sum Game.

        Where the only way to get more for yourself is to take it away from someone else, usually by force.

  4. Michael’s writings so often made me cry (good tears) and they still do. He wasn’t perfect, but he worked at being honest and he “allowed” us to be honest. I am thankful that Michael started this blog and I am thankful that Chaplain Mike and Jeff are continuing it.

  5. As D. Bonhoeffer wrote in Ethics: “If we look only to principles and rules, we are in a fallen realm where our reality is divided from God.” “We think we are doing good and fighting evil but in fact, we are living in an illusion.”

  6. Lord, help me to remember all for which I am forgiven so that I may forgive others and act from a heart of grace.

    Wonderful article. This is one to be read over a few times. Thank you for re-posting. I am still getting to know Michael Spencer… and I really like him.

  7. A tad off topic from the post but… After reading Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son recently I had to locate an art poster of Rembrandt’s painting. Even as a poster the painting says so much. Fortunately the poster can be purchased through Amazon, inexpensively, in several sizes.

    • Sarah…I have looked at the painting online and still can’t see some of what Nouwen talks about in the book. It seems like he is mentioning one more person than I can see in the painting. Maybe I would have to see the original, BIG painting. I did like the book. I am assuming you did too.

      So, to keep this on topic a bit…the book was all about forgiveness and grace.

    • The Rembrandt is amazing, but there’s something about that excited little dog in the picture in the post that just makes my heart smile a little extra 🙂

      • katie, the Rembrandt painting is so dark and I prefer that Murillo painting that is shown in this post. It’s so lively and includes animals and a child. And yes, that dog is great!

  8. I am new to Internet monk and have been so blessed by all the articles. Michael spencers wisdom has taught me so much. I loved this article and the simple truth of grace. This site has been like fresh water to my parched soul. Thank you.

    • Welcome to internetmonk, Lisa! I am glad that you are enjoying Michael Spencer’s articles. He surely had a way with words and was able to move people emotionally and challenge them to think critically. He encouraged us to always keep Jesus as the center of our lives without becoming people who would only listen to Christian music, only be with Christian friends, etc.

      • Thanks Joanie. What a wonderful place this has been. I have felt so disconnected from the church and it’s been a lovely place to find spiritual kindred spirits.

  9. I’ve observed one thing about stories. There are many people whom have gone through devastating experiences that change everything. Sometimes this has happened before they met Christ, but for many of us (and Eagle may be referring to) it happens well after they have met Christ. I’m speaking of major-league events, like the death of their child (or spouse), a serious depression, financial ruin, deep betrayal and such . . . which changes the narrative for them from that point forward. All of life then looks different. Those back on the other side of the looking glass (speaking even of Christians) then look very different. The old ways of thinking seem absurd. You can no longer communicate intimately with those on the other side, because your perspective doesn’t fit the mold.

    I think there may be many who visit here who are the broken side of the glass. You know God differently here. Mercy is far more important now, while law was what was important in your previous life. So, I think the story really does matter and makes us who we are.

    • MJ-

      I like to hang around your blog a lot. You write some good stuff and I appreicate it. One of the things that did it for me was a deep, deep betrayal. I confessed a sin in private confidential channels to a Crusade leader and he used that information to help derail a career. He later told me that he wanted me to learn a lesson about sin and I’m still dealing with the effects of “his teaching…” Meanwhile while I got hammered my Crusade accountability partner for 8 years lived a double life. He did so because he felt he couldn’t be honest and didn’t want to get in trouble like I did. He explained to me that he was “a Baptist” and that he wasn’t supposed to struggle with sin as a “Baptist.” I went through the roof over some of this stuff. This and other situations helped me get to my tipping point and it ended with me taking a lot of my Christian material to a dumpster and throwing it away. Man it felt good!!! 🙂 But I’m still torn over the idea of whether or not I should burn my old Bible. Maybe I’ll do that as a counter protest to someone buring a Quran 🙂

      • When I discovered I had nothing in common with the church I had grown up in, and had to part company with them, I gave an enormous stack of christian cd’s to a bible thumping woman I worked with at the time. The look on her face was priceless, and I was so happy to be moving on with my life. Years later as I felt the tug of God in my heart, I was very thankful to still have a study bible I had used for years in a box at the back of the closet. I dusted it off, opened it up and the first scripture my eyes saw was “Ask me for anything and I will do it.” That’s paraphrased, but I got the message. Since then it’s been just me and God, my life partner, and a handful of close friends who believe as we do on this journey. I can separate the inconsistencies with translations, and all the rest of the junk and can find God there in the pages when I need it. I haven’t been inside of a church building for over 20 years, and I have never felt closer to God.
        I do hope you find peace in your soul, Eagle.

  10. The commenter (in Michael’s post) made the classic mistake of misunderstanding mercy, which is at the heart of the gospel. Mercy doesn’t whitewash sin; it supersedes it.

    “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:12-13)

    My favorite “story” about redemption is Jacob’s confession after he wrestles with the angel of God. His observation perfectly encapsulates the gospel message: “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’” (Gen. 32:30)

  11. Eagle:

    I became a Christian and then went and did missionary work for three years.
    After that I returned home and went to school.

    And at some point – I simply ran out of gas. I had a period of 8 years where I was agnostic. Some of what you spoke of makes sense. I did not know what I believed, it would simply be ‘I don’t know’

    What I kept coming back to was this person Jesus. I did not have problems with him, but did with some of His followers (very few).

    I have since returned to Him. I still find some of the followers difficult to deal with. Ultimately, they are His to deal with. I have a community of a few people that walk with me and my family. They go to their own churches, but for us at least, it is the time with them that spurs us on.

    Your story is disappointing, and I can see the pain in your post. I don’t know if I would have responded any different than you.

    But I do know this, I am more attracted to Christ than ever. And I plod my way down the path slowly following Him. At times He is so real I could almost touch Him. And then some times it feels like a distant dream.

  12. I was taken aback by the original comment iMonk was responding to. Not caring about someone’s story is a sin, no matter the justification. Kindness is a fruit of the spirit, after all, and by your fruits we know you.

  13. It seems to me that the recent tempest over the Pope’s comments about condom use is the exact same problem — Benedict was allowing a story and considering right and wrong within it, from a perspective of grace; the people who reacted so strongly to his comments — on both sides of the issue — were like the big computer Michael mentioned. They just kept screaming, “Does Not Compute!!”