I was reading an article in The Atlantic about the Oprah Winfry phenomenon. The article sketched out her rise from extreme poverty to queen of the cable TV world. One thing that jumped out at me was the author saying that her biggest theme was “Finding Your Voice”. The author says that telling your story is a powerful and effective tool in anyone’s arsenal. Today, I’d like to spend some time exploring this idea.
With the advent of mass communication, this idea of sharing our story with others has become huge. Books, Internet and Cable TV have created an industry that is making ordinary people with extraordinary stories into stars. We believe in a person who can tell a highly emotional real life story. There is something very compelling about the story actually occurring. Oprah has made a career of it and lots of people are trying to emulate her.
But I am not an expert on Oprah and the story telling phenomenon. I am an expert on the Bible. And I was interested in whether the Bible has anything to say about telling our personal stories. There are many powerful stories about the lives of real people in the Bible; Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Jesus and Paul to name just a few. But Oprah promotes individuals sharing their stories. Does the Bible have first person accounts in it? Yes it does. Moses writes in the first person a few times. Jeremiah and Daniel write about their lives as well. But the most prolific biographical writer is the apostle Paul. His letters are chock full of personal details. Because his letters are addressed to whole groups of people in his churches, he must have had a good reason to put them in.
Like all of us, Paul has personal reasons for including personal details. That sounds obvious, but it needs to be said. He defends himself against attacks for receiving financial support (1 Cor. 9). He complains of people causing him grief (2 Cor. 1:12-24). He sends personal messages to friends and supporters (1 Cor. 16:5-18). These few examples make it obvious that Paul uses his letters to address strictly personal concerns that have a little or nothing to do with theology. But he also uses biographical material to lift up the ultimate goal of his life.
Paul uses his life stories to lift up God in the letters to his churches. One example of this is Paul giving a brief description of his call and telling us that it was by God’s grace he became a missionary, not by anything that he had done (1 Cor. 15:9-11). Paul talks about his sufferings and then points to God’s deliverance from those sufferings (2 Cor. 1:3-11). Paul says that through his faith in Jesus Christ, anything is possible in his life (Phil 4:13). Paul is like all of us, he talks about the things that weigh on his mind. But he wants us to focus on what is most important, our faith in God and the way God uses our faith to change us and to change the world.
The primary focus of Paul’s letters is upon our faith in God and upon God’s grace. Paul uses His Story to turn our hearts and minds to The Lord. I don’t believe that the modern concept of telling My Story to the masses is anywhere near the same thing. I think Oprah would say that she has a higher purpose for telling Her Story. She says that her purpose is to lift up women and to help them live a better life. However, since so much of Oprah’s story telling is connected to enriching her pocketbook, I think an argument can be made that the sharing of Her Story is purely for commercial reasons. In the modern world of book selling and cable TV, it’s hard to tell where vision stops and consumerism starts.
Conversely, a true vision from God is not interested in numbers of viewers or dollars in the cash register. We serve God by serving God’s children. And we do this without thought of earthly reward. “What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). Our efforts, whatever they may be, should be done to glorify God, our ultimate goal. So sharing your story is a good thing. Just make sure you do it for the right reason.
God Bless You,