When I began to compile a list of the stories that have taught me in the most profound ways, I noticed an interesting trend. Though they are wildly different, evenly split between male and female authors, spanning 131 years between the oldest and most recently published, and each from a different genre, they all did one important thing for me. Whether intentional or not, every one of them elevated my view of God.
God used this story to show me the beauty of his sovereignty.
I had just joined a new church when I read this book. My new pastor was seriously challenging my notions of God’s sovereignty by bringing to light things I’d never considered before and exposing me to scripture I knew, but didn’t fully understand.
It’s a hard thing to grapple with: Is God really sovereign over everything? Like…even my choices??
I absolutely despised Big Brother, The Party, and the notion of an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity watching you, coercing you, accusing you, limiting you, taking away your choices. It forced me to ask myself some difficult questions.
Is The Party just a very warped metaphor for Christianity?
Does orthodoxy really mean unthinking?
Have we been cheated out of something we have a right to? Control over our destiny? The legitimacy of our human emotions?
SPOILER ALERT: When Winston is…”converted,” shall we say, that event which should be the pinnacle of the Christian life, it is not a happy ending for him. It is a shock. The kind that makes you want to throw the book across the room and weep for humanity.
While I was reading this mind-bending fiction, my new pastor was simultaneously pointing me to scriptures like:
“So then [salvation] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God… He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he will.” Romans 9:16-18
Wait…that sounds an awful lot like Big Brother, doesn’t it?
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world…” Ephesians 1:4
But…what about our autonomy? Our choice? Our control?
“For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” Deuteronomy 31:21
“No!” my self-loving, self-centered, self-important soul cried out. “I am not Winston! You do not know how my story ends!” My sinful heart wanted to reject that kind of sovereignty.
Friends, the Lord worked on me during that time. I’ll never, ever forget how he brushed the scales from my eyes, and used that incredible work of fiction, together with the teaching of my pastor, to show me his glory, his mercy, his boundless love for his people, and above all, the beauty of his all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful sovereignty.
Just before Winston gives in, disappointing us readers who rooted for him to resist Big Brother, he has a moment of clarity. He says, “To die hating them, that was freedom.” I want to cry, reading that line today (pg. 281 in the Signet Classics Edition) because I know the truth. To die hating the Lord and his church is to perish, eternally separated from the God who pursued you. That is Hell! That is the opposite of freedom. That’s why he pursues you! It isn’t to coerce you, abuse you, scare you, or make you do anything you don’t want to do. Christians aren’t put in little rooms, bludgeoned intellectually, and fed propaganda until they go brain dead and give in.
In God’s mercy, he does the work in our heart that makes us want his saving grace. We delight in his precepts. We desire his presence. We request a renewed mind. We long to be transformed to his image.
What God is this? What marvelous, generous, sovereign-over-every-single-thing God is this, who,
“…being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:4-8
Have any sweeter words ever been written? Sorry, George. Your story is powerful, but Jesus wins.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Published in 1985. Speculative, Women’s Lit.
God used this story to show me the depravity of humans, and the corresponding depth of his mercy.
I wanted to hate this book. I began the story with my hackles raised, ready pick a fight, and fully prepared to slam the book shut and stew for days. But I found myself instead under Margaret Atwood’s brilliantly written spell, aching for Offred, needing to know how her story would end.
It wasn’t necessary, as the introduction led me to believe, that a reader be a feminist, or even have feminist leanings, to fully get the horror of Offred’s life. It was enough that I am a woman. That I am a human being.
It would have been easy for me to dismiss this story if it was simply an indictment of God or Christianity. Surely that’s what most readers are left with. Maybe that was Atwood’s intention. I don’t know. But I saw a more complex theme emerge halfway through the book, when Offred stumbles through the Lord’s Prayer, struggling to make sense of why and how she ended up in this place. She prays, “I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what you want.”
God’s word is never wrong, though it’s often twisted and warped. History has shown us over and over again how power in the hands of men (and women), whether it’s put there by the church or the state, corrupts. Atwood’s story shows us the pain people are capable of inflicting–have inflicted–justifiably, they think, on their fellow human beings, given enough power. And while this story points the finger at those who would perpetrate evil in the name of a God they misunderstand, it’s clear that the root of the evil is in man, not God.
Every dark period of church history has ended when the dawn of good theology has risen to take its place. We have seen, again and again, how God is merciful to allow civilization to right itself after a time.
Praise God for his mercy.
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry. Published in 1993. Young Adult Lit, Dystopian.
God used this story to show me the perfect wisdom of his plan.
This is the only book I’ve ever read three times. I first read it as a college student for my Young Adult Lit class in 2001. I read it again when I taught it to 8th graders during my first semester as a Language Arts teacher in 2003. I read it again when my kids were old enough to read it too, in 2014.
It never gets old. With every reread, I’m moved even more deeply to make sure my children know this truth: They need never doubt the wisdom of God in giving us a world filled with both good and bad.
They’ve asked the question of me, “Why would God let the serpent into the garden of Eden and mess everything up? Why didn’t he just give us a perfect world to live in now?”
It’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t presume to know the mind of God. But I can remind them of Jonas; the first time he was cold, the first time he saw war, death, blood, famine, pain. He wanted to know why The Giver was showing him these things. It was hard. Upsetting. Exhausting. Unpleasant. It was awful.
But with those awful things came color, diversity, joy, beauty, creativity…love.
Without darkness there is no light. Things are hidden from us, and we are not better for not knowing. Never experiencing pain does not make us happy. It makes us dull, unknowing, unsympathetic. That’s not what God has in mind for us.
This story also teaches us that human beings can never create Utopia on earth. We are too corrupt, too limited in our knowledge of ourselves. I want this story to inspire my children, the world’s future adults, to resist the urge of political ideas and personalities that promise Utopia.
The adults in Jonas’s world tried, and their intentions were good. They wanted to create for themselves a world where there was no racism, no poverty, no disease, no weakness, no hunger, no death, and no decay. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? On the surface, they were successful. But in the absence of these things, there was also a tragic absence of compassion.
Lois Lowry skillfully and gently pulls the curtain back, exposing Jonas to the evil required to sustain his “perfect” world. The visceral reaction of readers when they discover what “Release” means is universal. No matter your age, faith background, or political ideology, you are repulsed, and rightly so.
Few books ever written can make such a claim.
4. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo Published in 1862. Historical Drama, Classic.
God is still using this story to teach me about his grace.
Confession: I am still working my way through this massive novel. I’ve been at it for nearly two years. I’m 800 pages into an 1,100 page behemoth. I pick it up in stops and starts. It’s too much to take in at once.
It’s epic in scale and encompasses so much about the human life. Social injustice, grief, hopelessness, despair, perseverance, integrity, pity, suffering, faith, providence, war, love, unrequited love, and dozens more. But the theme that impacts me most deeply when I think of this story is God’s grace, and how we are to respond to it.
Valjean, like Winston from 1984, is an “Everyman.” We see ourselves in him. No matter our gender, our time in history, or our station in life, we were once filled with darkness, like him. We have all been without hope.
“During the years of suffering he reached the conclusion that life was a war in which he was one of the defeated. Hatred was his only weapon, and he resolved to sharpen it in prison and carry it with him when he left.”
Valjean did not expect to receive grace from the bishop. He did not go looking for it, or asking for it. He most definitely did not deserve it. But it was given, freely and generously. After he steals the bishop’s silver, he is caught by the police and dragged back to face the one from whom he stole.
“So here you are!” [the bishop] cried to Valjean. “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?”
Thus, he is not thrown back into prison, as he justly deserves. Not only is he free, but he holds in his hands the means to begin his life anew.
“I was famished when I came in here. Now I scarcely know what I feel. Everything has changed.”
Is this your response? You, the recipient of grace so lavish, so sacrificial, so undeserved, you can never repay your debt?
Everything Valjean does over the next 1,000 pages is a response to this gift of grace. Becoming a successful business man, fleeing Javert, adopting Cosette, saving Marius. This is his way to “present [his] body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1.
This heartrending story of grace has even been preserved in some measure in the many film and theater versions of the story. The producers can’t help it. The message of grace is so pervasive, so lovely, so interwoven, there can be no Jean Valjean without the grace of God.
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