Thanks to Shirley Buxton for asking in the comments of my blog on writing that sings, “Can someone help me understand how to show spirituality without being preachy?”
Why, yes, Shirley, I can. At least, I can tell you my perspective.
It’s the difference between telling people how they ought to live, and showing them. It’s not spouting Scripture when someone is hurt or struggling, but coming alongside them, sitting with them, holding them, asking how you can help. It’s entering into their struggle and being Christ to them, acting as he would.
Think about it. When Jesus shared spiritual truths with the crowds around him, how did he do it? He showed those truths through a story. He didn’t say, “You faithless fools, God tells us to use our talents for him, not withhold them!” No, he told a story… “A man was going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them…”
Whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction, the way to communicate spiritual truths is to show it, not tell it.
Consider the following paragraph:
Forgiving in marriage is not an option. It’s a command, straight from Jesus. If your spouse had done or said something that hurt you, forgive them. If you’ve done or said something that hurt your spouse, ask to be forgiven. You don’t have a choice. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And a verse or so later, he says: ““If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” If you’re a Christian and you aren’t forgiving your spouse, you are in the wrong. And God won’t forgive you. It’s as simple as that.
Okay, feel beat over the head a bit? Yeah, me, too, and I wrote it! That paragraph is preaching. Telling you how you’re supposed to behave, and that you’ll regret it if you don’t. All of which may be true, but not many are drawn to right living by that kind of presentation of truth. Now, try this…
I’d only been married a few days when I made a shattering discovery: the man I married, the man I saw as a knight in shining armor, could do and say things that hurt me! It didn’t matter whether or not he’d intended to hurt me, all that mattered was he’d done so. And then I made an even more shattering discovery: Forgiving your spouse is hard. When I said I do, I knew he’d be there to shelter and protect me, to love me unconditionally. He wasn’t supposed to hurt me!
It’s hard, isn’t it, letting go of expectations, loving someone for who they are, warts and all? But here’s the thing. When we don’t forgive someone, we put them—and ourselves—in a kind of prison. I found that out all those years ago after nursing a hurt for days. I was miserable. Don was miserable. Even the poor dogs were miserable! Life at the Ball household was not much fun. Then, one evening, God tapped me on the shoulder and reminded that—ahem!—Don was not the only imperfect human in the marriage. And that love wasn’t about not hurting each other, it was about forgiving and surrendering my hurts to Him. When I finally did that, oh! the freedom that washed over me! My heart was light, our home was warm again, and I swore I could fly.
Friends, don’t let hurts in marriage fester. Don’t let them weigh you down and imprison you. Let them go. Forgive. And know the beauty of God’s freedom, not just in your marriage, but in your heart.
When you show truth in your writing, you draw people into the experience. They live it with you or with your characters, and they learn alongside you. In the process, they may even change.
So writing with power means you don’t hit people over the head with Scriptures, you don’t give a sermon, you don’t stick in a conversion scene unless it’s a natural outgrowth of the story. Writing with power means you show what’s right, through story or illustration, through your character’s journey.
So that’s my take. Now, how about you all? What do you think makes the difference between preachy writing and powerful writing?
Karen, you nailed it. This reminds me of the scene in the Lincoln movie when someone asked the president something and he answered with a story. It’s why I love fiction! C.S. Lewis thought his fiction was more important than his apologetics because he believed imagination was the natural organ of meaning. We often talk, in writing, about showing rather than telling. Our truths should be inherent in the story. I see too often characters who just accept a message (of salvation or whatever) too easily. They say things like, “Yes, you’re right.” Having worked in the counseling field, I know two things: 1) People don’t share their secrets easily; 2) People don’t accept your advice easily. They need to SEE and FEEL that it is true. That’s where stories come into play. I also learned when people say “yes, you’re right,” they are more like only trying to allay your fears, rather than processing what you’ve just told them. The best response you can expect from someone you want to impart truth to is speechlessness. If they are not talking, they are thinking. We need to allow our characters to process what has happened to them, and in so doing, we allow our readers to do the same.
Debra L. Butterfield
Connie, your reply is as helpful as Karen’s post! Thank you. I’m in the midst of revising my nonfiction book and this post was God pointing the way on how to do it. Thank you, Karen, for showing examples of both preaching and story. When we are attempting to help those who are hurting, we certainly don’t need to add to their hurt by being callus and preachy with our advice.
Karen, Great point, and something with which I wrestle for every one of my novels. Thanks for sharing.
Lancia E. Smith
Karen, thank you so much for this post. All of the best discipling involves humility in both parties – the one receiving the training and guidance and the one acting as a conduit of it. When we ourselves are living out of submission, obedience, and trust in God we are in a position to come along side another and help them to do the same. If we are writing from a place of humility and obedience in our own lives our writing reflects that credibility as clearly as our verbal conversations do. And it that sense, when we are living that walk well, we are the story we are telling, and not the preaching.
Thank you so much again for your good posts and voice of encouragement. You are a blessing to so many.
Karen, I love how you SHOWED the spiritual truth. It’s easy to tell, but ineffective. You’ve given me some ideas of how I can show spiritual truths in my book by showing a character living it out. Thanks for that!
You always speak to me in a way I can understand and bring that knowledge into play as I write. I don’t use scripture in my writing, but spiritual truths are always the focus. Sometimes I get paranoid I’m doing it wrong or that because I don’t use blatant religious actions and scriptures that somehow I don’t qualify for being Christian in my writing. God is always mentioned. Prayer is always a part. But I sprinkle them in, leading my characters toward learning they cannot depend on anything in life except God. You rock, girl!
I couldn’t agree more. Jesus was so…relational. It can be tempting to spit off answers and scripture like they’re pat solutions (they are TRUTH…) but the pearls land in the mud if we don’t make a big deal of first empathizing, of knowing the heart and the hurt. Such a delicate dance.
I heard somewhere that the things that most disgust us, the things that make our skin crawl most, are the sins we ourselves keep as pets. I don’t know it that’s true, but if it is, it means that we can often just talk about our own messes and the way we schlep through them, and that’s fodder enough to help others.
I do a lot of finger wagging…at myself, though. In the mirror.
Thank you for this post.
Wise words, Karen. Thanks.
I struggled with this as I wrote the first draft of my book. I wanted to include a spiritual message but didn’t want to hit people over the head with it. I don’t enjoy reading that sort of thing myself, especially in a novel.
I think you’ve done a great job in showing rather than preaching.
One of the best ways we can communicate the gospel without preaching is to describe Jesus-encounters that are vivid and down-to-earth. When describing an error to avoid, I use an example from my own life – often stories about when I blew it with my family or friends. When describing the profound grace and love of Christ, I like to extend Scriptural promises to include the corporate “we.” The writing comes across as more authentic, vulnerable, and accepting to readers.
Powerful writing… laying out God nuggets in the story and praying that the Spirit will speak to the readers in the way they need.
It’s a challenge and takes practice, but is worth the time invested. A powerful story is one that the reader thinks about when they put the book down. God nuggets can do the trick 🙂
p.s– Karen, I didn’t get to comment on your latte art last week. Way to go with the heart, girl! Keep going 🙂
VERY insightful! I am currently in the trenches with those who are willing to address the eight roots to any hurt, habit and hang-up and I am writing the curriculum. I am super excited that there are many “recovery” type programs in churches all across the world — let’s face it, hurts, habits/hang-ups are non-denominational! — and while the foundation is Christ, I have learned through life experiences as well as many long years of therapy, that many have clogs in their pipes leading to their hearts, and while God’s love is stronger than “Draino,” the pipe has to open first! Anyway, thank you for this blog on this very subject. I am super excited about the curriculum He is writing through me and this was a cup of encouragement for my soul!
Blessings in all your tomorrows!
One thing that I think helps writing from becoming “preachy” (especially fiction) is to prompt questions in people’s minds. This is hard for Christian authors, we want to always point people to the ANSWER. But when I think back on novels that have impacted me, often the impact comes from the questions they leave me with, that prompt soul-searching. I think we need to have respect for our readers and, as well, respect for the Holy Spirit that He will use these questions to lead the readers to the ultimate truth. This is not easy to do, but I find that my own writing is much more powerful when I resist the urge to dot ALL the’s and cross ALL the t’s for the reader.
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