Everybody loves a good story, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights. We are narrative people who gather like moths to a flame whenever we hear the words, “Once upon a time” or “This reminds me of a story.” Telling stories helps us make sense of our world and whets our curiosity for knowledge. Stories serve as either windows or mirrors. Like windows, they provide a glimpse outside our world into places and times we could not otherwise go (Rom 15:4). However, like mirrors, they also reveal a portion of our soul (Jas 1:23-25). Stories help us see ourselves as we truly are when compared to characters on the page and, ultimately, to the perfect Son of God. Blessed are those transformed into Christ-likeness one story at a time (2 Cor 3:18). Biblical narrative can also be effective in counseling because stories soften our defenses, like Nathan regaling David about a rich man stealing a precious lamb (2 Sam 12:1-13a). Stories help biblical truth to slip into our consciousness like a Trojan horse. They cultivate our imagination as a powerful tool for personal change.
As one Jewish rabbi joked, “God made people because he loves stories.” Perhaps, for this reason, the God who acts in biblical history has told a story that still rings true in everyday life. As the original Storyteller, God has graciously conveyed his Word through an overarching narrative: Creation—Fall—Redemption—Consummation. The entire Bible is his story in which he reveals himself as the main character while showing how each of our smaller stories fits in with his. Since the beginning, God created the human mind to visualize his creation and to image forth his glory (Gen 1:26-28). Sin’s corruption turned our God-given imagination toward lustful fantasies, anxious thoughts, and uncharitable judgments. Yet stories resonant with biblical truth will renew our vision of godly marriages, heavenly glory, and hope-filled communion in the church. Imagination trains us to live by faith in what we cannot see (Heb 11:1), expands our view of what is possible, and provides the language to articulate it. Too many believers, however, wield a counseling Bible that is far too thin. We rely on go-to passages instead of exploring the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27). We write topically about presenting problems instead of starting with exposition. By neglecting the narrative portions of Scripture, we excise over half of God’s Word from our counseling Bibles. Understanding biblical narrative will help us tell a better story within God’s grander story.
Before considering how to interpret and apply biblical narrative, Scripture must first be read as literature—learning how stories are told can teach us how to better tell our own story and how to listen to the stories of others—reading the Bible as literature reminds us that Scripture is a well-told story that the wise counselor interweaves into the script of the counselee’s life. Three main literary elements of the biblical narrative include plot, setting, and characterization.
Plot describes the dramatic story arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Exposition provides background material the author wants us to know from the outset in order to make the plot possible (e.g., “Now there was a famine in the land” [Gen 12:10]). Exposition introduces the characters and sets the table for the story to begin. The plot thickens as the conflict moves the story toward its climax. Conflict may exist with other characters (e.g., Jacob and Esau), one’s environment (i.e., nature or society), supernatural beings (i.e., God or demonic forces), or oneself (e.g., Eve’s temptation). At the climax, the protagonist chooses to become either the hero or the villain with blessings for obedience and judgment for disobedience. Wise counselors use biblical stories to teach discernment and to illustrate the consequence of choices. As the resolution brings the action to a close, the storyteller might conclude with a brief summary of the plot (e.g., Judges 8:28) or of the resulting consequences (e.g., Gen 37:36). Consider the following principles for analyzing a story’s plot.
- Detect “clues” the biblical author has planted throughout the text.
- Segment the passage according to the plot elements of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
- Identify the major crisis and the type of conflict it represents (i.e., person-person, person-nature/society, person-spiritual force, person-self).
- Examine how each literary device moves the story forward.
- State the passage’s main idea, like a news photographer choosing a single action shot to represent the entire story.
Another main literary element of the biblical narrative, the setting, describes the time, place, and cultural context of a story. Physical setting helps readers visualize the scene (e.g., by “the vineyards of Timnah” [Judges 14:5]). In contrast, temporal setting sets the stage in biblical history (e.g., “In the days when the judges ruled” [Ruth 1:1]). Cultural setting incorporates extrabiblical research such as the knowledge that Baal, the Canaanite god, provides rain for crops (see 1 Kgs 17). The setting stokes the reader’s imagination by creating a location where the plot can take place. Biblical authors also use details in the setting to leave subtle clues for attentive readers. Consider the following principles for observing the setting.
- Identify when and where the story happens.
- Incorporate relevant historical-cultural elements from extrabiblical studies.
- Locate the individual story within Israel’s covenant story, then also within the metanarrative of God’s redemptive plan.
In addition to plot and setting, counselors should also be aware of characterization. The primary character, God, remains pervasively present even when working behind-the-scenes. Other characters may include supernatural creatures or human beings. The narrator himself might occasionally step into the spotlight (e.g., Judges 21:25) but usually tells the story from an omniscient third-person perspective (e.g., 2 Sam 10-20).
The biblical authors also prefer to show instead of tell. For this reason, pay special attention to any selective details the storyteller reveals. A person might be characterized by the name they are given (e.g., Nabal), their social status (e.g., Rahab the prostitute [Josh 2:1]), or a rare physical description (e.g., Saul stood a head taller than any of the people [1 Sam 9:2]). Stories teach us how to recognize heroes and villains and the cast of characters in between.
Biblical narratives develop characters not with direct description but through their actions. “In stories, as in life, one of the clearest glimpses that we get into a person is the immediate response to an event. The immediate response is intuitive and springs from the soul of a person.” For example, famished Esau returns home from a hunting excursion and impulsively trades his birthright to appease his appetite, while Jacob instinctively takes advantage of his brother’s weakness (e.g., Gen 25:29-34). Their unguarded actions reveal their inner character. Along with action, storytellers use dialogue to carry along the story. Speeches are even more common than action, and the first occurrence of dialogue often establishes the narrative’s plot (e.g., Ruth 1:9). Words spoken by other characters or a character’s own thoughts can provide a sneak peek into how that person is perceived (e.g., Judg 17:13). Consider the following principles for examining characterization.
- Identify each character in the story: the protagonist (e.g., David), the antagonist (e.g., Goliath), foil (e.g., Saul), parallel character (e.g., Elijah and Elisha), or supporting cast (e.g., Eliab).
- Observe how a character’s actions reveal their heart motives. Ask how each character demonstrates spiritual “fruit” or sinful “thorns” in response to challenging circumstances (see Jer. 17:5-10).
- Listen closely to what conversations reveal about each character when they speak about others, themselves, or the world around them. Note especially when the storyteller chooses to advance the plot with dialogue.
The Counselee’s Story
Biblical counselors address overlapping circles of the narrative. Begin with your counselee’s story by gathering background information: “Tell me about your past. Draw me a timeline of the major events in your life. Do you have a salvation testimony?” You can discern their approach to problems by asking, “What do you think God is doing in your present circumstances? How does your story interact with the other people in your life?” You can expand their thinking by showing them how to cultivate a sanctified imagination: “What do you think heaven will be like? How would a Christ-centered marriage be different than your present experience?” Listen well to this first circle of narrative before bridging the connection to the other circles. You cannot love people well and speak the truth until you have first heard their stories.
- Describe in detail the plot, setting, and characters in your counselee’s life story.
- Consider how their personal story fits into the redemptive-historical narrative. In what ways has your counselee strayed from God’s grand story?
- Dream with them about a biblically-plausible, God-glorifying resolution to their problem. Help them trust God to write their story and the stories of those they love.
The Counselor’s Story
The second circle of the narrative is our story as counselors. Our personal background, life experience, and ministry skills will shape the way we listen to others. We might share common experiences (1 Cor 10:13), the same local church, union in Christ, or a pre-established relationship outside of counseling. Yet, we also have certain differences regarding culture, biblical understanding, and even worldviews. The wise counselor recognizes where our circle of the narrative does and does not overlap with others’. At times, we appropriately to share our own story with counselees to build involvement, inspire hope, or teach biblical truth. Such moments of transparency require wisdom and discretion (Prov 17:27; 18:2).
Stories of Christians in History and Literature
Circles of narrative which parallel the counseling conversion include Christian biography and Christian fiction. For example, we might encourage a counselee, “Remember the conversion of Martin Luther” or “Let me tell you about St. Augustine’s Confessions.” We might ask them to learn from the courage of Amy Carmichael or Corrie ten Boom. Christian biography teaches countless biblical truths through the strengths and failures of historical figures.
Christian fiction offers another tool for starting gospel conversations. Many families have stoked spiritual discussions by simply reading aloud classics like Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia. Such stories often depict what is true about the world more effectively than propositional statements. Certainly, we still need God’s Word to convert the soul (Ps 19:7-14), but stories point us to truths beyond this world.
Through Christian biography and Christian fiction, we not only interact with the characters themselves but also with the authors. For example, we gain insight for living as we immerse ourselves in the life and thinking of C. S. Lewis and John Bunyan. Their biographies teach us how to interpret their fiction and vice-versa. From Christian authors, we also learn the craft of effectively using stories both as well-loved literature and as covert catechisms for eager listeners. The following principles will help you integrate Christian biography and Christian fiction in your counseling ministry.
- Make a list of Christian biographies and Christian fiction that served a significant role in your own spiritual growth. Consider how portions of this literature may be used to counsel others.
- Go to the next level of storytelling by studying the life and ministry of your favorite Christian
The Biblical Story
Finally, consider the circle of the biblical story. Expository counselors study passages of Scripture to learn what God’s Word meant to the original hearers and the multiplicity of ways that God manifested his providence in their lives. We then bridge the context from their world to ours with the understanding that “Old Testament stories were written for us, but not about us.” As Paul refers to the life of Abraham, “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (Rom 4:23-24). Abraham’s failures and his faithfulness were both recorded in Scripture for the sake of future believers (see Gen 15:6; Heb 11:8-10).
In addition, counselors must retain a firm grasp on biblical history. Every individual story in the Old Testament fits within God’s larger purpose for Israel. Thus, we refer back to the Abrahamic covenant as we read the Joseph narrative or the exodus from Egypt as we read the Psalms (e.g., Ps 136). God’s purpose for Israel then fits into his overarching redemptive plan unveiled throughout Scripture. These lived experiences of real people each highlight a particular aspect of redemptive history. Our understanding of the New Testament church then relates back to Israel’s role in God’s redemptive plan. As Paul wrote, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (2 Cor 10:11a). In other words, the church in Corinth could learn biblical truth from the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness (Num 11-14), and Christians today can learn from both Israel and Corinth (1 Cor 10:1-14). A skilled biblical counselor will not simply teach the application of Scripture but also the foundational principles on which that application is grounded. They will ask, “Which biblical narrative most effectively speaks into this particular counseling situation? What story does my counselee most need to hear at this time?” We believe by faith that every story fits within Scripture’s grand meta-narrative. Thus, a robust biblical theology allows room to explain every person’s situation.
Creation reveals that God made all people (counselors and counselees alike) in his image and likeness to display his glory (Gen 1:26-28). This universal truth guides the counselor’s methodology and also the goal of biblical counseling. Every person we encounter bears the dignity of God and should be treated with care as we help one another more fully reflect God’s glory.
The fall then explains how sinners experience separation from God and broken relationships with others when we fail to reflect God’s glory (Rom 3:10-12). We all face suffering and temptation as a result of living in a fallen world. Thus, every presenting problem is ultimately a consequence of the fall.
In Christ’s incarnation, the Author of life then wrote himself into the human story (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus accomplished our redemption by living the perfectly righteous life which Adam and the rest of mankind could not. He imaged forth the very glory of his Father (Col 1:15-20) before dying a sacrificial death for sinners (vv. 21-22a). In Christ, believers are restored into the image of God, made into new creations, and empowered to live lives that are pleasing to him (2 Cor 5:17). Our counselees must embrace the redemption of Christ as the forgiveness for sin, the pardon for guilt, and the removal of shame.
Finally, the consummation reminds us that believers are justified at conversion, progressively being sanctified, and will one day be glorified when we stand before God as holy and blameless in Christ (Col 1:22b). No matter how difficult a counselee’s present struggle with sin or suffering, a true believer can look with hope to a glorious future where sin and sorrow will be no more. Such is the promise of eternal life with Jesus Christ in heaven.
As we counsel using biblical narrative, we must practice sound hermeneutical principles for interpreting this genre of literature.
- Narratives are not written to answer every theological question. They rarely express doctrine directly but instead illustrate truths elsewhere taught propositionally.
- Narratives describe characters with all their flaws and may not prescribe them as examples to follow (e.g., David’s polygamy).
- Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying truth without actually stating it). We can usually accept as authoritative the narrator’s direct evaluation of a character, another person’s viewpoint, or the character’s own thoughts.
- Narratives are selectively incomplete, instead of giving every detail (see John 21:25). Therefore, God’s inspired Word includes only what the author considered important for the reader to know. Repeated words and phrases indicate key themes and points of emphasis.
- Counselors should interpret Scripture as literature. Like all stories, a biblical narrative will have a setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolution, and closure. Therefore, the reader must analyze the story’s basic elements and determine how each element contributes to the main idea.
- In the final analysis, God is the ultimate hero of the biblical narrative. Yet we must be cautious not to make him the main character in each individual story.
- We can look for Jesus in the Old Testament Scriptures, which he declared were written about him (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39). Although Jesus is not explicitly hiding behind every rock and tree, the themes and expectations in every biblical story will point to his coming fulfillment.
- Communicate the narrative as a story just as the author intended. “Narratives are most effective when the audience hears the story and arrives at the speaker’s ideas without the ideas being stated directly.”
- Most importantly, remember that we do not hear the biblical text spoken directly to us but rather overhear the stories told to others. We must then bridge the gap from their context to ours through the practice of application. The observant counselor looks for connections between the biblical world and today.
Once counselors understand the Bible as literature and apply proper hermeneutical principles, we can then apply what we have learned in practical theology. John Henderson offers some basic elements for using biblical narrative in the personal ministry of the Word. Like an expository preacher, the counselor must understand the meaning for the original audience, extract the timeless biblical principles, then communicate those truths in relevant ways for the contemporary listener. The following example demonstrates how to apply the biblical principles from Genesis 3 when counseling a young man struggling with pornography.
|Basic Elements for Counseling Narrative||Case Study from Genesis 3|
|Listen well to the counselee’s story (Prov 18:13; Eph 4:29).||Suppose I am talking with my son about his temptation to view pornography. I take time to listen well and understand his struggle. I must not jump to conclusions despite my parental concerns.|
|Become familiar with the biblical narratives and the characters in those stories: “When people convey their stories, dilemmas, ideas, emotions, relationships, trials, and desires, then passages and verses and themes of Scripture should flood into our minds.”||As I listen, the Holy Spirit directs me to consider the first human temptation to sin in Genesis 3. This passage comes to mind because I have read and studied it many times over.|
|Observe the parallels between the biblical story and the counselees.||My mind connects how my son has been made in the image of God but lives in a fallen world full of temptation and harmful consequences. My son is a sinner by nature and a sinner by choice who needs a Savior in Jesus Christ.|
|Enter the story together and stay inside it for awhile.||I ask my son to open his Bible to Genesis 3, and we read the narrative together. We ask questions of the text like, “What does this passage teach us about God? How is Adam and Eve’s struggle similar to ours? What was tempting them to sin? How did they respond, and what were the consequences?”|
|Extract a few relevant truths and the singular main idea. Beware of moralizing the application (i.e., Be like Joseph). “The purpose of Bible stories is not to say ‘you must, you should.’ The purpose is to give insight into how men and women relate to the eternal God and how God relates to them.”||I help my son extract a few relevant truths, such as, “Pornography may look good to the eyes, but the consequences are deadly for ourselves and others.” He understands the main idea in Genesis 3 that sin separates us from God and others, resulting in harmful consequences.|
|Enhance the narrative interpretation and application by referencing the rest of Scripture.||We turn to cross-references, which further flesh out the interpretation and application. We talk about “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16-17). We also discuss how Jesus faced the same temptations and resisted them by trusting God’s Word (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).|
|Apply the narrative truth to the here-and-now personal life. “All fruitful time in the Word of God leaves us with something to believe and something to obey. . . . Good biblical counseling tries to get who we are in Christ and what we do in Christ harmonized and cooperating in daily life.”||I want my son to know that God is good. When God says, “Don’t!” he means, “Don’t hurt yourself!” So unlike Adam and Eve, I urge my son to trust God’s Word even above his own desires.|
|Continually encourage over time.||My son might still struggle with ongoing temptation. So I keep exhorting him to recognize temptation, examine his heart desires, and faithfully obey God’s Word. Even if he falls into sin, I direct him to the gospel of redemption and restoration. My son, like myself, is still a work in progress.|
Biblical counselors must learn how to tell a good story, inductively, and creatively. Ample historical-cultural research using Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries will flesh out the setting. We then draw in our counselee by using the skillful techniques of biblical storytellers. By God’s grace, a good story will cultivate the listener’s heart and bring about lasting change. Consider the following questions for personal application:
- What does the main idea of this story teach us about God’s person and work? How does it give us a bigger vision of his glory?
- What does the main idea teach us about the fallenness of man.
- Should we think or act differently? If so, what specifically should change?
- Should we feel or be motivated differently? If so, what specifically should change?
- What obstacles to making these changes might we encounter?
- Do we need help in facilitating the change in our life? How will we secure that help?
- How does this narrative help us relate to Jesus or delight in his redemptive work?
 Leland Ryken, How Bible Stories Work: A Guided Study of Biblical Narrative, Reading the Bible as Literature (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 60.
 Betty-Anne Van Rees provides helpful questions to ask when considering whether to share personal stories with a counselee. (Betty-Anne Van Rees, “Engaging with Personal Story,” Biblical Counseling Coalition blog [September 23, 2019], accessed at https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2019/09/23/engaging-with-personal-story).
 As Lewis wrote, “If we find in ourselves a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were meant for another world” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996], 121).
 Introducing Scripture as the final explainer of all stories keeps any kind of narrative therapy from descending into self-talk and experiential authority. Observing how every personal story fits within God’s story helps us to understand both God and our counselees better.
 Jeff Forrey, “Applying Old Testament Narratives in Counseling,” Biblical Counseling Coalition blog (August 31, 2016), accessed at https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2016/08/31/applying-old-testament-narratives-in-counseling, emphasis in original.
 Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 130.
 John Henderson, “Using Biblical Narrative in the Personal Ministry of the Word,” in Scripture and Counseling, ed. Bob Kellemen and Jeff Forrey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 325-36.
 Ibid., 325.
 Forrey, “Applying Old Testament Narratives.”
 Haddon Robinson, “The Heresy of Application,” Leadership Journal 18 (Fall 1997), 27.
 Henderson, “Using Biblical Narrative,” 334, emphasis in original.
 Adapted from Forrey, “Applying Old Testament Narratives.”
 Bryan Chapell describes this “Fallen Condition Focus (FCF)” as “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage” (Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994], 42).
Tom Sugimura pastors New Life Church in Woodland Hills, CA. He trains church planters, international pastors, and biblical counselors. He has also authored two books, Hope for New Dads and God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are busy raising four rambunctious children.