There are certain Bible stories pretty much everybody loves teaching: the days of creation, the fiery furnace, Jesus calming the stormy sea, the Christmas story. Sunday School 101.
Then there are the hard ones, the stories so dark or strange or uncomfortable that even a seasoned teacher wonders if maybe this is a good day for a video or even a substitute. Think Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Deborah story of the woman pounding a tent stake through the “bad” general’s head.
Remember, though, that the story of our fall into sin and eventual redemption wasn’t highlighted by pretty songs and peaceful prayers. It climaxed with an ugly death on the cross and a miraculous resurrection.
So, as you tell those difficult Bible stories, do not fear! God has already provided the key tool: His Word. Using that, you can share the Bible story your students need to hear. But just to make it easier, here are some items to consider as you plan your students’ exploration of difficult Bible stories:
- What’s the context? What is the story up to this point, especially for the main people in the account? What brought them here? Sometimes Scripture will tell you directly, and sometimes it will imply what’s happened. Tread lightly, but don’t be afraid to apply a little commonsense logic. What do you know about the region and time period, or even the story of God’s people up to that point? What happened to the people and groups in the story afterward? Always search for connections between your current account and other accounts in the Bible.
- Think about the characters as real people—because they are! Put your students and yourself in their sandals. How would you react and feel in their place? This can help you during lesson planning to wrap your head around some of the tricky (and often wrong) choices made. It also gives your students a tool for understanding what it was really like.
- Why is this in the Bible? This is the key to difficult Bible stories. God included them for good reasons. Think hard on what these are. Consulting study Bibles, commentaries, and wise people you trust can help you focus on this. In the most difficult stories, look for these two purposes: (a) God executing judgment upon unrepentant sin, and (b) God giving hope and deliverance to those who need Him and call upon His name. Often, both are present. With every account, ask how it connects to our need for a Savior and God’s provision of one: Jesus Christ.
- Think in terms of both details and themes. The key to unlocking a challenging story can be in either. Pay attention to both the specific descriptions and the broader ideas to get the full picture.
- What’s confusing, and how can you clear it up? Where does the text trip you up? What are the words and phrases you think would be difficult for students to understand correctly? Look into these more deeply so that instead of skipping past them to the “simpler” parts, you can be ready for those questions you know your students are eager to ask. The notes in The Lutheran Study Bible and similar resources are great places to start.
- Be ready to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.” Presenting yourself as infallible is dangerous. It makes students think they should be too, and it sets you up for a big fall in terms of their respect when you do slip up. Showing them that you don’t have all the answers lets you model that it’s okay to be humble and to seek help from others. It also directs them to the only one who is infallible: God.
- How does this relate to your students? You’ve already done most of the work for this by answering “Why is this in the Bible?” Building on that, search for specific connections to emotions and circumstances your students deal with or see. Don’t stress out if you can’t find exact parallels. The same sins that afflicted the human race in Bible times still afflict us now. The same need for a Savior from sin, Christ Jesus, ties us to the people of old. Also, if you’re concerned that a particular issue raised by the text is beyond their scope because of maturity, this is the time to decide whether to address the point or shift the focus in other directions.
- Don’t be afraid of what the story says about God. Instead, think about the story in light of what you know about God from the rest of Scripture. Paradoxes can be confusing, but they shouldn’t be avoided. God can hate and punish sin while loving sinful humans. In fact, part of why He hates sin so much is because He loves us, because He sees how sin destroys us body and soul. Allowing sin to reign uncontrolled would not be the act of a loving God. God chose how He wished to be presented. Let Scripture interpret Scripture, and you’ll be fine. What you know about God from more direct passages will guide you through the thorny ones.
It can be a lot of work and take a lot of thought. That’s not a reason to run away. God will continue to support you as you teach the learners in your care. Even when you struggle to find the right words, God is still working through you to speak His Word effectively to your students. He will prosper it in their hearts.