Christians have been talking about storytelling for a while, emphasizing the spiritual dimension of storytelling, relating our stories to God’s grand story, and using stories in evangelism. “The chief role of a Christian is to tell a better story,” according to author Donald Miller.
Personal narratives are also enjoying a cultural moment. Storytelling has become the latest buzzword in business strategy. We’re paying more attention to storytelling as an art form on stage, in comedy, and through podcasts. As always, we love a well-told story.
Being focused on storytelling doesn’t just involve listening to others’ stories and sharing our own funny, embarrassing, emotional, or poignant moments. Storytelling also compels us to look at how we live: We’re writing our own life stories all the time, whether we consider ourselves writers or storytellers or not.
These stories are shaped by our own words. They can be remarks like:
“I’m such a mess.”
“I don’t have time for it.”
“That’s not something I’m good at.”
“It’ll never happen.”
Too often, our stories—even as Christians—are infused with pessimism, negativity, and hopelessness. These attitudes can hurt us more than we realize. Yet, it’s possible to edit our stories and change our lives in the process.
Miller, who speaks through his organization Storyline, instructs Christians that the criteria writers use “in editing their stories—Is there conflict here? Does my protagonist have a purpose?—are the same criteria we can use to edit our understanding of our lives and the Christian faith.”
The New York Times highlighted new research indicating that “writing—and then re-writing—your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.” One study, conducted among struggling first-year students at Duke University, was particularly suggestive: Students who pointed to their difficulties as evidence that they weren’t college material were encouraged to rewrite their stories. Instead, they’d reflect the reality that starting college is an adjustment, and that they’d probably be fine, eventually. Those who rewrote their stories were far less likely to drop out than struggling students who stuck with their old story.
Studies suggest that people who engage in “expressive writing” are healthier both mentally and physically—possibly because the very act of reflecting on one’s “story” causes one to begin to “edit” the story.
I first encountered the power of the stories we tell ourselves—and the possibility that these stories could be edited—in Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication. Often, I realized, I went around believing that I didn’t have much agency; that my life was more or less made up of things I “had” to: I have to wash the dishes, I have to vacuum, I have to go to work…
Strictly speaking, of course, we don’t have to do many of the things we say we have to do. But Rosenberg’s point is that the language we use with ourselves could be less violent; rather than saying, “I have to go to work,” we might say, “I am choosing to go to work so that I can support my family.” This kind of shift, Rosenberg suggests, infuses us with a sense of agency.
Similarly, as Hanna Rosin pointed out in a post on Slate’s Double X blog, saying that we’re so busy perpetuates our own sense of busyness and feelings of being overwhelmed. Our negative self-talk becomes the storyline we live by. We see ourselves as luckless and doomed simply because we’re always on the lookout for confirmation of the storyline we’ve chosen.
We can do the same with other people’s stories, too—particularly children, who often end up living up to the stories we tell about them, for good or ill. A child who’s endlessly told how brilliant he is might suffer a crushing sense of defeat when he encounters something that doesn’t come easily. And for decades, people assumed a certain story for those born with Down syndrome—a frightfully dehumanizing story suggesting that people with DS could hardly learn to communicate, much less to read or to attend school with typically developing children, which we now know is patently untrue.
There are other stories we live by: that success means we earn a certain income or own a certain kind of house; that “nice people finish last;” or that it is our American birthright and even our duty to “lean in,” to make sure we finish first, get the biggest slice of pie.
Christians live by a different story—or, if the New Testament has anything to say about it—we should. Sometimes I think of Christian discipleship as a kind of editing, or co-editing with the Holy Spirit. The story of our lives is meant to conform to the shape of Jesus’ life and the life he imagined for us, his church.
The Christian story is surprising—it’s an unexpected way. It is the story of a God who loved us into being, who delights in us and all that he made, and who spares nothing, not even his own Son, to rescue and restore us to the whole and beautiful images of he meant for us to be.
But it is also a story that takes its time moving through the valley of the shadow of death. It is a story that shows us that resurrection and restoration is coming—although the agony of the cross comes first. It is a story of downward mobility; of the last becoming first; of the foolish shaming the wise; of God becoming human; of heaven and earth becoming one. What would it look like to edit our stories—both big and small—in light of that story?
We might do it literally—writing about our trauma and suffering while pondering that Christ, who suffered as we did, has conquered suffering and will one day wipe our tears.
We might edit our stories as we pray, lamenting our trials with honesty and pleading for help from the One who struggled as we did, to understand them in a larger context—in light of the glory that is to come.
We might more easily accept the edits and chapters that we would not choose for ourselves, trusting that the God who is the Beginning and the End will hold us through every plot twist that we couldn’t see coming—but that he wrote in for us long ago.
And we might re-think the things we say about ourselves, aloud and internally:
“I am a beloved child of God.”
“I am created and called for a purpose.”
“Christ sympathizes with my weakness.”
“Christ is already making all things new."
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