Who Tells Your Story?
James Post | October 23, 2017
My heart sank.
I was sitting across the table from a freshman guy in the cafeteria, eating something that tasted truly dreadful (imagine an eggplant tossed in some spaghetti sauce) and desperately trying to think of something - anything - to talk about. All the questions I’d come up with hadn’t produced any conversation - he wasn’t (seemingly) worried or excited about anything coming up that semester - and we’d blown through the “get to know you” questions in barely ten minutes.
You could cut the awkward with a knife.
I weakly invited him to our Wednesday Large Group, we uncomfortably parted ways. In my head I had a story about how a one-on-one is supposed to go, but as I walked away from campus that night that familiar, ugly voice started ringing in my ears: “What was that? A good intern doesn’t have fifteen minute one-on-ones. What are you even doing here?”
We Have a Problem
This experience isn’t limited to people who work with RUF or even to people who work in ministry. Each and every one of us has, at some point, failed the story in our heads - we couldn’t turn in a project on time, we blew up at our kids (again), our spouse didn’t give us the affirmation we were looking for, we got another parking ticket. Every one of us has also subsequently experienced dark, cannibalizing whispers of shame: “You aren’t who you’re supposed to be.”
Most of us have read that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Many of us have sung “because the sinless savior died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the Just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me.” We have responded to the question of “What is your only comfort in life and death?” with the confident reply “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ!”
And yet these triumphant Sunday morning professions often lie forgotten amid our Tuesday morning mess.
Despite the constant truths we confess about the Gospel - that Christ loves and accepts us completely despite our total unworthiness - we tend to lead lives that are characterized not by confidence but by turmoil. When I fail, I am plunged into the depths of despair; when I succeed, my heart (and my ego) soars. The things I profess to be true and the way I experience life seem to be radically different and because of this, my heart is endlessly restless.
Why Does This Happen?
Over the past few months I’ve asked dozens of guys, “What’s your story?” We all have stories - stories of loss, stories of pain, stories of hope, stories of joy. No one ever answers “I don’t have a story,” because we’re all story-based creatures. We process the events of our life by fitting them into a narrative.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m intellectually aware of what the True Story is, but the story I tell myself seems to change from day to day. When I’m feeling good, it’s the story of a hero: no one has ever been as great as I am (“I just killed it at bible study. People should be more like me.”). But then something goes wrong, and the story transforms into a tragedy: no one has ever been as bad as I am (“I had nothing to say. I shouldn’t even be here.”). Sometimes I flop back and forth between these two narratives multiple times a day. Why?
Because I’m not really the one telling my story.
We are all looking - often without even realizing it - to things outside of our control for our identities. For some of us, it’s our career; for others it’s the acceptance of others. While some of us believe we won’t be complete until we find The One, others of us can’t be happy unless we can spend all our free time backpacking around Europe or wrestling bears. Some of us need to be beautiful and some of us need to be needed. Our emotions swell and fall as we interpret the events of our lives as either fitting into or failing the story we really believe.
These storytellers dominate our lives, and they toss our hearts around like ships in a stormy sea.
The True Story
The words of the Gospel that we receive on Sunday mornings are good and life-giving and necessary. However, as long as we remain passive receivers of that message, we will have our stories endlessly inverted and shaken by the storytellers we really believe. We must learn not only to listen to the gospel preached, or even to preach the gospel to others, but to preach it to ourselves hour by hour.
I need these fake storytellers to be met with the true story - not sometimes, but as often as they speak. I need both my prideful glee and my excessive despair to be corrected and critiqued by the gospel in my everyday life. Only through the message that I am so bad that the son of God had to die to pay for what I’ve done can I experience success without getting a big head - and only through the message that Jesus himself actually died for me can I fail without being crushed in spirit. Flourishing is only possible if we live out of the true story - the way we really are.
And yet, the fact of the matter is, if you walk away from this article thinking “alright, just gotta remind myself of the gospel more often!” it’ll be great for the four hours (or four minutes) you can actually remember to do it. Then your roommate will leave the dishes out, or your dog will poop in the house, or your kids will tear up something, or maybe you’ll just take a nap and that drive for self-improvement will vanish.
How Do We Actually Grow?
Immediately following the famous “Faith Hall of Fame” chapter, the author of the letter to the Hebrews concludes: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Imagine for a moment that these verses simply read, “Throw off everything that hinders, and look to Jesus!” Of course it helps to notice we have a problem, and it helps to name the false storytellers we listen to. But beyond those things, we need motivation - something to move us forward. The author gives us two compelling forces.
First, the Christian life is never a race run alone - it is in the presence of “a great cloud of witnesses,” the church that has gone before us and the church that runs alongside us. You cannot live a gospel-oriented life on your own! Our false stories entangle us easily. You and I both need people who are walking beside us, who can both encourage us to tell the true story and remind us what it is when the only voices we can hear are guilt, anxiety, and shame.
That doesn’t mean less than worshiping corporately, but it certainly means much more. Corporate worship can help correct my heart when it tells me I’ll find security through career success and/or romantic love, but sometimes the clamor of my heart is too loud for me to hear the melody of the gospel. Sometimes I just forget the true story as soon as I walk out the door to the church.
What I need is real friendship - to have people who go through the week with me and say “Look to Jesus!” when I celebrate a success or mourn a failure with them. I need to be known - which really just means I need to be able to tell people what’s going on in my life. The church is meant to be this family, one that will “exhort one another every day, so long as it is called ‘today’, that no one may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Jesus’ beautiful promise is that, even though our road may feel lonely, it will never be one we walk alone.
But even more incredible than this promise is the truth that listening to Jesus is not a matter of white-knuckle moral exertion, but attraction to beauty.
Who is Jesus? The writer to the Hebrews says Jesus is the one who takes joy in you! So much joy that he would be willing to take on your shame - the vile feeling you’ve had all those late nights, those morning-afters, those lonely afternoons - and take them on so fully that he would say to the Father “This sin is mine, punish me instead.” His joy over you was so great that he left absolute power, safety, security, and fulfillment - all the things you’re looking and longing for - to come for a people who had never shown him any love. It is this joy - the joy of a bridegroom over his bride - that Jesus has always had for you.
That is the true story. All your fake stories - the approval of friends or lovers, the career, the power - they all demand from you endlessly, and have no forgiveness if you fail. The true story of the gospel is that Jesus moves toward you in love without you doing anything to prompt him to. He is not compelled by anything - he loves you freely, and he loves you joyfully.
That is beautiful - and the vision of that beauty is the thing that uproots the fake storytellers, the idols, of our hearts. I can offer my heart a proposition that is true, but as long as I find the other stories more alluring it’s like being offered water when you’re starving to death. The most powerful promise of the Bible isn’t that Jesus is “enough” (“You could have this job but Jesus is enough”, “You could marry her but Jesus is enough”) - it’s the promise that he is what you’ve been looking and longing and searching and sighing for this whole time.
Do you see Jesus as beautiful, the way a new bride looks at her husband on their wedding day? Do you have people walking with you - laughing with you, crying with you - for the times when His beauty is totally obscured by human joys and earthly pain? Or are you still running endlessly and alone, searching for rest? Augustine’s cry has always been true: “Oh God, thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee!”
Who tells your story?
James Post is currently serving as an intern at the University of Arkansas.