A dozen years I ago, I went through one of those perfect storms of life that had me reeling. Maybe you know what I’m talking about—when you think you’re doing a decent job of coping with difficult circumstances, and then life takes a few more blows at you and you start to drown.
I lost my parents within 6 months of each other, while also dealing with a very stressful, dysfunctional work environment. And this was when our family was still adjusting to our new surroundings in Texas after moving from a little town in West Virginia. I had seriously underestimated the potential impact of that much change and loss on all of us.
The hardest part was that I felt very alone. We hadn’t had time to build a support system yet. To top it all off my husband had a sudden onset of severe anxiety that required lots of mind-numbing medications. He wasn’t fully capable of grieving and growing with me through these very significant events.
Throughout that time, each week a colleague and I commuted together about an hour across town for staff meetings at the main office of our company. On our way home one evening, I poured out my lament to my friend, telling her my complicated tale of woe. When we arrived at the lot where her car was parked, I turned to her and apologized for talking so much. She’s a lovely, patient fellow counselor, so of course she told me she had been happy to listen. But I heard myself say to her, “No, I’m boring myself with the story I’ve been telling. I need to find a new story to tell.”
This was a turning point.
You see, as a counselor drawn to cognitive therapies, I’ve been telling clients for years that it isn’t the events in our lives that cause our emotional reactions, but what we believe about them. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves and others. Our stories either keep us in the wreckage of the past or turn us toward a future that is braver and more hopeful.
I’m not saying that we ignore or deny our pain. To the contrary, it is important to acknowledge it, and call it by name. But when we find ourselves repeating and rehearsing the story, and staying depressed and stuck, this might be a clue that it’s time for a new story.
Scripture comes to life on this topic of the stories we tell. The Bible is full of stories. Stories of catastrophes and victories, war and peace, bondage and deliverance, sickness and healing, betrayal and reconciliation, sin and forgiveness, judgment and grace. They are stories about broken, flawed people—people like us–in their journeys with God.
So often in the Psalms, God’s beloved David cries out to God about his story, complaining about his hardships and pain. What I so love about David is the vulnerability in his laments, and then his ability to find strength and courage from his history with God. He enters the secret place, his sanctuary with God, and gazes into his face. David acknowledges that he finds himself “in a dry and weary land where there’s no water,” but then begins praising God, and the new story he tells is,
“I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.”
There are dozens of examples like this in the Psalms of telling one story, and then pivoting into a new story about the same reality, one with a new plot and different outcome.
The Apostle Paul provides a great New Testament example of choosing the right story to tell. Paul experienced a lot of dire circumstances. He knew very well the cost of taking up his cross to follow the call of Christ. For the sake of his ministry, his sufferings included: imprisonment, flogging, stoning, 39 lashes with a whip—five times!, three beatings with rods, a pelting with stones, three shipwrecks, constant moving,, “in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false believers.” LOTS of dangers! Add sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness. And he concludes with his work stress: “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:23-29).
What a story, or bunch of stories Paul could tell! Yet this was the meaning he pulled from all of that suffering: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me…..For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9, 10). This was the man who told us that as believers we can do all things through Christ’s strength working in us (Phil. 4:13). He proclaimed that whatever his circumstances, he had learned to find contentment in the Lord (Phil. 4:11).
Paul vowed that even when old and tired, he would keep pressing toward the “mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). Check out Philippians Chapter 1, where Paul rejoices in his imprisonment, interpreting it not in terms of how it affects him, but in in terms of how it advances the gospel. He will run his race until he crosses the finish line. Paul was a master of relating the story of his experiences in a way that would glorify Christ and encourage other believers.
David and Paul (and many other Bible heroes) provide examples of acknowledging, explaining, enduring, and coming through victoriously by choosing to tell a story that makes God the hero.
There’s a new song by Maverick City called “The Story I’ll Tell.” If you haven’t heard it, look for it on YouTube (as soon as you’ve finished reading my blog of course 😊). It’s incredibly anointed and beautifully executed by Naomi Raines and the choir, and is what inspired me to write about this topic this week. Here’s a portion of the lyric:
The hour is dark and it’s hard to see
What you are doin’ here in the ruins, and where this will lead
Oh but I know that down through the years
I’ll look on this moment I see your hand on it, and know you were here
And I’ll testify of the battles You’ve won
How You were my portion when there wasn’t enough
And I’ll testify of the seas that we crossed
The waters You parted, the waves that I walked
Oh…my God did not fail…Oh…it’s the story I’ll tell
Oh…I know it is well…Oh…it’s the story I’ll tell
As we go through these tumultuous times together, let us not get stuck on a narrative that leaves us frustrated and discouraged. Let us go, like David, into the secret place, abiding there until we can hear God whisper into our spirits a new story. And then let us look for opportunities to share our encouraging, life-giving stories with one another.
God bless us every one!