Spiritual Formation and Story

Image from Kevin DeYoung’s  The Biggest Story

Image from Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story

When my family gets together we tell stories. They are often the same stories—I swear they’ve told the one about me trying to drive to Memphis but ending up in Alabama a thousand times—but we continue to tell them because they are our stories. They tell us who we are (for better or worse) and how we act (sometimes better, often worse).

I don’t think we’re unique. From time immemorial, families have sat around tables and shared their stories. I’m sure there are many reasons why we do this, but I think the fundamental reason is because God made us in such a way that we are uniquely attuned to story. Think about this: of all the ways God could have communicated with us, he used a narrative. He could have just sent us a dropbox link with a flowchart of how to live right, but instead He gave us the grand, sprawling story that is the Bible.1

This innate drive to conceive of life in terms of narrative is why my son imagines himself as a member of the Paw Patrol and why I read all 700+ pages of the final Harry Potter book in one day. We long for stories that give shape and direction to our life and make sense of all the things happening in our world.

The problem is that we are, as a society, confused about the idea of story. On one hand we disregard the existence of metanarrative. My story exists only in relation to itself and not to anything else. On the other hand, we are extremely concerned with being on the “right side of history.” It shouldn’t take too much critical thought to realize we can’t have one without the other without devolving into the narcissism breeding-ground that is relativism.

The Christian perspective, however, is that there is a story—found in Scripture—that makes sense of our story. Because of this, we consider re-narration an important aspect of Spiritual Formation. What does this look like?

You Have a Story

First, it means understanding your own story. Throughout the Old Testament, remembering is a central theme. In Deuteronomy 6, one of the key passages of Scripture for the Israelites, Moses provides a number of ways in which they are to keep the story of God’s redemption in front of them, “lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Dt. 6:12).

This is true for God’s people today as well. We must be about the work of remembering our story and looking for God’s fingerprints in it. We’re often tempted to think that our life is a sequence of isolated occurrences, random events that aren’t that connected. But Scripture repeatedly challenges that. The Psalmist sings, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me…” (Ps. 139:16). Everything that goes into a novel is in the service of developing character and advancing the storyline. The same is true of our lives.

So what do we do? To begin with, we need to start to grapple with our past. Where did I come from? Who did I come from? What were significant events that shaped me? As we wade through our past, we need to process it in community. This requires courage and vulnerability, but it will pay great emotional and spiritual dividends. A City Group is a great place for this. What would it look like for us to take the risk of sharing our stories during those times and in that setting?

The Story that Makes Sense of Our Story

We can’t stop there because sin has made us unreliable narrators. You might remember this concept from high school English. It’s when you can’t trust the person telling the story in a book. An example of this would be the narrator in the Tell-Tale Heart, which actually opens with him insisting that he’s not crazy. Not a great look.

I’m not saying that you’re crazy, but I am saying that you aren’t the best authority when it comes to interpreting your story. Why? We typically lean one of two ways: we either take a stoic posture and downplay the significance of events in our life (“it is what it is”) or we are led by our emotions and blow things out of proportion.

But there’s another reason that comes from outside of us. Because story is so important to being a whole human, Satan takes every opportunity he can to introduce lies into our story—things that blind us to the story that God has written. This most often happens around places of trauma, even those that may not seem significant.

Let me give an example. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with body image. I’ve always felt like the biggest person in the room. This was seared into my story when I was teased as a child for wearing a T-shirt in the pool. Satan used that trauma to introduce a lie into my story: I’m only worth what people think of me.

But the good news is that there’s a story that makes sense of my story. Let me briefly show you how the story of the Bible has helped me wrestle with this particular lie.

It begins with considering the big picture of the Bible. One way to do this is to consider the Bible as having four main chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. I then use those chapters as a lens through which I am able to reinterpret and renarrate my story.

In the creation account, I learn that I am made in the Image of God. I and everyone else in the world have a fundamental dignity that cannon be taken away from me and is not based on anything I’ve done.

In the account of the fall, I learn that sin hasn’t taken away the image of God within me, but it has hidden it, which is why I am tempted to peg my dignity on my image rather than on the image of God within me.

In the account of redemption, I find that my justification is no longer what I do or who I am, but it is pegged on what Jesus did and who He is. I no longer have to look to the opinion of others to make me feel justified. Redemption also means that I can now truly change. I can eat better and work out more without a deep existential weight hanging over it. I can also relate to people without feeling as if I am having to earn their approval or respect.

Finally, restoration means that I can have hope as I live in a broken world with a broken heart because I know that there will come a day in which I will all with be made new and right.

Formed by Story

So, the question is now before you. What’s your story? How does it fit into the story of what God has done, is doing, and promises to do?

My hope is that you’ll take the challenge of answering these questions and helping form City Church more and more into a community formed by the grand story of God’s grace.

1 This is not to suggest it is fiction. The Bible is a true story, but a story nonetheless.