We are story addicts.
That is what Jonathan Gottschall says in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. He writes,
How odd it is . . . that a story can sneak up on us on a beautiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry, make us amorous or angry, make our skin shrink around our flesh, alter the way we imagine ourselves and our worlds. How bizarre it is that when we experience a story—whether in a book, a film, or a song — we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller.
We get what he means. Most everyone, at some point or another, knows what it feels like to be caught up in a story, to have it seep down into our thinking, to leave us wondering why things happened like they did, and guessing if they’ll turn out like we hope.
Right Where We Are
The irony in our passion for stories is that the greatest of all stories is right under our nose, and we are actually a part of it. God has a story. It is the Story of all stories — the one, great, wonderful story that makes sense of all the others, and we are characters in it. Our little stories are parts of the whole.
The Bible lays out the great story for us from Genesis to Revelation, and it’s been called several different names: God’s redemptive history, the divine metanarrative, or simply, the gospel story. It has commonly been divided up into four parts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (or New Creation). These four parts consist of four themes:
- Creation gets at origin, value, and identity
- Fall gets at brokenness and how things have gone wrong
- Redemption gets at rescue and healing
- Restoration gets at the vision of hope and lasting change
In Our Little Stories
If we’re paying attention, these four parts are present in every decent story out there. They make up the context or beginnings, the conflict, the solution, and the climax. In other words, every good story has some beginning about the way things are, some problem that makes things goes wrong, some solution that will make things right, and some vision of how things will be when right prevails over wrong. These four parts are even present in our own individual stories.
You and I each have some kind of bent on these four themes. This is what makes up our own stories. These are the nuts and bolts of who we are, and when we understand it more deeply, we can better understand the wonder of God’s love. When we grasp our own stories we can grasp how God’s greater story has intersected, collided with, and swallowed up our own.
The Four Themes
These four themes in our own lives are how we answer the big questions:
- Where do I find my significance and meaning? (creation theme)
- What is the problem? (fall theme)
- What will save me from the problem? (redemption theme)
- What is my hope for the future? (restoration theme)
As sinners, apart from Jesus . . .
we all look somewhere for identity and meaning (we have a creation theme); we all can identify a problem — something in our lives impedes our significance (we have a fall theme); and so, we are all looking somewhere for a solution — something to save us from the problem and restore us back to significance (this is our redemption theme); and then finally we all have a future hope — a vision of how life looks when our savior solves our problem and restores us to significance (this is our restoration theme).
If we think back we can see how our own stories fits within this framework. Granted, it won’t always be cookie-cutter, and sometimes we have several different sub-parts and complexities, but by and large, this can help us make sense of who we were when Jesus stepped into our lives, and of the transformation he has made and is making.
Retelling Your Story
Using this four-part framework, how might you remember your story before you embraced the gospel? And how has God’s story invaded your story with transforming power?
For more reading and resources on this topic, I could not more highly recommend “Telling Our Story with Jesus As the Hero” (PDF), which is Appendix 2 in Soma’s guide to their small group ministry. So much of what I’m saying here is taken from their resources and the good gospel teaching of Jeff Vanderstelt.
But to give you a better idea of how to tell your own story through this four-part grid, here’s how these four parts have helped me understand my story.
Creation – Where did I find my significance and meaning?
Most of my life I’ve been consumed with the approval of others. My significance and identity — my value — all had to do with what others thought about me. I found my worth in how other people perceived me.
Fall story – What was the problem?
The problem, of course, is the impossibility that everyone will think wonderfully of me. Looking for your significance and meaning in the opinion of others is a dead-end road. Not everyone will be impressed by you, and even for those who are, the lust for their approval becomes insatiable. Even for those who liked me, it wasn’t enough. I had defined my meaning by something other than my Creator, and it led to one disappointing turn after another.
Redemption – What will save me from the problem?
The solution got set up like this: What will make everyone like me?What will garner the respect of others?What will cause my friends and acquaintances to think well of me?
The one word answer was performance, but it got fleshed out in different ways. In short, I tried to get people to like me by doing good. That meant that I needed to excel in baseball. I needed to be more devoted to my religion. I needed to maintain an honorable GPA, or at least be thoughtful enough in the right contexts and projects to make people think I was intelligent.
Restoration – What was my hope for the future?
My vision for life — how things looked when I was saved from my problem — was all about achievement. I would gain the approval of others by earning a college baseball scholarship, by being the Christian morals spokesman among my classmates, by writing an essay or painting a landscape that got people’s attention. My depraved spin on restoration was a world where everyone loved and respected me.
When the Gospel Shines
That was my story . . . all in a Christian home . . . surrounded by the gospel message.
And then Jesus stepped in. There was a collision. And it started, as it often does, when the idols betray us. The problem, you see, with basing your significance in something other than God is that eventually that well runs dry. Our performance won’t be able to hold up, and it certainly didn’t for me. I just wasn’t that great of a baseball player. An injury my sophomore year pretty much set me on a decline from which I (and now I add mercifully) never recovered. My progress in religion, in other’s perception that I really loved Jesus, meant I lived a double life. I tried to make people think I was devoted to the Bible, but I didn’t care much about its sexual ethics on the weekends. My grades, my work, all that — there were a hundred people in my class who were better than me.
My story began to dwindle, to flicker, to die. And that is when the gospel began to shine. That’s when God’s story collided with my little story.
God says my identity and significance is not in what other’s think about me, but in the fact that he made me, that I’m his creature, formed in his image.
My problem, he says, isn’t that I’m not universally respected by people. My problem is that I am a sinner, that I have rebelled against his love and law. I’ve tried to forge my own way in this world. I’ve tried to make it all about me, and I’ve looked for satisfaction in everything but him.
My solution, he says so clearly, is not what I do. It’s what he has done for me. It’s that he sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die in my place for my sins, bearing the punishment I deserved. It’s that Jesus was raised from the dead, that he is ascended and reigning and coming again. It’s that I’ve been united to him by faith, by the Spirit he has sent to live inside me, and that now I’m hidden in him. The Father looks at me and sees the beauty of his beloved Son. Once guilty, I’m now righteous. Once defiled, I’m now pure. Once his enemy, I’m now his child. All because of Jesus.
And that vision of restoration — it’s not a world that makes much of me, but a world that makes much of him. It’s a world that eliminates every single thing that comes between my absolute enjoyment of his glory. It’s a world with no suffering, no heartache, no sin. It’s a world where his nearness is known, his love understood, and all things everywhere are put right.
This is the story that has swallowed up my own. This is the story in which you and me, by his grace, play a part.
In Your Life Group
Remembering our stories is foundational to our Life Groups. We can’t help one another walk through complexity if we don’t know where we’re coming from. The background to every heart-level conversation, and the struggles we still presently deal with, have to do with our stories.
So whether your Life Group is new, or you’ve been meeting with the same friends for months, let’s step back and spend some time remembering and retelling our stories in light of the gospel story. This may take a couple meetings for everyone to get a turn, but that is fine. It’s worth it.
For additional guidance on understanding your story, and helpful questions to answer under each theme, read “Telling Your Story with Jesus As the Hero” (PDF).