This post is part of the ‘Re-Imagining Discipleship’ Series: Insights and reflections from Seed’s 2023 Summit.
“Story provides the deepest structural framework in which human life is to be understood. There is no more fundamental way in which human beings interpret their lives than through a story.”1
The stories we inhabit inform our hearts’ deepest needs and longings. The very normal process of human development; the processes of establishing a unique sense of identity, purpose, meaning and hope, is a function of story. For good or for ill, we have become and are becoming people shaped by the narratives in which we dwell. Stories matter because stories shape us!
My evolving sense of who I am, why I’m here, what I’m like, what I can do, can’t do, and should do, are all panel-beaten into a particular shape often quite apart from any agency or intentionality on my part. By the time I wake up to the fact that I am becoming a particular kind of person, much of the foundation has already been laid… the pattern is set.
Dallas Willar writes “the heart – That spiritual place within us from which outlook, choices, and actions come has been formed by a world away from God. Now it must be transformed.”2 This transformation, this Spiritual Formation, is a matter of choosing a better story. In cooperation with the curriculum of the Holy Spirit, it is choosing for our identity and purpose and vocation and character to be shaped by God’s story rather than the prevailing scripts of the world.
Rather than my heart’s quest for identity being manipulated by narratives of competition and consumption and competence, it is instead grounded in the declaration that I am formed by Love in Love’s image! Rather than my quest for purpose to be warped by stories of productivity and accumulation and comfort, it is instead shaped by participation in God’s grand mission of renewal. And instead of my vision of the ‘good life’ being co-opted by images of status and power and stuff, it is instead enthralled by and pointed toward God’s promise of Shalom. His story is a much better story than all other stories! And my goodness…. Aren’t we in need of a better story!
This grand narrative satisfies the quests of our hearts, as Eugene Peterson says,“God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.”
The challenge we took on in the workshop was to identify in our own life stories the providential realigning of our own heart-sense of identity, vision and purpose with the larger truth of the Image, Vision, and Mission of God. Around the room came practical, real-life testimony of the reforging of the hearts’ deep patterns. Testimony of the ongoing revelation of being made in His Image, destined for His Vision of life together, and called to His mission, often in remarkably ordinary ways.
While it is a joy to reflect on lives counter-shaped by a better story… we weren’t done! The experiment continued… we asked – how are the stories of the world marring the identities of the people I love? How is their sense of vision and purpose being diminished by prevailing crappy narratives? And how might we, as agents of a different story, disrupt these prevailing stories by embodying a better one?
With a specific loved one in mind, and using Seed’s Assets and Barriers tool, we each captured all the forces that were either moving them toward an identity, vision and purpose aligned with God’s story (asset), or away from it (barrier). The working assumption is that as we empower assets and disempower barriers, the heart patterns of our loved ones can move in the direction of a better story. In a most basic sense, moving toward a better story involves a reallocation of power.
Our first responsibility of course, is to eyeball our own contribution to (and our own empowering of) those barriers. Remember – this was an experiment! We had no idea whether the process would yield helpful results.
As we shared the outcomes of the process one particular dad revealed how some of his own behaviours at home potentially empowered narratives of consumption and distraction for his kids, in contradiction to the story he truly hopes they embody. Other confessions of a mismatch between confessed story and embodied story also came out, but the example that really struck a chord had to do with forgiveness.
A lifelong friendship between a believer and a not-yet believer had been in a place of tension for some time. Perhaps even a fissure of bitterness was beginning to form. But when this beautiful sister realised that she was inadvertently empowering a barrier through unforgiveness, she resolved reallocate that power – right there. On the spot she sent a text to her friend organising a time to meet in the coming days – a time when she would embody a better story. She would steal identity-marring power from the grip of unforgiveness and reallocate it freely from a reconciling heart.
In thinking about this beautiful moment in the weeks since Summit, I’m convinced (and convicted) that nothing betrays the story of God like unforgiveness. Unforgiveness obscures the Imago Dei by presenting something quite opposed to the self-givenness of the Triune community. Unforgiveness works in opposition to the reconciling thrust of the Missio Dei and it sets for itself a divided destination in contradiction to the Father’s vision of union life. Unforgiveness is utterly incompatible with God’s story.
His story is the ultimate tale of utterly relentless forgiveness. It is the story of a loving Father who desires nothing more than life together with His kids. All His kids – healthy, whole, reconciled, with their identity firmly grounded in His matchless Love, participating in the family business of cosmic renewal, destined for shalom.
If you want to tell a better story, a bigger story… forgiveness is a cracking place to start!
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
- Michael W. Goheen, “Reading the Bible as One Story,” accessed May 26, 2017, http://globalopps.org/reading-the-bible-as-one-story/.
- Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ with Bonus Content (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2011).