The Story So Far
“The first step is to write your own obituary.”
That’s how Donald Miller begins his first lesson on life-planning in one of his Business Made Simple courses. Miller has built a worldwide reputation for storytelling by helping businesses tell their stories better so that they can grow better. More recently, he’s begun using the same narrative framework that helped businesses grow to help individuals grow too. The first step he recommends in life planning is to start with the last step: What will my obituary be? When I’m gone, how might someone write my life story?
At first, I resisted, but I eventually relented and wrote my obituary. It was the first time I’d ever really thought of my life as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As I anticipated the end of my life and the story I would like to be written about me, I noticed that my hoped-for future story began to change my present story. It affected my outlook, my mood, my choices, my decision-making, my relationships, my priorities, and really every other area of life.
Trying to write our future story can change our present story. But what about our past story? Can we get any help in the present from reading what’s already been written in our past chapters?
David Murray introduces readers to the StoryChanger, Jesus Christ—the only one who can rewrite human stories with his better Story—directing them to the stories of individuals in Scripture to see how their own messy stories can be transformed into stories worth telling.
Our impatient age says, No. Look forward not backward. Many Christians agree, though for different reasons. Why look back on your story? they protest, Isn’t that self-centered and even sinful?
Shouldn’t we just read God’s Story rather than waste our time and energy on our ungodly past stories? We can’t change the previous pages, so why read them? Shouldn’t we just write them off and move on? Here are three reasons why we should pause and patiently re-read our past stories.
1. We have biblical examples.
God taught the Israelites to frequently review their past story. For example, celebration of the Passover was to be preceded by fathers telling the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Ex. 4:24–27). The whole book of Deuteronomy retells Israel’s past story to shape their future story. The historical books of the Old Testament tell the continuing story of Israel with a view to changing Israel’s next chapters. Some of the psalms sing Israel’s story as a worship song to God (e.g., Pss. 7; 105; 106).
And just in case we might object that these are examples of national stories rather than personal stories, remember that we have multiple personal stories retold in the Pentateuch and historical books too (e.g., Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Elijah, David, Nehemiah, etc). These characters looked back on their stories with repentance and gratitude and recorded them to learn, teach, and look forward in faith and hope to the Messiah they waited for. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul, frequently reviewed his story for the spiritual benefit of his hearers (Acts 9, 22, 26).
We, therefore, have multiple biblical examples of the nation of Israel and individual Israelites reviewing their stories to change and retell their stories.
But can’t I change just by looking forward? No. Even secular organizations recognize the importance of identifying and reviewing our past story if we are to change our future story.
2. We have secular examples.
James Loehr established the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida to help individuals and corporations improve the three P’s of performance, productivity, and profitability. After many years of trying many different approaches to help individuals commit to genuine self-improvement in these areas, he concluded, “the only way to do that is to get participants to confront the truth about their current flawed stories.”1
His program works “only when the individual is willing to look hard at the major problem areas in his or her life, explore why they’re problems, then meaningfully change the problem elements, be they structure or content, which are causing a profound lack of productivity, fulfillment, engagement, and sense of purpose.”2
Although this is a secular institute, Loehr has discovered a truth that God has baked into humanity. Our lives are stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and we are all storywriters and storytellers.
But I don’t tell anyone my story. Even if you don’t tell your story to others, you are telling it to yourself constantly.
3. We have internal examples.
We all tell stories to ourselves about ourselves. As Loehr put it, “If you are human, then you tell yourself stories—positive ones and negative, consciously and, far more than not, subconsciously.”3
We all have an inner narrator who never stops talking to us about who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and so on. Once we start listening for him, we’ll realize that we cannot shut him (or her) up. Our 24/7 storyteller takes the seemingly chaotic facts of our lives and creates and organizes a story with them.
As we grow up, he works to make every small story fit into our big story. Each narrative is squeezed into our meta-narrative, our overarching narrative, which then writes and shapes our future narrative. As Loehr put it, “Our destiny follows our stories . . . . Therefore, the most important story you will ever tell about yourself is the story you tell to yourself.”4 Good stories create good stories and bad stories create bad stories.
So, God says we should read our stories with a view to spiritual change, and secular leaders have come to the same conclusion about self-improvement. How, then, do I do this?
We Can Do It Profitably
Here are some practical steps to help us find our story, read our story, and change our story with God’s Story. All of this should be preceded, accompanied, and followed with prayer to the Great Storywriter and Storyteller so that he can be our StoryChanger. As we begin to open the book of our life story, there are certain pages and chapters to keep a special look out for.
Look for fictional pages. We not only tell ourselves lies about ourselves, but we also easily turn facts into fiction about events in our lives. We’ll never change our story until we strip away denial, rationalization, myths, and misrepresentations about our past.
Look for imbalanced pages. We may not tell ourselves straight out lies, but imbalanced emphasis or obsessive attention to some pages at the expense of others can end up distorting the facts. We may not end up with total fiction, but “faction” can also be harmful to us.
Look for unopened pages. There are some events and decisions that we may have tried to block out of our minds because they don’t fit the narrative we want for ourselves.
Look for well-worn pages. Just as there are some pages we never read, there are others we read again and again and again. Why is that? Are these pages so stained with sin that we can’t really believe they completely blotted out of God’s book?
Look for duplicate pages. Some stories repeat themselves over and over and over. You read them and say, “Wait, did I not just read about that a few pages back?” Yes, you did. Repeated patterns are revealing patterns.
Having looked back and read your past story, you’re now in a position to exchange your story for God’s Story.
Look for tear-stained pages. Yes, some paragraphs are painful and hard to reread. The pages are almost always damp. Your eyes flooded when they happened, and they refill and overflow when you reread them.
Look for happy pages. What made our hearts soar? What were our best times that produced our best stories?
Look for long chapters. Long chapters are influential chapters. They have an outsized impact upon us and are sometimes a tough slog to read.
Look for different chapters. Sometimes it’s hard to get the sense of our whole story, but we can get the sense of individual chapters. We can start by asking, What’s our story about marriage? Work? Family? Health? Happiness? Friendship? Salvation? etc. Each of these have their own separate story and may have a simpler story arc to discover.
As we read the pages and then the chapters, the overall storyline begins to appear. We begin to put the pieces together to form an overall story arc. As this emerges, we can then look for an overall theme, tone, and title. Is the theme one of success? Failure? Loss? Loneliness? Sin? Is the tone cynical, sarcastic, ironic, inspired, challenged, or disappointed? What’s the title so far? If you were to sum up your story in one or two words, or a short phrase, what would it be? If this story continues unchanged, what would the end be?
Having looked back and read your past story, you’re now in a position to exchange your story for God’s Story. You don’t just need an editor. You need a new writer. You need someone who can change your story. You need the StoryChanger, Jesus, who can turn your sad and bad story into life-transforming contact with his good and glorious story.
Why look back on our story? Because it’s the first step to changing our story with God’s Story so that our story will have a happy ending that never ends.
- Jim Loehr, The Power of Story, (New York: Free Press, 2007), 4.
- Loehr, 11.
- Loehr, 4.
- Loehr, 14.
David Murray is the author of The StoryChanger: How God Rewrites Our Story by Inviting Us into His.
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