I’ve been sponsoring an amazing, strong woman through a Twelve Step recovery program for a while now, and lately we’ve been reflecting on our stories. Her story includes several types of abuse, and up until pretty recently, she’d been telling it this way: The pain from the abuse had influenced her toward certain coping mechanisms that the church would call “sin.” When she got “saved” in her late teens, she confessed and repented. She received forgiveness for her sins, and was pressed to forgive her abusers. She was healed. That was the story she told both to herself and to others -- a spiritual success story. A victory for Jesus and the church.
Then a couple of relationships in her life blew up and she ended up seeking help in our recovery group. We’ve been unpacking her story for a couple of years together, and she recently texted me about how she’s telling her story a completely different way. I wrote her back, “Well, you thought you had already lived through the climax and resolution, but now you realize that was just the beginning.”
I’ve been reflecting on how many of us in the Church have tried to tell our stories to ourselves this way. As though we were broken in the past, but now we’re all better and it’s going to be all upward mobility from now on. And it makes sense that we do this, because this is what we were taught to do.
Growing up in church, I was taught to tell my story like a sales pitch for Jesus.
My church leaders’ hearts were in the right place. They wanted people to meet Jesus and be saved. So, I was taught how to tell the story of my life only in the context of evangelism. My story had to prove that Jesus was good, and that following Jesus “worked.” They taught me, “You can argue with theology but you can’t argue with someone’s experience.” (Which is not necessarily true, by the way.)
So, Jesus stories were supposed to go like this:
Before Jesus, I was sinning. After Jesus, I stopped.
Before Jesus, I was lonely. After Jesus, I’m not lonely.
Before Jesus, I was worried. After Jesus, I have peace.
Before Jesus, I was resentful. After Jesus, I’ve been able to forgive.
Before Jesus, I was suffering. After Jesus, I have joy.
There are a few problems with this story-telling model. The first is that, as a girl that “got saved” at age 10, I didn’t have a lot of before and after references. The second is that I was still sinning, lonely, worried, resentful and suffering. I was doing that less than I would have been without Jesus’ presence in my life. A lot less. But I was still doing and experiencing all those things, which were supposedly part of my old life.
But because I had only been taught to write my story in the context of evangelism, I couldn’t fully face my sin, loneliness, worry, resentment and suffering. I had to pretend to myself that they weren’t there, rather than continue to honestly seek healing for them.
At age 30, I had to stop pretending. Like my friend in recovery, some things blew up. I was diagnosed with acute anxiety and depression. And I was sitting in a leadership training session on “how to give your testimony” when I realized I didn’t have one. I couldn’t sell the concept that Jesus gave peace and joy, because I was wretched – depressed, angry, confused, and cut off emotionally from Christ. That was a new beginning. It took eight years and my own journey through Twelve Step to be able to say I was healed.
And let me tell you how I finally got healed, in Jesus name. I began to write my story like I didn’t know the ending.
I wrote it for myself, in a raw, painful way, confronting past trauma and current sin. I took an inventory and admitted all the places I didn’t trust God and was not experiencing victory. I didn’t rush it. I didn’t try to sell anything to myself or others. (And if I did, my therapist, sponsor, or best friends would call me out on it.) I met God there in the muck and learned who he was. He didn’t make a lot of promises about how it was all going to turn out okay. In fact, many times what I pictured was just Jesus sitting on the floor with me while I cried, saying “I know. I know.”
This is closer to what my friend experiences now, as well. She's found that Jesus welcomed her anger and pain -- was willing to sit with her in it until it had spent itself out and he could comfort her. He was much more interested in her having a story of receiving comfort, than a story in which she never really named the harm done to her and somehow managed to flash forgive those who had done her harm. He didn't need her good P.R. He just loved her.
Jesus is with me in the middle of my story. (I don’t say was, but is, because I’m still in the middle.) He’s in the pit. He’s with me while I’m still sinning, still addicted to all kinds of things, still sad. I have a testimony of lots of small before and after’s – and it is a testimony of hope, healing and victory. Real healing, that took a long time. But it’s not over. The best hope is Jesus present with me.
So today, I’d like to sell you something new: An invitation to write your story for yourself, without assuming you have to know the ending. Without having to make sense of your struggles before you even name how they have shaped and scarred you. Without having to prove to yourself how far you’ve come. Without needing to convince anyone that God is good, not even yourself. Because this is something I’m sure about. God is good. And he is very able to engage with you just as you are.
For more ways to honestly connect with your story and learn about the benefits of doing so, check out these books and resources.
The Best Seller: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Emotionally Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazerro and Geri Scazerro (@petescazzero, @geriscazerro, @ehdiscipleship)
The Uber-Intellectual (and yet also accessible): Anything by Dan Allender, founder of the Seattle School of Theology. The Allender Center Podcast is the bomb! (@allndercenter)
The Dark and Hilarious: Kate Bowler is a divinity professor who did groundbreaking work investigating the flaws in America's prosperity gospel theology. Her second book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I've Loved) is a beautiful and honest memoir of her struggle with cancer and how she learned to both live well and suffer under the umbrella of Jesus' grace.
The Newcomer: writer and speaker Sarah Westfall’s Not My Story Podcast (@notmystorypod). Sarah talks to guests about how unexpected (and often unwanted) twists in their personal stories caused them to have a spiritual reset and engage with God and their stories in a new way. You can hear my recovery story as it relates to friendships on Episode 9.