The Stories We Tell Ourselves

 “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?’  tell him: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”   Deut. 6:20-21

She was pretty.  She looked younger than I suspected she was, although her skin showed the effects of over-tanning.  Her eyes were an unearthly blue, aided, no doubt, by colored contacts.  Her already long lashes were accentuated by heavy mascara, and colorful tattoos snaked up and down her arms.  To be honest, I thought they were lovely and that they suited her personality well.

She came from a small town in Ohio, with very few non-White people and very low crime.  As she put it, if an ashtray was stolen off her grandma’s back porch, it would make the news.  Even though she had lived in Nashville for at least ten years, she still sometimes got culture shock from all of the different people.  It certainly wasn’t what she was expecting when she came down here at age 20, trying to break into the music business.  Unfortunately, her musical dreams fizzled out in a few years, but by then, there was a guy in the picture.  Here, she shook her head and laughed in disgust.  “Bad idea.”  Obviously, the guy fizzled out, too, but by that time, she had bought a house and now had  a mortgage to pay.  So she stayed in Nashville and worked at a job she enjoyed.  She is now dating another guy, a composer, and he is currently working on an album of reinvented covers.  He even asked her to sing vocals, which made her very excited.

I could probably have learned more, but by that time I had completed my blinds order and checked out at Lowe’s.

As I drove home pondering my chatty sales clerk, I noted how compulsive story-telling is for people.  You would think we would get tired of telling our own stories–but no.  Quite the contrary:  our own story is usually the one we hold most dear.  And we tell it again and again.  We tinker with it and tailor it to our current circumstances.  We constantly tweak it to reflect our current understanding and opinions.  But we still tell it, if only to ourselves.  The reason is simple:  we tell our story to remind ourselves who we are and why we’re here.  

Our story defines us.  We cast ourselves as the victim, the hero, the anti-hero, the saint, the sinner.  We have our allies and our villains, our plot twists and our slow parts.  Our stories take the random, chaotic events of our lives and give meaning to them.  They are able to give that meaning, b/c our stories have an overarching plot.  That plot tells us why we’re here (created by God?  an accident of evolution?  something in between?).  The plot tells us who the good guys are (Christians?  America?  A political party?  Some combination?) and who the bad guys are.  Our stories also have characterization.  Not only do we “flesh out” other characters through our personal judgments of them, our stories tend to characterize all of humanity.  Is humanity good?  Bad?  A combination?  Our stories will tell us.

I think that our propensity for storytelling is by design.  Either that, or God caters to our species’ idiosyncrasy, because He chooses to speak to us in the form of a story.  He could have simply given us a list of facts or rules; in fact, that seems a little more logical, if you ask me.  Less room to misunderstand. Less cause for confusion.  But no–He revealed Himself to us mostly through stories.  And within those stories (collected in the Bible), He told about His Son, who in turn preached largely through stories.

The story of Jesus is one of God’s big stories.  But before that, He had another biggie:  the story of the exodus from Egypt.  When God saved the Israelites from four hundred years of slavery, He made sure that they remembered that story and passed it down.  It is clear from reading the Pentateuch that God intended the exodus story to define His people.  From His insistence on that point, I learn two important things.

1.  Stories > Facts

In one of my college psychology classes, I learned that we tend to interpret data in a way that conforms to our own preconceptions.  For example, if you have a preconception that women are bad drivers, you will tend to remember the woman who absent-mindedly cut you off more than you will a man who did the same thing.  That’s because we make a clearer mental note of the behaviors that reinforce our stereotypes, while we are more likely to let conflicting data slide by unconsidered.  I think that phenomenon is an example of how our stories determine our reality.  If, in your story, women are bad drivers, then facts are at a considerable disadvantage.

On the flip side, our stories can convey truth to us in a way that facts simply cannot.  Perhaps that’s why God instructed His people to explain the “facts” of the Law to their children in the form of a story (see the verse at the top).  He knew that facts don’t stick unless they work into our personal story.  One application of that principle for me is that people are not going to be convinced of the reality of God or of Christ’s love simply by a presentation of the “facts.”  While there may be a place for apologetics in evangelism, the most important, powerful tool we have is the reality of our own story.  We must live a better story for the people around us, so that they will want it to be their story, as well.

And that brings me to my second point:

2.  Stories are meant to be lived, not just told.

When God gave the Israelites their Exodus story, He made clear that it was not simply to be a nice narrative that they shared and celebrated.  That story was supposed to affect their lives and their behavior.  Several times throughout the Law, He references their story.  Here is a sampling:

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”  Ex. 22:21

“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”  Ex. 23:9

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Lev. 19:33-34

Clearly, God expected the Israelites’ story to affect their behavior; I think the same is true for us today.  On an individual level, the different experiences God gives us should increase our empathy for others who share those experiences.  Our pain should make it easier to help others in pain; our joy should make it easier to rejoice with others who have joy.  Similarly, the Israelites were to use their experiences as aliens to help them sympathize with foreigners in their lands.

On a collective level, the story of the gospel, which casts us as sinners in need of redemption, should make us more empathetic to other sinners in need of redemption.  That empathy should, in turn, lead to action.  The Israelites were supposed to treat people more kindly and mercifully because of their common heritage.  Shouldn’t our common heritage as sinners cause us to treat others kindly and mercifully, as well?

Today, I want to remember that “my story” is not simply found in the pages of the Bible or in the narrative that exists in my own head.  On the contrary, my story is embodied and enlivened by all of my actions.  Today, I want to live in a way that reflects the truth of the story in my head.  I want to live in a way that points others to God.

(This post is linked up with Word-filled Wednesday and iFellowship.)

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Awesome post.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on March 21, 2012 at 10:33 am

    “… stories can convey truth to us in a way that facts simply cannot.”

    Precisely Kim, nicely put. The more I read the Bible the more I am struck by Scripture as narrative. I’m in 1 Chronicles right now and even the lists are speaking God’s story to me in amazing ways.

    Your excerpts from Exodus and Leviticus got me thinking about another phrase that is repeated in one form or another throughout the Old Testament: “brought out of Egypt.” So I went to Bible Gateway and put in the words “brought” and “Egypt” and got 111 hits. Of those, 81 are explicit references to God bringing the Israelites from Egypt and are given as reminders of what he had done or as a basis for what he was going to do. The 81 passages stretch from Exodus to Zechariah, so it’s clear that this is a major theme under the Old Covenant. It’s interesting that it doesn’t appear in the New Testament, and I think this signals a major shift in the Scripture narrative.

    Tim

    Reply

    • Definitely, Tim! It’s crazy how overarching that story is to the message of the OT. And even though the NT switches gears, the basic themes of God’s rescue and redemption are still present.

      Reply

      • Posted by Tim on March 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm

        Absolutely, and I think it’s seen most clearly in Jesus’ statement that he fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy about opening prison doors and setting captives free. What a Gospel!

        Reply

  3. God is the greatest His-Story teller and what wonderful stories, wonderful history, wonderful parabels. I like to read the Message Bible. Thanks for sharing a great post!

    Reply

  4. Posted by bekster081305 on March 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Very cool concept. I definitely agree that stories are a big thing. I know that personally I can really get stuck in a story (whether a fiction story or some kind of real drama going on in my–or someone else’s–life). It’s also interesting how men and woman (I’m speaking very broadly here) tend to relate to stories differently. If I have two friends who go on a date with each other, the questions I will ask the girl about it afterwards are quite different than what my husband would want to know from the guy. For me, it’s all about the details and nuances (“What was the expression on his face when he said that to you? How close were you sitting to each other? What were you wearing?”), while for someone else it’s more about the bottom line (“You’re dating now? Cool.”). Maybe that’s why we have such a variety of books in the Bible. There really is something for everyone there. Regardless of how we personally relate to the stories, though, it’s cool to think that we are still in the middle of them, and that God makes each individual story fit in with all of the others to make up His bigger story. Things that look very coincidence-like to us were deliberately “written” by Him. It is comforting to know that He continues to be the Author and that He already knows how to make the story have a good (the best) ending.

    Reply

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