“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”-Ivan Illich
We are woefully unaware of how many toxic narratives we hear, believe and tell ourselves and others every day. Even worse, we are unaware that this is even happening. Through significant events and people in our lives, we all develop internalized beliefs or stories, many of which are false, but which become for us ultimate 'truths' that end up driving our perceptions, interpretations and responses to life. For example, if I don't receive a desired job, I may tell myself I am worthless when that is not at all how God sees me. A group of people with distorted and untrue stories will perpetuate chaos and dysfunction. On the other hand, a group of people with life-giving stories that are based in God's love, will promote regeneration among people they touch. The above quote by Ivan Illich suggests that change in a society comes about when an alternative story emerges that is powerful enough to demolish our distorted way of thinking and shed new light on a future course of action.
For most of my life, I have tried to change myself and others by "willpower." I believed that if something was right, all I had to do was muster up enough determination, and I could make change happen. Additionally, I believed that accountability was the path to change. If somebody "held me accountable" for my actions, I would change. While some short term change would usually occur, over the long haul the old patterns would return. I have come to believe that exclusively using willpower and accountability to produce change is the equivalent of tying apples on the branches of a thorn bush and calling the "new" plant an apple tree. I believe this is what Jesus was getting at when he said "no good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit". He also taught that is was futile to "clean the outside of the cup" without addressing the inside. Ultimately, the reality of what is inside of us will come out and no amount of determination and accountability will change that. This concept applies to our distorted beliefs. I cannot, by sheer willpower, believe the truth that God wants me to internalize.
A few weeks ago, I was able to participate in a workshop entitled "Finding Regenerative Culture-A Journey Into Four Living Stories" at Abilene Christian University. The workshop was conducted by the "Eden Center" and explored how the telling of four important stories could effect change and promote renewal and restoration in our lives, our communities, and our society. The four stories explored were (future blog posts will discuss each of these stories in detail):
The Story-The great, master story God is telling.
My Story-The story that God is telling in and through me.
Our Story-The story that God is telling in and through us as a community following Jesus.
This Story-The story that God is telling in this physical place and at this particular time.
One of the main ways God tries to shape our thinking is through stories. Jesus said "the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed" and "like a treasure hidden in a field," and He told many other stories designed to get people to think in a new light. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus said, "Repent (or think differently/tell yourself a different story) for the kingdom of heaven is near." Perhaps our biggest challenge is to tell ourselves, others and our communities the stories the way God wants us to hear them. Participating in the process of aligning my stories with God's story has been life-giving for me.
For example, for much of my Christian life the big picture story ("The Story") that I held to was that God was disappointed with me and that I needed to perform better to please him. This led to a constant quest to earn His approval. Even though I was a missionary to other countries on three different occasions and was very committed to my church, I felt like I never did enough. Without a doubt, I passed along those expectations to the churches that I led and to my family. This metanarrative did not produce a peaceful life.
In contrast, at the center of the new story that I hold in my heart is a God who truly loves me and is love. I love the way my friend Kent Smith explains this big picture story: "In the beginning was joy (Eden means delight); in the end will be even greater joy, and in the meantime, we have an astounding invitation from God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit to come share in their joy." This new transforming story or narrative that I cling to is "sweeping away the old myths" and gradually changing me from the inside and producing a peace and a joy that do not depend on circumstances or performance.
What are the stories you are telling yourself about God, yourself, others and your community? Please reflect with me over the next few weeks as we attempt to align our stories with God's stories.