As I’ve said several times before on this blog, we humans live on the basis of story. Our life, our world, and our faith provide our lives with a grand “narrative” in which all of our “sub-plots” find shape. We can’t help but use this shape of the present story to fashion some sort of idea of where this story is going. We’ve all experienced this when reading a book. The entire time, we have a guess of where the plot is heading; as we receive more information, we naturally readjust our expectations and thoughts as to the goal or end.
In short, the only way we know to make sense of the various aspects of our lives is to give them shape, narrative, and an anticipated goal towards which they are moving. This is the only way we know to justify each step forward we take in this career, relationship, etc. It gives us our bearings and a point of reference.
But we are finite. We are limited. And this world is fallen. The “story” does not always end up where we anticipate. We get fired. The friend dies. The disease strikes. The “future spouse” (or present one) is revealed for who they really are. And things end. And it hurts.
So what do we do? How do we respond? We usually try and do whatever we can to, in a sense, “redeem” the story that is now lost. We do some things to try and reinterpret the story as it is, or we turn to other techniques of the heart to try and force an ending on the story that makes sense.
We do this in a number of ways. Distraction helps us try and bury that unfulfilled story in a mound of a million other little stories. Apathy seeks to turn the volume down on the pain to fool ourselves into thinking that this loss does not affect us. Anger (at God or another person) is an easy way we try and “re-cast” the story into something we “didn’t want to continue anyway”. Genre-shifting is where we change the “type” of story to help us cope; it’s where we say (for example) “this relationship was not a story of romance, but rather it was truly a story of deception and injustice–injustice I must make right”.
In other words, we try and diminish the story, its characters, its pain, and even its God so it doesn’t seem like an actual loss. For one reason or another, the reality that we may have actually been left with less than we began is unimaginable to us in situations in which we have put an incredible investment. And sometimes these efforts work. Sometimes the pain eventually falls away into the recesses of life and experience and becomes simply one more blip on the span of our existence.
But other times, if God truly loves us, he will allow these not to work. He will frustrate the efforts. For example: You find you can’t make the story go away. You can’t turn its volume down. You realize the other person doesn’t deserve the unbridled anger you had kindled against them. You find that this story does not so neatly fit the “type” of deception or injustice you had thought was occurring. So then what?
You actually have to start dealing with the ending of this story as a true loss. And it hurts. A lot. But there is good news for us who embrace the story of Christ as our primary narrative.
If our story is the Story of a God who is making all things new; of a God who has come down and accomplished all that is necessary to purchase the full, future redemption of the cosmos, then we can rest in the fact that our God has come and on the cross has tasted the very pain, suffering, loss, alienation, and abandonment we are feeling now. He has known it, and so when we know it, we now know Him better. We are never closest to the divine experience than in moments like these.
Further, all these things serve to expose the idols in our hearts which we cling to other than Christ. This is God’s love to us, for it leads us to freedom from the things that were enslaving us and keeping us from knowing life as it was meant to be lived. It’s in these moments that God is preparing us all the more to be the citizens of heaven that we are.
It’s here in this space, where we truly open ourselves to feeling real emotional, spiritual, and existential loss that we feel at our most helpless in life. It’s where we have the clearest picture in our minds of where our hearts “should be” but feel the most profound inadequacy to make our hearts just be there. And this is also where our God meets us most deeply.
It’s in our need that we have Him most*.
And this is why healing takes time. The loss itself has a “plot” and an “end” and a “goal” it must reach before the book can close–before a new one can open. It takes time to “retell” the story in such a way as to free us from the old one. It takes time to press this new narrative into our hearts and actions to help us actually believe it. It takes time to see that God is not merely found in the experience of the storm, but rather the storm is found in the experience of God; that God is the anchor and context in which all stories unfold. He is no subplot. He is Author.
And if this is the case, then we can trust that when good, new things come our way–new subplots, settings, conflicts, or characters–then we can have the freedom and faith to move forward (even fearfully) into these new stories, trusting that wherever they might lead, there is a promise they will always ultimately lead us Home.
For more on this, check out:
- Some posts I wrote on this site applying these ideas to processing a break-up, an illness, and my Grandfather’s death
- This and this post on Narrative Therapy by one of my favorite bloggers and psychologists, Phil Monroe
- This post from Monroe on how this can be applied to addictions
- This piece of a lecture from one of my old professors, Ed Welch, on recasting people’s pain the story of the Gospel
[image credit: Francisco de Goya “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”]