How are you? Perhaps the more fitting question is who are you? What story are you telling yourself about what kind of person you are, how you’ve become so, what your desires are, who you love, and how it is all holding together?
We are storied people. Recognizing this will help us to learn better, to love better, and to heal better. And the thing about stories is they require more than one character. It is fascinating to learn about the mind—it’s still so mysterious. It gets tricky when we talk about how the mind, soul, and affections of our hearts all interrelate. And how they relate to the minds, souls, and affections of others. This happens in the context of story that we are constantly telling ourselves and each other, both verbally and nonverbally.
Christians are in the soul-business, but we often get caught up in a transactional mode as we talk about our need for salvation and sanctification. We assent to these truths and conform to these behaviors in exchange for eternal life with God and belonging in the faith. We can easily reduce our faith to decisions and performance. But we call it submission, so it sounds more spiritual.
Doctrine is important to me because I want to know God truly. I’m not downplaying its value. But my experiences over the last three years have revealed to me the dangers of thinking of the faith in mere cerebral terms. God is inviting us to commune with him. He’s preparing us for love. Theology without love—and all that holistically encompasses— is a theology of a different god.
And love isn’t something didactically taught. It’s something we need prepared for. We learn of it in our relationships, our stories.
I used to undervalue testimonies in the church, thinking it was too self-absorbed to talk about my story. I didn’t want to become like one of those who are “psychologizing the faith,” or turning inward, or who are “man-centered.” Wanting to put the proper focus on God, I devalued testimonies of how he is working in our actual lives. He created us with a psyche. He summons us holistically. Our stories matter to God. He’s made us storied people. We come together on Sunday, our storied selves, and are recalibrated through the simple elements of worship—the call to worship, confession of sin, absolution, singing, praying, the preached word, baptism, the Lord’s supper, and benediction—as we find our place in the reality of The Story that integrates us back into our true belonging, significance, and value.
You see, God isn’t only after our brains. He’s beckoning all our senses as embodied people, igniting our imaginations and sense of wonder, connecting our confession of who he is with the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, and teaching us about his gift of true freedom in belonging.
Sharing our stories is part of this process. It does something quite incredible. It’s generative. This is how we come to know not only one another more, but even ourselves. Even God. When we share our stories, we are sharing our very selves with one another. And when we can do that with trusted people, things come out of us that we didn’t realize we’ve been holding in. We need partners in affliction. People who will bear witness to where we are and what we’ve experienced and still stay in the room with us. In this, we also become partners in kingdom and endurance. We need to hear others speak into our version of events, as we’ve been silently self-narrating. We can’t see even our own selves and our own stories all by ourselves—we weren’t meant to.
Our Minds Need Story
These truths have been enforced more and more in my own friendships and learning. It fascinates me how the advances of science are revealing how amazing the mind is, so different from the computer model that it’s been characterized as. As it turns out, our senses and emotions are fueling the whole enterprise. And thinking doesn’t merely happen inside our skulls, inside our brain. Our minds need “extra-neural resources.”
One fascinating read about this is Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. She postulates,
“As it is, we use our brains entirely too much—to the detriment of our ability to think intelligently. What we need to do is think outside the brain.
Thinking outside the brain means skillfully engaging entities external to our heads—the feelings and movements of our bodies, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the minds of other people around us—drawing them into our mental processes. By reaching beyond the brain to recruit these ‘extra-neural resources, we are able to focus more intently, comprehend more deeply, and create more imaginatively—to entertain ideas that would be literally unthinkable by the brain alone.”
In other words, we need story. And our minds which are the narrating self, need a setting, a cast of characters, plot, point of view, and even conflict and resolution.
“The literature on the extended mind suggests” our intelligence and expertise correlates to our “learning how best to marshal and apply extra-neural resources to the tasks before them.” We think better, smarter, when we are attuning to our senses, environment, and the minds of others.
Daniel Siegel, who first introduced us to the expression “interpersonal biology,” calls it “the neurobiology of we.” Our minds were designed to interact with other people’s minds. We cannot even “know” ourselves without the witness and story we sense others sharing with us. And that is just it. We all want to be known, to be seen, and to be loved. As Curt Thompson shares in The Soul of Desire, “We need others to bear witness to our deepest longings, our greatest joys, our most painful shame, and all the rest in order to have any sense of ourselves. This process begins at birth—no newborn ‘decides who he is’ apart from the presence of others to whom his little mind desperately looks to be seen and heard.” This is how we know ourselves, how we grow, and how we love. It’s often how God “shows up” as well.
The Story of Friendship
I am finding that my friendships are more vulnerable, raw, and broken in all the beautiful ways than ever. Real freedom in belonging is happening. We are broken but holding the pieces together, lifting them up, gazing at them curiously. We are lamenting together and laughing together. Oh, these acts are so intertwined! We are learning to stop caring about that story we are trying to hustle about ourselves, ever so carefully trying to make the right steps for the right person in the right direction. We are caring less about being right and more about being true. We are learning the art of showing up, seeing one another, and staying in the room.
Dwelling with one another. That is what we want in a church family. We want to dwell and wonder in the Lord. His mystery. The pain he leads us through. The shame he despised on the cross. The glory of where we are headed together. The communion of enfleshed souls, inhabited by his Spirit, sometimes barely hanging on. These are hard things, who can understand them?
Learning. What a gift it is to learn The Story together. We are learning the mysterious, terrifying, wonderful truth that we do not have life in ourselves if we do not eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53). And so we are still receiving today’s invitation.
Showing Up in The Story
Are you attuned to the stories of those around you? Where are you invited to show up today? Are you willing to reveal and give of yourself? How can others know Christ through you in it? Do you see him in it? Because we don’t only want to be known ourselves, we want to know the One whose desire is for us (Song 7:10). What a pleasure it is to also be able to know him more through others who love him.
The Lord is with his people. Christ is with his church. Look for him among his people. He shows up like Ruth, like Esther, like your friend that is listening to your suffering and staying in the room, like the stranger who offers a small act of care when you need it. A huge reservoir of beauty is found in friendship—a place where you inhabit and participate in the creation of beauty from whatever is thrown at you. Man, does God show up there. We need his body and we are his body—do we believe this? The totus Christus. We are his arms, his hands, his feet, his skin. There is no Christ without his church, no church without Christ.
He is ushering us even now, out of the wilderness, into his chambers, and behind the veil on Mount Zion. That’s the story.
5 thoughts on “Our Storied Selves”
Beautiful article, thank you. It is the answer.
But I’m still working on the question … I’m not going to do this justice, here are some thoughts which return to plague me regularly – my best shot at putting them out there:
Moving into one’s head is a recognized response to trauma. Diane Langberg believes strongly that trauma is the church’s mission field in the 21st century. I wonder if this is even more true than we know? Does a lack of understanding of trauma, the rise of Neo-Calvinism (heavily cerebral) and a large number of these pastors failing and falling have anything in common?
Enter Biblical Manhood plus Jesus and John Wayne into the mix – becoming vulnerable to deal with past/present trauma is not an option. Being someone who takes control is seen as the solution to all problems. Trauma is ignored. A faulty coping mechanism is “sanctified”.
One hears the murmur of Gnosticism having re-entered the church. Brains without bodies, “love” with no beating heart.
(And then of course there are garden variety hypocrites – opportunists, who can hide behind a wall of words and slogans – because it’s never expected that you should share your heart, or deeply empathize by entering into another’s pain. Which is a sin in some circles, anyway.)
In your article all of these things intersect. I hear echoes of Chuck de Groat too. Beauty. Wholeheartedness. Vulnerability. Love. Life. Exuberant. Overflowing. Authentic.
I don’t fully understand the malady, but rejoice in your solutions.
LikeLiked by 1 person
(I think most models of “Biblical”/ nouthetic counselling I’ve been exposed to, would meet their doom here too. 🤔)
I appreciate Christina’s comment, below – this post is way bigger than the meditation space afforded by a cup of coffee!!
This thought is bigger than my one cup of coffee is allowing for at the moment. I’ll need to reread and comprehend better. But my initial take away: Absolutely. Yes, and amen. The person, being a whole entire person, should not try to seperate one part from the other. We must be fully present in our bodies because this is where Christ lives – one. And two – we have the mind of Christ. Talk about a brain extension!
I had to squash one little knee-jerk reaction, left over from legalistic training back in the day. The word “experience” tripped me a little. But I recovered quickly. We are indeed bundles of experience…these moments are details in our story. They aren’t the plot, but they will certainly make the plot twist at the end more stunning. I sense a timely and needful book in the works. Can’t wait!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for this – it explains the journey I’ve taken in the past few years, and gives me hope for the road ahead. The RPCNA tradition is very cerebral and theological, and the unspoken rule is that having right theology leads to a right life. It’s not entirely wrong, but I’ve discovered that it failed even the first answer in the WLC, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Theology definitely helped me understand the holy otherness of God, but it did not give me the sense of closeness and presence that I needed to enjoy him.
That has been what I have been focusing on recently – how do I understand my life as a journey with God and how do I rightly understand his presence? My RP takeaway was of a frowning monarch, and thus my taught association God = repeated unpleasant discipline, as modeled by my authority figures. Instead, I’ve needed to work on understanding God’s gracious presence, especially when it comes to my story. I want to model that gracious presence for others, but it’s counter to decades of legalistic training. I long for joy, not the “paste a smile on your face and the heart will follow” joy. The father of the Prodigal Son is how Jesus saw the Father. He ran to his son, hugged him, and then threw the biggest party ever for him. That’s not unpleasant discipline in my book.
And… yes it is hard to be fully (or even barely!) present with others while I’m processing my stuff, but I completely agree that it is a necessary and essential part of living in relationship with fellow travelers!
The only thing that will survive the coming burning, are the people we have loved and known and love again and more.