Much of our reality is constructed from the stories, or narratives, told to us or that we tell ourselves.
For example, some of the dominant narratives in society today revolve around money and self-worth: the more you earn, the more value you have as a person. Or the more you have, the happier you will be. Perhaps you grew up with certain narratives about what ‘beautiful’ looks like, or even what it means to be ‘normal’?
We even have stories that inform our faith, our relationship with God and the church and our approach to scripture. Our very picture of God has been shaped by the stories that formed us.
When our Stories are in Crisis
Narratives are powerful because for the most part they are subconscious – very seldom are we aware of the stories that shape and form our perspective. Like a lens or a window through which we view the world, they are invisible. And because they are invisible, we don’t question them.
Yet narratives inform every aspect of life, from our approach to education to the way we raise our children, the things we value, the choices we make, the action we do or do not take, and how we understand God to be at work.
Life crises and faith crises happen most often when the stories we have always known and heard no longer match up to our lived experience, and things no longer seem to make sense. What are we to do then, when we find ourselves in the midst of such a crisis?
A helpful place to start is:
to learn to name our narratives, to tell our stories.
to grow in our own awareness of the perspectives we hold and why we hold them
to understand how narratives told and heard, influence our actions and decisions
to acknowledge what this says about our own understanding of God and what this means for us as followers of Jesus.
One of the best examples of someone learning to tell and retell their story, is Jonah.
The Prejudice of Jonah
Jonah was the unwilling prophet sent to Nineveh, who instead of rejoicing when the people repented, found himself in a moment of crisis with God. We read in Jonah 4 that Jonah says to God ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Jonah 4:2-3).
The world no longer made sense for Jonah, and Jonah was angry because he wanted God to smite Nineveh. The Ninevites were his enemies, they had been a thorn in the side of the people of Israel for generations and ‘they’ did not deserve to be spared. They deserved to be smote! Jonah is angry that ‘those people’ should be recipients of God’s grace.
Here we see Jonah’s narrative of who deserves God’s love and grace, and who doesn’t. We see the story influencing his actions when he would rather run from God than go to Nineveh. We see how this story has shaped his perspective – Jonah wanted to keep God’s grace for himself and his people.
Jonah’s own prejudices kept him from Nineveh – they are not my people so they cannot be God’s people. And Jonah’s assumptions about where God should work, and how, and through whom blinded him to the good news meant for everyone.
God was already in Nineveh, already at work in the people, in a place Jonah assumed was God-forsaken. And the God who gave the people of Nineveh another chance was the same God who gave Jonah a second chance, and we cannot begrudge others the kind of mercy that we need shown to ourselves too.
But it took a conversation with a gracious God for Jonah to be able to recognise the never-before-questioned narrative, and see how it had influenced the way he lived out his calling.
Questioning our Story
Perhaps we can follow Jonah, through the storm and the belly of the whale, and ask ourselves, who are the people of Nineveh to you?
What are the prejudices that lurk within us (we all have them) that might make us say, surely not them God?
In what ways do we try to keep God’s grace to ourselves, secretly hoping ‘they’ will get what we think ‘they’ deserve?
Who is ‘they’ for you?
What are the stories we hear and tell ourselves that have limited the love and grace of God at work in the world and in our lives?
Jesus came to bring a message of Good News, and Jesus invites us to join our stories to God’s Great Story of God’s Kingdom on earth. And that is a story which should be shaping our lives.