At its heart my pastoral and therapeutic work is about interacting with the stories people tell themselves about themselves. As they tell me their stories they are often looking to discover something new about their past and to choose new possibilities for the future. Their understanding of who they are, which is formed through the story they tell themselves about their life, has in some way stopped working in their favour and is limiting their potential for growth and flourishing. My job is to help them as they search for a new way to narrate their lives.
It is the possibility of radically changing our stories that the grace of God offers. As such it creates the context within which flourishing is made possible because it, more than any other transformational force, can simultaneously reach into our past and our future and make them both new. And this ability to transcend time is essential to the work of rewriting our stories.
A good storyteller is creative in her use of time as she interweaves the past with the present and threads the yet-to-be into the here-and-now. Flashbacks and projections give depth to the narrative and feed the expectation for resolution that carries the listener towards the story’s conclusion.
This is exactly how we construct the story by which we make sense of our experiences and create our identity. We don’t do this through a narrative that follows a linear journey from the past into the future, but through playing around with time. Memories and expectations, regrets and hopes are always present in our present shaping how we understand ourselves. In this way we synthesise our past, present and future into our ongoing and developing identities and our stories are made rich and fascinating. Rich and fascinating, but so often unhelpful.
The story of the fall in Genesis 3 provides the structure for all stories about the human condition. It tells us that after they had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil Adam and Eve hid from each other by making clothes for their naked bodies and they also hid from God, again because of their nakedness. Read in the context of Genesis 2:25, where we are told that the man and the woman were not ashamed of their nakedness before their sin, we see that these acts of hiding were driven by a sense of shame. Among other things this story is highlighting the central role that shame plays in the human drama.
Shame is sometimes confused with guilt, but the two are very different. Whereas guilt is anger turned back onto ourselves at having done something bad, shame is a state of anger at being bad. It is disgust at our own unacceptable selves. Genesis 3 can be read as pointing us to that process by which each and every one of us at some point in our history came to despise and reject ourselves. Had it been someone else we had rejected we could have easily got away from them, but we can’t escape ourselves and so we are condemned to be always haunted by this shameful familiar figure of our past.
It is not difficult to see how this ghost of the self-loathed self appears throughout our story, sabotaging our dreams and stifling our attempts at intimacy. We believe others can see this ghost just as clearly as we can, or we fear they might and so we hide ourselves away. We either present a persona to the world that that conceals our true selves or we simply withdraw into our own haunted house and put up “ENTER AT YOUR PERIL” signs to ward off all comers.
Either through its presence or through its denial shame dominates our story and in doing so it robs us of our inventiveness. No longer are we creatively playing around with time, infusing our memories with our hopes and making meaning of our present in the light of the future God has promised for the world. Instead we are on a straightforward journey from a shame-creating past to a shame-filled future. Our flexibility to respond to people and events is reduced and we become predictable, stereotypical in our responses. Our story becomes a cliché.
The free grace of God re-writes our story. It transforms the shame oppressed character of our past story with forgiveness, acceptance and welcoming.
God’s free grace transforms our past. It gives us a new story to tell; a story in which we have been loved from before the foundation of the world. It gives us a new story about our past in that it inserts the story of Jesus into our own. His righteousness, his love, his death and his resurrection become our story. In all of this our own past is not denied, nor is it repressed, but it is retold. It is no longer a tragic rehearsal of the story of Adam or Eve, it is now the retelling of the renewing story of Jesus.
God’s free grace also gifts us with a new future. The ending of our story is no longer made up by an individual dominated by shame, but it has been written by a sovereign God. His intervention in the person of Christ has created a new future, one of re-creation and renewal; one that is dominated by resurrection and an abundant life.
If our story is a creative playing with time then we have the best possible tools with which to re-write who we are in the present. The ghost of our shame is exorcised by God’s free grace and the structure for a narrative of self-acceptance, one that takes from Christ’s past and Christ’s future, is freely and graciously given in its place.