Every new year we’re reminded of the importance of disciplines, habits, and resolutions. We resolve to do this or that—more exercising, less eating, more Bible study, less Twitter. When we step into a new calendar year, we take stock of the past and look to the future.
But more important than new habits and resolutions is how we see the next chapter in the ongoing story of our lives. That’s what really matters. It’s not the habit itself (like eating more vegetables or cutting back on sweets), but how it fits into your view of the bigger story of your life. The actions that matter most are the ones that reinforce the story you see yourself in—the narrative that gives shape and significance to your life.
It’s no wonder that church leaders recommend disciplines and activities that connect us to the story the Bible tells about our world. Start the morning by studying God’s Word. Punctuate your day with times of prayer. Gather every week with God’s people in worship. All of these disciplines are designed to reinforce what we believe to be true about God, about ourselves, and about the world.
What’s the Primary Story?
One of the biggest challenges facing the church in the West today is that we can easily adopt two or three spiritual practices as mere add-ons to the story we see ourselves in. We read a couple of Bible verses for inspiration, go to church for the fellowship, or send up a prayer for someone in need.
But what if this just adds a spiritual dimension to days that are lived mostly without reference to God at all?
What if we’re just placing a Christian veneer on a building with a different foundation?
What if we share the same hopes and fears, desires and passions, as everyone else?
In other words, could religious activities and spiritual disciplines look like Christian faithfulness, when in reality the primary story we see ourselves in—the narrative that gives the most meaning and significance to our lives—is the same as our unbelieving neighbors?
Let me offer three fictional examples.
1. Career Cameron
The primary story that gives shape and direction to Cameron’s life is the trajectory of his career. If he were to write the story of his life, he would chronicle his economic progress. He would categorize the weeks and months and years that pass as either “setbacks” or “steps forward.” His career is the primary story he sees himself in, and so he interprets events, opportunities, and challenges within the context of his job performance, and in reference to the wealth, status, and power he hopes to achieve.
Cameron would say he’s religious. He listens to Christian radio sometimes on his way to work. He doesn’t read the Bible much, but he takes his family to church at least three times a month. He helps out when he has a friend or coworker in need. He provides well for his family.
Still, the dominant narrative of Cameron’s life is his career. When he wakes up in the morning, his mind is already racing: What role will today play in my success story? What wins will I achieve this week? How will I know I’ve made progress next month? Progress and success—that’s the primary story he sees himself in.
2. Political Pamela
The primary story that gives shape and direction to Pamela’s life is the wins and losses of her political party. If she were to write the story of her life, it would tell of her involvement in the saga of whatever is happening politically. The story she sees herself in—a political narrative where the politicians and pundits duke it out over the future of the country—unfolds as a mesmerizing drama, chronicled daily through social media and cable news.
Pam sees herself as a foot soldier in a war in which people on one side want to destroy the nation, while people on her side fight valiantly to protect it. She watches videos of her favorite personalities “owning” or “destroying” or “shutting down” people on the other side of the aisle. She cheers and campaigns. She leaves comments and shares articles. Her “setbacks” and “steps forward” are connected to election results, recent polls, and debate performances.
Like Cameron, Pam is religious. She tries to read a chapter from the Bible every day, and she goes to church every week. But for the most part, her attention is consumed by politics, the story of her day determined by whatever the news networks call “breaking news.” The dominant narrative of Pam’s life can be summed up in her political involvement. She thinks about politics when she wakes up and before she goes to bed. Her churchgoing and Bible-reading merely reinforce her sense that she is “fighting the good fight.”
3. Greg the Gamer
The primary story that gives shape and direction to Greg’s life is his passion for increasing the amount of time he can relax and enjoy himself. He is devoted to leisure and entertainment. If he were to chart the plot points in his life story, he’d tell you about the games he played as a kid, the movies and shows he has watched as an adult, and how he is counting down the days to the next iteration of his favorite game system.
Greg is not lazy. He works hard at growing his skills in gaming. He reserves time to watch all the great TV shows coming out, and he never misses the latest blockbuster. He works hard at his job, too, even if it is just a means to an end: maximizing the time he has available to do whatever he really wants.
Greg is religious, too. He goes to church. He gets on his Bible app every day and scrolls through a passage. He tries to follow the commandments. But the dominant narrative of his life is seen in how he pushes through all his workplace obligations so he can dedicate his afternoons, evenings, and weekends to leisure. “Setbacks” and “steps forward” are determined by the time and money it takes to pursue entertainment and diversion.
What’s the Problem?
What do we make of these three individuals and their stories?
Far be it from me to imply it is wrong to pursue success in your career, or get involved in politics, or enjoy good entertainment. Career ambition can be healthy, as can political involvement, and leisure and recreation.
The problem in each of these cases is a moralistic vision of Christianity (“religion exists to make me a better person”) that never comes into conflict with the primary story giving shape and significance to the person’s life. Yes, your career may be good, but Scripture teaches it’s a lesser good than God. Political involvement is fine, but it’s nowhere near as important as one’s allegiance to King Jesus. Entertainment and leisure may be healthy for well-rounded people, until they grow out of proportion and extend into every area of life.
The Story and the Stories
What is the primary story we see ourselves in? That is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.
The goal of the Christian should be that the three stories mentioned above (our career, our politics, our leisure) and many others like it will always be smaller in our minds and hearts than the big Story of the world as told by the Scriptures. These stories should be subsumed under the big Story.
That’s why we should regularly examine our hearts and ask tough questions:
- What is on my mind when I go to bed every night or get up every morning?
- What are the burning questions, the big problems, the inner insecurities that fill my heart?
- Where does my mind rush during fleeting moments of quiet?
- When I look over my life, what narrative takes shape when I consider “steps forward” or “setbacks”?
- What do I actually do every day? And how do my actions correspond with what I say I believe?
In the next column, we’ll take a closer look at the Story that should be primary in our lives but often is not.