The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The people were terrified—and for that matter, so was their king. They found themselves at the brink of war with an enemy whose army was “as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude.” The threat was enough to send grown men scampering to hide wherever they could find shelter—in caves, in thickets, in holes, in rocks, and in pits.

The men brave enough to remain followed their king, trembling, to the place where a prophet would make a sacrifice of supplication to God on behalf of the entire nation. They waited seven days—the time set by the prophet himself—but he didn’t come.

A week of waiting for nothing. Some of the people, disillusioned by the turn of events, began to disperse, and the king could do nothing but watch. His people were losing faith in him, a powerful nation had gathered at his borders to destroy him, and the prophet of God had abandoned him. Unless he did something soon, everything would be lost.

So he took action. He broke all convention and offered the sacrifice on his own. Someone had to, after all—and if the prophet wouldn’t do it, why couldn’t the king?

He had no sooner finished presenting the sacrifice when he found himself face-to-face with the absentee prophet.

“What have you done?” the prophet asked.

The king, desperate to justify himself, rattled off a string of excuses: The people were leaving. You were late. The army of the enemy was at our doorstep. I had no choice. “Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.”

The prophet was having none of it. “You have done foolishly,” Samuel told Saul. “You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (1 Kings 13:13-14).

Saul had an excuse for disobeying God—but then, he always had an excuse. He had an excuse for the sacrifice; he had an excuse for not killing King Agag; he had an excuse for taking the best of the plunder from an accursed city. There was always, always a reason. Always a justification.

But Saul had more than excuses. He had a narrative—and so do you.

* * *

Author Seth Godin explains the concept of a narrative this way:

In fact, all of us have a narrative. It’s the story we tell ourselves about how we got here, what we’re building, what our urgencies are.

And within that narrative, we act in a way that seems reasonable.

To be clear, the narrative isn’t true. It’s merely our version, our self-talk about what’s going on. It’s the excuses, perceptions and history we’ve woven together to get through the world. It’s our grievances and our perception of privilege, our grudges and our loves.

No one is unreasonable. Or to be more accurate, no one thinks that they are being unreasonable.

That’s why we almost never respond well when someone points out how unreasonable we’re being. We don’t see it, because our narrative of the world around us won’t allow us to.

Saul’s narrative told him that he had no choice but to make that sacrifice. He told Samuel as much—”When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering” (1 Kings 13:11-12).

Within his own narrative, Saul’s actions made perfect sense. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t change the fact that what he was doing was perfectly wrong. Because of his continual excuse-making and disobedience, Saul lost his kingdom, and God replaced him with a man after His own heart.

* * *

We all have narratives. We all have stories we tell ourselves about how the world around us works, and we believe them. These are stories that explain who we are, where we’re going, how we got here, who’s on our side, who isn’t, what matters, what doesn’t, and most importantly, why.

When it comes to the thoughts and intents of those around us, our narratives fill in the blanks. So-and-so did such-and-such because ______. Godin adds, “We come up with a story (about an organization, a person, a situation) and all the data that supports it, we notice, and the nuance we discount or ignore.”

The Republicans have a narrative. So do the Democrats. FOX News, CNN, Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, PETA, the NRA, ISIS, Walmart, Apple, Microsoft, Greenpeace, charity: water, the Red Cross—every single one of these organizations has a story they tell themselves, a lens through which they see the rest of the world.

So does the company you work for. So does your insurance agency. So does the mom-and-pop store down the road. So does the guy who wrote the blog you’re reading. So do your neighbors, your friends, your enemies—so does everyone, all across the world.

And yes, so do you.

What’s your story?

* * *

Identifying our narrative is tricky business. We don’t mentally file it under a folder called “The Story I Tell Myself About How the World Works.” We file it instead in a folder called “How the World Works.” And when someone challenges that story—when someone tells us we’re wrong, that we’re not seeing things correctly—we bristle, open up our folder, and we say, “No, you’re wrong. This is how it works.”

As if it’s the gospel truth. As if the story we tell ourselves is flawless, bulletproof, unassailable. Because to us, it’s not a story. It’s reality—not to be challenged, not to be questioned.

That was Saul’s problem. Saul was never wrong, even when God told him he was. He had reasons for performing the offering—the people were leaving, the Philistines were coming, Samuel was late. He had a reason for not utterly destroying Amalek—the people wanted to offer the best of the plunder to God. He could always justify his disobedience, because within his narrative, what he was doing always made sense.

He couldn’t see that his narrative was setting him at odds with his Creator. He couldn’t see that his narrative was the very thing causing him to lose his grip on his kingdom. He couldn’t accept that maybe, just maybe, he was looking at the world the wrong way.

Can you?

* * *

God replaced Saul with David, “a man after My own heart, who will do all My will” (Acts 13:22). On the surface, that’s a curious accolade, since even a precursory reading of David’s story reveals his own share of serious missteps. Like Saul, David made some terrible decisions that cost him dearly—and yet it’s in the middle of David’s darkest moment that we see what set him apart from Saul.

The story of David and Bathsheba hardly needs an introduction. The whole grizzly affair is laid bare in 1 Kings 11:1-12:23, where we can watch on as David commits sin after unspeakable sin. He covets his neighbor’s wife. He commits adultery with her. He tries to cover up the resulting pregnancy, and when that fails, he has her husband sent to an untimely death on the battlefield. And those are just the moments we know about! The whole story plays out over the course of many months—who knows what other sins David committed in that time?

Like Saul, David had a narrative. Judging by his actions, that narrative seems to have been, “I am king; I have the right.”

Not terribly different than the narrative that kept getting Saul into trouble, if we’re being honest—and yet we never see Saul called a man after God’s own heart. Why is that?

David’s sins took him down a dark and terrifying road, twisting his conscience until he was numb to his own increasingly heartless decisions. Then God sends Nathan the prophet, and we see what sets David apart. Nathan tells David the story of a heartless rich man who robs a poor man of his only lamb—a lamb who “ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him” (2 Samuel 12:3). The reason for the theft? Because the rich man didn’t feel like eating a lamb from his own sizeable flock (2 Samuel 12:4).

David was incensed. He immediately saw the cruelty and injustice of the situation and pronounced judgment, sentencing the rich man to death.

Nathan replied with four words:

“You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7).

Suddenly, it wasn’t a story about sheep anymore. It was a story about a heartless king who had greedily taken what didn’t belong to him, who lied and killed just to get what he wanted. For the first time in a long time, David was forced to look in a mirror, and the reflection he saw was something wicked and hideous.

In that moment, David had a choice. It was same choice Saul had to make when Samuel confronted him—and in many ways, it’s a choice you and I have to make on a fairly regular basis:

David had to choose whether or not he’d allow God to correct his narrative.

* * *

That’s harder than it sounds. For David, for Saul, and for all of us, the easiest option is ignoring the correction. Reasoning it away. Shrugging it off. Explaining why it doesn’t apply to us in this specific instance. Opening up our folder of “How the World Works” and arguing that it’s just the way things are. That’s what Saul did. Sometimes, it’s what we do too, if we’re willing to admit it.

The thing that sets David apart from Saul—the thing that makes him a man after God’s own heart—was his willingness to change his narrative. To accept the blame and look at things through God’s perspective. Nathan came to David with a searing rebuke from God (2 Samuel 12:7-12), and look at David’s response:

“I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13).

No excuses. No justifications. No bartering. God was showing David a clearer picture of himself, and David responded with repentance. When we look at the psalm he wrote afterward, it’s clear just how deep that repentance went:

Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.

(Psalm 51:1-3)

* * *

What about us?

That’s always the question, isn’t it? When we’re talking about Saul and David, we’re talking about the stories of other people—other people who have been dead for millennia. None of this matters unless we’re willing to take the lessons preserved through the stories of their lives and apply them to our own.

How unassailable is your narrative? I’m not asking if you think it’s true or not. Of course you think it’s true. We all think our individual narratives are true, or else they wouldn’t be our narratives. The question isn’t, “Do you believe it?” but, “Are you willing to be shown where you’re wrong?”

Because I can almost guarantee that none of us have all the answers in our “How the World Works” folder. I can almost guarantee that all of us have missing pages or incorrect information in the stories we tell ourselves. It’s part of being human—we infer, we misinterpret, we misunderstand, we assume, and then we take those inferences and misinterpretations and misunderstandings and assumptions and we integrate them into how we live our lives.

In this life, I doubt any of us will have to face the challenges Saul and David had to face at the scale they had to face them. We’re not kings. We don’t have that kind of power or that kind of responsibility. But we are going to face moments of correction. We are going to have to decide what to do when God sends someone or some event to tell us, “You’re wrong, and you’re looking at this wrong.”

What happens then?

We can respond with either the self-justification of Saul or the humility of David—but what determines which path we’ll take?

* * *

The Bible has a lot of pointed things to say about fools and foolishness. They are, to summarize, not positive. The book of Proverbs, for example, features a rather unflattering discourse on what to expect from fools:

A whip for the horse,
A bridle for the donkey,
And a rod for the fool’s back.
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.
He who sends a message by the hand of a fool
Cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.
Like the legs of the lame that hang limp
Is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Like one who binds a stone in a sling
Is he who gives honor to a fool.
Like a thorn that goes into the hand of a drunkard
Is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
The great God who formed everything
Gives the fool his hire and the transgressor his wages.
As a dog returns to his own vomit,
So a fool repeats his folly.

(Proverbs 26:3-11)

But it would be a mistake to stop there. Solomon’s main focus with the passage wasn’t fools, but something else entirely. He concludes:

Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.

(Proverbs 26:12)

Sure, fools are a headache. Sure, they can be absolute nightmares who fill their lives and the lives of those around them with needless misfortune. But you know what’s worse?

Someone who’s wise in their own eyes. Someone who has all the answers. Someone who refuses to admit they could ever be wrong—whose personal folder on “How the World Works” is filled only with immutable, unquestionable truth.

A fool, says Solomon, is going to have an easier time making his way through life than a person like that.

* * *

James provides the antidote. When God forced Saul and David to confront their own flawed narratives, He essentially had them look at themselves in a mirror. James shows us how to access that same mirror:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.

(James 1:22-25)

The truth is, the only one with a perfect understanding of the world is God. The best way to deceive ourselves is to do what Saul did—to look in the mirror and then walk away; to hear and not do. We’ll quickly forget what kind of person we are and go back to telling ourselves the stories that sound good to us.

The best way to avoid that ditch is to do what David did—to look in the mirror and then keep on looking. When we hear God’s Word and engage with it on a regular basis, it’s going to change us. Transform us. When we’re willing to see who we are instead of what we want to see, God can work with us, mold us, and begin to show us where our narratives need some work.

As James says, that requires doing. David acted on what he was shown in God’s mirror, but Saul refused. Thousands of years later, we face the same choice.

Everyone has a narrative. More importantly, everyone has an imperfect narrative. They’re filled with flaws and holes and misconceptions that God is willing to help us fix—if we’re willing to let Him. The easiest and most effective way to do that isn’t to wait until God has to send a Samuel or Nathan with a wake-up call—it’s to dig into God’s Word, to study, and then to take what we’re shown and put it into practice. The more we do that, the more God will help us develop a better—and more accurate—narrative.

So… what’s your story?

Until next time,
Jeremy

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