The Stories We Live By

Leading up to our wedding, my wife and I participated in pre-marital counseling with our officiant, a former theology professor of mine who has mentored me over the years. She encouraged us to ask ourselves a question in moments of conflict when emotions run high. “What story am I hearing in her words (or tone, body language, etc.)?” Then, we risk vulnerability by voicing that story: “The story I’m telling myself right now is _____.” The other person has a chance to respond, clarify or rephrase. Oftentimes, when I feel hurt during conflict, it is because of the messages I’m playing in my mind. Those messages may be triggered by something she says or does, but they do not always reflect the truth about what she’s saying or doing. When I take a breath and listen for the story underneath my feelings, and when I share what I hear with my wife, I am better able to evaluate whether or not that story is true. Remembering the true story opens up space for us to move forward in greater alignment with our values.

The stories we tell ourselves are the stories we live by. As meaning-making beings, our narrative constructions of the world help us make sense of what we see and experience; they also shape our vision for the future. Every person is living out of and into a story whether they realize it or not. We may not be aware of the stories that shape us, but they shape us nonetheless. My thinking about guiding narratives has been influenced by Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton’s work on worldviews. In their book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View, Walsh and Middleton link the ways in which we perceive the world with the ways in which we live in the world: “World views are best understood as we see them incarnated, fleshed out in actual ways of life. They are not systems of thought, like theologies or philosophies. Rather, world views are perceptual frameworks. They are ways of seeing” (17). What we see is filtered through our perceptual lenses and shaped to fit the narratives at work in our lives. In other words, we’re constantly making sense of information, our experiences, and other input by fitting them into the story (worldview) we’re telling ourselves.


After Jesus fed the four thousand, the Pharisees came to him demanding a sign from heaven, probably to test his authority. Jesus responded, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12). As readers, we may find the Pharisees’ request ridiculous – Isn’t it obvious that a sign had just been given in the feeding of the four thousand? Just after this scene, the disciples started worrying about what they were going to eat because they only had one loaf of bread among them, and Jesus “cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod’” (Mark 8:15). The disciples completely miss the point: they think Jesus is warning them about literal bread. When Jesus hears them, he says, “‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’” (Mark 8:16-21). The gospel writer sets these three scenes – the feeding, the demand for a sign, and the disciples failure to see – side by side in such a way that begs the reader to truly see who Jesus is, and what God is up to in and through him. Both the Pharisees and the disciples have witnessed Jesus’ miraculous works, but neither have understood the truth about Jesus and God’s kingdom because their narrative constructions do not allow them to understand the story unfolding before their eyes. They have no way to make sense of what they’ve witnessed within their current worldview – they do not see.

The perceptual failure of the Pharisees and disciples makes sense. “Humans are creatures of vision. This does not mean simply that we have eyes. Animals have eyes. Rather, it means that we are creatures who live our lives in terms of our perspective, our vision of life… Humans make life choices, and they make them in terms of their way of looking at things” (Walsh & Middleton 31). Every person and group that encounters Jesus in the gospels responds in ways consistent with their guiding narratives. Their worldview “stipulates how the world ought to be, and it thus advises how [they] ought to conduct themselves in the world” (Walsh & Middleton 32). Jesus did not fit into the story of God’s Messiah and God’s kingdom they understood. The Pharisees and other religious leaders chose the path of eliminating this narrative dissonance. The disciples, however, entered into a worldview crisis and ended up shedding the story they held to be true in order to enter the story into which Jesus so patiently and persistently invited them.

We all live by stories, by worldviews that shape the way we see what we encounter in life. How aware are we of what those stories are? If we say, “I’m shaped by the biblical story,” what do we mean? There are about a million ways of making sense of what we find in the pages of the bible. Can we get more specific? What other stories shape how we understand the biblical story? For example, how does the “American dream” story influence our perception of the world and the lives we live in it? How might that cultural story be serving as a lens through which we understand the biblical story?

In upcoming posts, I’ll be unpacking this idea of guiding narratives/worldview, and I invite you to join in the conversation. It’s my hope that I’m growing in awareness of my own narrative constructions so that I might continually ask, “Is the story I’m telling myself true?”

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