The stories we tell

*This is post is based on a sermon I preached a few months ago. To hear that sermon in its original form go here (itunes) or here (church website – see sermon titled “Heart”)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? -Jeremiah 17:9

This verse can be difficult for a person to accept. Especially in this day and age. We live at a time when our emotions are often valued over our thoughts. Some even argue that our emotions are more real than our thoughts. It seems that this emphasis has caused us to become unable to distinguish between our emotions and thoughts. As a result we hear people say, “I feel this is wrong.”  No, you think it is wrong.  But we don’t know the difference any longer.  Feelings dominate and shape our reality.

Given the emphasis on our emotions (heart) it is no wonder that this verse from Jeremiah is troubling. Perhaps the most unsettling consequence of this verse is how it undermines our reality. If we let our emotions shape our experience, but if our emotions can’t be trusted, then is our reality real?  Here’s a simpler way to say this: “Is what I am feeling appropriate to what is really happening?  Or is my heart deceiving me to feel something that I don’t need to feel?”

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  I often call my wife in the middle of day.  Sometimes I need to speak to her about something, but sometimes I am just calling to check in.  Of course there are times when I call that she does not pick up.  Both of us keep our phones on vibrate nearly all the time so it should be no surprise that she doesn’t always hear/feel the call.  When she doesn’t pick up the phone the first time I call I don’t think anything of it.  But, when I call a second, or heaven forbid a third time, and she doesn’t pick up, well….now she doesn’t respect me!  She never considers my feelings or what I may need.  I feel this deeply.  But should I?  No.  There are a thousand things that could be keeping her from the phone.  She could be in a store and doesn’t hear it, she could be in the other room playing with our son, she could be outside, or she could be taking a nap.  But my heart, my emotions tell a very different story…loudly.

We all do this.  In their book Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, et al. outline three stories we typically tell ourselves.  These are victim stories, villian stories, and helpless stories.

Victim Stories

These stories are framed in such a way that we come across looking like innocent sufferers.  We completely ignore the role we played in the situation and place all the blame for why something happened the way it did on the other person.  So our motives are pure, well-intentioned, noble, and altruistic but because of the system or other person involved, we suffered.  So it might sound something like this, “I was just trying to make it the best it could possibly be, but they didn’t think it was important,” or “They just don’t value excellence.”  These two statements are intended to make your actions seem honorable and the other person to look like someone victimizing you.

Villain Stories

Villain stories are told by turning a normal, decent person into an evil mastermind.  All of their actions stem from a motive devoted to doing ill to others.  So a boss who is committed to excellence is seen as micro-manager.  A spouse is seen as inflexible and stubborn because they want things done a certain way.  The story I told above of my wife not picking up the phone was an example of a villain story.  She doesn’t respect me is a villain story.

It is important to note the difference between the victim and the villain story since they are so similar.  The victim story exaggerates our innocence.  The villain story exaggerates the other person’s guilt.

The real danger in the villain story is how it dehumanizes the other person.  If I label them a bonehead, a jerk, or whatever else I come up with it becomes easier to abuse them.  No longer do I have to treat them as a person, but I can talk about them with whomever I want as I am protecting people from the harm they may cause in the future.

Helpless story

Helpless stories create a narrative where we are powerless to do anything.  We believe there is nothing we can do to change the situation or person.  This enables us to do what we have been doing, or to do nothing at all.

All of these stories may be based on some fact.  Take the story of me trying to call my wife.  The story was based on fact.  I called and she did not answer.  But the interpretation, the story, that came from those facts is what was false.  My heart deceived me.

The True Story

As Christians this is an important idea.  It is so easy to be taken by the stories of our hearts and defined by them rather than being defined by the true story.  It is the story of God who comes when we least deserved it.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  When we least deserved it Christ on our behalf.  Through the cross of Christ, through the resurrection and the empty tomb God redeems us and calls us sons and daughters.  So when the stories of our hearts creep to our consciousness and begin to define us and our actions remember, this is not who you are!  You are a redeemed son!  A chosen daughter!

Christ choose you.

Christ did not choose you to be a victim.

He did not chose you to be a villain.

Jesus did not choose your brother or sister to be a villain either.

You are not helpless, but you are a co-creator with God.  Called to live out heaven on earth.

So here’s the question: Which story dominates your life?  What story does your heart truly believe?  Which story informs your actions?

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5 thoughts on “The stories we tell

  1. Thanks Nate for this powerful reminder. Under stress I tend to tell the villain stories. And in those moments, as you note, I absolutely trust my feelings. Thank you for calling me again to the discipline of distinguishing my thoughts from my feelings so that I can get to the True Story.

  2. Hey Nate! This is a wonderful piece. Dallas Willard says that feelings make wonderful servants, but terrible masters. I am going to address this idea (the stories we tell ourselves) next Sunday. Thank you for the help.

    Also, I find it helpful to separate the “heart” from “feelings” I think that is where some of our cultural confusion comes in. The “Heart” is the center of our will (not our feelings or emotions), where choice resides. I think this is the biblical understanding.

    • Thanks John! I like the Willard quote. I think that succinctly highlights my experiences and learnings. I also agree that there is some cultural misunderstanding regarding the overlap of our heart and our feelings. This may be worth drawing out. For me, when Jesus says, “Out of the heart come our actions” (Matthew 15:16-20) there is a strong connection to this idea of stories. The stories are shaped by our emotions/feelings and those drive our actions. That’s where I saw the connection.

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