I’ve written about the church’s uneasy relationship with art and spoken before of how story impacts my Christianity, but I’ve been thinking lately about how the many in the church have an uneasy relationship with story. Which is ironic considering that a good chunk of the basis of our faith is rooted in lessons provided by a collection of stories.

Our imagination is an amazing gift. Our ability to conceive ideas and construct stories is beautiful. It joins us to our Creator and is part of what makes us human. Its dark side, however, is that it can be used as a destructive device that can distort reality and is why so many inherently trust any sort of metanarrative. Story is a powerful thing, rife with potential, and because we were created in God’s image, we want to write our own stories.

I write by outline. When I’m plotting out a novel, there’s a story I know I want to tell. So I can spend pages creating characters, laying out plot points, describing different scenes, jotting down snippets of dialogue to capture each character’s voice, and generally plotting out the overall story. But I leave the end of the outline, the climax of the story, open. If my characters are real, they aren’t always going to cooperate with the story I have in mind. If they were created as living, breathing, fully fleshed out characters, they have freedoms and will make choices. They have their own story to tell and I need to give them room to allow them to write it themselves. If I impose my plot at the expense of their character arcs, the story I’m writing will ring hollow. I am not being true to them or the narrative.

I wonder if this is how God operates?

Stories can sometimes be painful and take dark and unexpected turns. When situations, crisis moments, rise up, we want to impose out plots on them. As a church, we can get tempted into wanting to write our own stories, trying to create “look what God did” tales—wrapping things up in time for our Thanksgiving service or next sermon series—that we overlook the people involved and the story HE’s writing. Stories proceed at their own pace, moving along their own timeline. Sometimes when faced with a painful or overwhelming story, we want to get to the end quickly (sometimes any ending), not allowing time or any sort of narrative process to unfold, simply to get over it and feel better. Trying to manage the story rather than being true to the story and characters.

I had a story once where the words were coming easy, the characters fully imagined in my head, and then I tried to force a story onto them. Instead of dealing with the characters in front of me, as they were, I moved the story at the expense of them and their needs. Shocker of all shocks, the characters quit cooperating with me. It was like they opted out of the story. So I had to scrap the story I was trying to do and start over.

We also have a way of trapping people in stories, not just as a people, or as a church, but also as individuals. We are quick to label people—“that’s the crazy one”, “that’s the drama queen”, “that’s the villain”—defining them into roles that they aren’t free to grow out of. Similarly, we can sometimes do the same damage to ourselves when we believe lies about ourselves.

Similarly to losing focus of the characters, we can lose focus of the story and end up forcing stories, locked into the endings we want. We end up trying to salvage a story:

-if we can just get this person saved
-if we can just get these people to reconcile
-if we can just change this person’s thinking or way of life

All good ends, but mixed in with an inherent hubris: as if we’re the author’s of those stories. What it reveals is that we don’t trust narrative. or the Ultimate Author. Our need to control locks us into creating “an opportunity for a miracle” (you know how we like to give God a helping hand with the situations we encounter), wanting to have a good “look what God did” story to tell, as if we need to provide Him crib notes to help the story along.

But God doesn’t have writer’s block.

As much as we would wish or act like it is, life isn’t a choose your own adventure story. Stories happen on God’s script and on His time table. As such, narratives are uncertain and should be prayerfully written. Narratives aren’t safe and require faith in an ultimate Author and asks us to surrender our narrative to Him and the story He wants to write. Our stories are ones of continued surrender.

We need to encounter each other as stories, bumping up against and connecting to others as fellow participants and co-authors of a story of reconciliation and healing. Pain and suffering is our universal language, our great uniter. Our collective sin, our response to that sin, requires that we walk through the pain of a fallen world with a willingness to enter into one another’s paralyzing situations.

The story isn’t that we sin and God forgives, but that we’re children of God’s, co-heirs with Jesus, called to a life of joy. We are to make His life our own, transforming us, sometimes through the refining fire of pain, to look like Him, as children come to resemble their parents. That’s the story we find ourselves in.