Shattering Our Cherished Metanarratives

My life wasn’t supposed to look anything like it does today. It scarcely matters whether the category in view is blessings or curses, career choices, number of children I aspired to, what part of the country I thought I’d be living in, or anything else; the fact is that the life I am now living out in 2013 looks nothing at all like I imagined it back when I was young.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Not only has that phrase been true for me, but in fact, in the context of the ministry work that I do for The Crossing, I hear it all the time from others.

When I hear an individual giving voice to this sentiment – whether it’s me or anyone else – I imagine someone attempting to hot-weld his or her heart to a mirage; they are stubbornly trying to hang on to a “dream” that looks very different from reality. If you invest time and dig deep enough, it’s almost as if those of us who hold this sentiment somehow think that by holding onto an alternate version of reality in our hearts, we will wake up one day to magically find that the screenplay we wrote for our lives has, at last, finally been set into motion.

It sounds crazy when you say it like that, of course, but how else do we explain the sheer volume of people running around with “busted metanarratives?”

By “metanarrative,” I am referring to The Big Story that we compose and endlessly recite for ourselves, one that helps us make sense of all the smaller stories that make up the days, weeks, and years of our lives. Like it or not, we humans seem to have this hard-wired need to make sense of absolutely everything that happens to us. No one, not even someone who claims to be postmodern, can exist on the planet without some form of an operational metanarrative. (Even the most “devout postmodern” has to pay taxes and quite naturally attaches an overarching meaning to his girlfriend cheating on him.) Stories – both good and bad – get us up in the morning, keep us going throughout our day and help us stay sane.

Many of our problems – and most of mine – tend to spring forth from an unwillingness to surrender a cherished story we like to tell ourselves. One that I hear quite often is that this or that individual “is a good guy.” Despite everything the Bible has to say to us about the true condition of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9; Psalm 14:2-3; Psalm 53:3; John 2:24; Romans 3:10-12; etc.), we as a culture nevertheless tend to cling feverishly to the Narrative of the Good Guy. When we regularly find people behaving selfishly, deceitfully or maliciously, we are always surprised because, after all, “He’s such a good guy!” If you pause to think about various interviews with the former close friends and coworkers of a mass murderer in the wake of just about any violent tragedy, there undoubtedly will be multiple people who “can’t imagine” the person they thought they knew unleashing this kind of evil: “Gosh, he seemed like such a good guy…”

Beloved storylines die hard. After all, if The Good Guy does not in fact truly exist, then where do we go when the time comes for a hero?

As I write this, I am aware of at least three or four narratives that I find myself clinging to, none of which have had the decency to play themselves out in real life; they stubbornly refuse to validate even the smallest delusion that I am in control. Every now and then these stories will surface under the radar of my conscious awareness and send out reconnaissance teams to infiltrate my emotions and overall sense of well-being. Whether I am actively aware of it or not, these certifiably-false stories will begin to have an impact on my actual life as I respond to “actual life” out of my great desire for something to be true…which isn’t. I might subtly begin to respond to the person I wish I were dealing with…instead of the actual flesh-and-blood human being standing right in front of me.

This is where a love for Jesus makes the unfulfilled storyline phenomena interesting.

Jesus was wrecking everyone’s expectations constantly. For starters, the number of Jews in first-century Palestine who were eagerly anticipating a crucified Messiah numbered exactly zero. There was simply no category in which to place a Suffering Servant, though certainly all of the necessary clues were right there in Isaiah 53. Instead, blowing right by those verses emboldened the faithful to continue expecting that the Messiah would be a mighty political and military leader, just like King David. “We’ll all be able to tell when the true Messiah arrives because one of the first things He will do is toss all these awful Romans out of the Promised Land.”

In the 15-plus years that I have been a Christian, I have seen and experienced things that I could never, ever have predicted. Any number of events have caused me to step back from my own life, as it were, and seriously ponder how tightly I have been gripping an alternate version of my own life (and how little I actually believe the amazing promise of Romans 8:28). The ongoing tension between what God is clearly doing and what I had expected is less a series of events and more an ongoing, evolving reality. I want to say that confounding my expectations time and time again is a very good and merciful thing, and I am grateful that God feels entirely free to shake things up a bit. Who’s to say how ungodly my life would be were I to get the preferred story I had “written” in the innermost parts of my soul?

Wrecked storylines are not for the timid, certainly. Inviting Jesus into our hearts presupposes that He is going to “move the furniture around a bit,” and this He will do even – or perhaps especially – in the face of our personal opposition. Having wrestled with God over many life events myself, I can say is that it is far better for me to be walking with a limp (Genesis 32:22-32), and the most fulfilling stories are those that I have turned over to Him entirely.

I’d be lying if I said any of this was easy. It isn’t. But I’d encourage you to do it anyway. Hand your life over – your cherished story of who you think you are and how you thought life should go – to Jesus and watch Him reshape it.

It’s worth remembering, I think, that the Ultimate Busted Metanarrative – the joyous promise of new life we just finished celebrating, Easter Sunday – began with terror, tears, anger, shock, disbelief, and a bunch of grown men cowering behind locked doors like frightened little school girls (John 20:19). I’d be willing to bet that not one of them had that in their metanarrative two weeks earlier.

Matthew 16:21-23 (ESV)
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

John 6:66-69 (ESV)
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Dear Lord Jesus, even though my heart is still very much divided, I nevertheless want to thank You for smashing the various self-glorifying storylines that have been part and parcel of my life, right up to the present day. Thank You for overturning the tables that line the hallways of my pathetic fiefdom, for confounding those dreams and plans that were more about my own kingdom than Your glorious eternal one. I can’t pretend to be happy, in an existential manner of speaking, when I get my first look at the mess, and so I ask that You would continue to work in my heart by Your Spirit such that I could be assured that You are still at work, You are yet aware of every tear that falls, and that everything in my life is being orchestrated by the One who was setting a place for me at His table even as I lived my life as a committed enemy. I pray that You would continue Your agenda-smashing in my life, despite my objections, and that You would deny the ones I love any sense of calm or satisfaction apart from You. Do whatever You need to do, and please forgive my grumbling along the way. I’d like to say that I will never again complain about Your work, but I know my heart only too well. Have mercy on me, Lord, a great sinner in need of Your good discipline and priority-rearrangement. I ask these things in Your name. Amen.

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