This past fall, Luke and I joined a community group with five other couples from our church. Prior to joining the group, none of us knew each other and we had little in common, other than attending the same church each Sunday. To help us form quick connections, we began the process of sharing our life stories. Each Monday night, one husband and wife spent about 45 minutes each, telling about their lives from birth to the present.
There are many reasons for this exercise, but its primary purpose was to “microwave” our group together, heating up our relationships much more quickly than would have happened organically. And so, for the last several weeks, Luke and I spent our Monday nights camped out on the couch of our leaders’ living room, listening to the stories of men and women who, just months before, were total strangers.
These stories were far heavier than I could have imagined, encompassing events straight out of a gritty novel: addiction, abuse, neglect, mental illness, poverty, and even murder all made an appearance. Each group member was vulnerable and transparent, recounting hurts and secrets unknown to even the closest of friends.
Luke and I shared our personal stories too, and though the process was terrifying, it was cathartic—both in the preparation (which helped me work through much of my own past in ways I’d never done before) and the sharing. We even learned a few new things about each other, which I hadn’t expected after nine years together.
These weeks of stories were such an unexpected blessing. I got to know my new friends in ways that years of small talk and casual interaction could never have achieved. I am now able to understand the baggage and strengths each member is bringing to the group, and feel comforted knowing that they have a better understanding of me. By laying it all out on the table at the very beginning, I know that our group will be able to go so much deeper in our future time together, and I expect that God will use us in one another’s lives in some truly powerful and unique ways.
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Much to my amazement, the gift of this experience has extended beyond the boundaries of our group. Since having gone through this process with my fellow group members, I’ve begun looking at what I see of each person I meet as just a tiny glimpse of a much bigger story. I’m realizing—perhaps for the first time—that everyone around me has a past that is probably quite different from mine, a past that that I will probably never know or be able to fully understand.
This realization is so obvious, but it has transformed my approach to the people around me. I am more willing to extend grace to the rude stranger in the parking lot, the outspoken “friend” on Facebook, or even a politician whose views differ from mine, because I see them as the product of a past that is likely quite foreign to my own. I expect that if I were sitting in a living room, listening to this person’s story, I would be able to empathize or at least understand their actions and words; this scenario may not be possible, but just imagining such an encounter helps me to give them the benefit of the doubt.
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On the last night of our storytelling, the husband in the pair who had shared that evening wrapped up his story by apologizing for being such a mess. I literally laughed out loud when I heard this because, if nothing else, our storytelling exercise had reveled that we are ALL a big mess.
We are all in process; but we forget this fact, because we are so accustomed to viewing others’ stories—especially other Christians’ stories—through the lens of rosy retrospection. We (myself included!) wrap up our pasts with pretty bows that distract from the messiness of our present. But few of us have our act together, and the opportunity to be honest about our messiness in our group was as refreshing as it was foreign.
As we discussed our stories on that last night, our leader commented on how we were all victims of our pasts and our sin. Through Christ, our stories have been completely redeemed.
It’s tempting to stop there, reveling in God’s grace and our own redemption. But if we are open and willing, we can take it one step further: through our willingness to share God’s healing in our own stories, we can go on to deliver others from their victimhood, serving alongside our redeemer in His role of administering healing. From Victim to Redeemer to Deliverer—what a beautiful trajectory that God desires for every story!