Now hear me relate
My story, which perhaps thou hast not heard—
Inviting thee to hear while I relate,
Fond, were it not in hope of thy reply
––John Milton, Paradise Lost
“Life Story” is a tool for redeemed pilgrims on a life journey. Along the way, relationships have been formed and lost, experiences enjoyed and endured. Yet God has chosen to use some of these relationships and experiences to help bring you to where you are today. “Life Story” will help you reflect on and discern what some of those formative relationships and experiences have been and how God has used them to mold and shape you.
The “Life Story” process will help you understand your uniqueness in Christ. “Life Story” goes beyond generalizations to highlight specific details of your life. “Life Story” will allow you to see your identity as it has developed in the particular relationships and experiences of your life.
“Life Story” will also help you tell your story to fellow travelers in a way that is creative, personal, organized, and focused on God. This aspect of “Life Story” will provide mutual encouragement as you see evidence of God’s providence in your life. When you share your story, others will know and understand you in ways that draw you into a deeper experience of community. As you learn to share your life with others, you become a better member of a community.
Your responsibility in the “Life Story” process doesn’t end when you prepare and present your story. You’ll also hear others present their life stories, and you’ll need to talk back and forth with them about their histories. As group members begin to grasp and appreciate one another’s uniqueness, your community will grow in trust and authenticity.
This trust will lay the groundwork for deeper issues of character and holiness to surface. Trust is the community context that facilitates growth. (The Integrity study in this series addresses this kind of deeper growth.) Deeper intimacy will also draw affirmation from other group members about where you can serve others in the community. Gradually, you’ll minister to others with your unique, God-given gifts for the utmost glory of Christ. (The Ministry study in this series will help you in this area.)
Benefits of “Life Story” include:
- Awareness of God’s grace and providence
- Greater self-understanding
- Insight into how God works in different people’s lives
- Deeper relationships
- Unconditional love and acceptance
- Deeper healing through openness
- Recognition of negative strongholds
- God’s glory
Divide your life into logical time sequences from birth to the present. You can divide your life into as many as seven sections, but you may find that your life divides best into fewer sections. The table below provides room to brainstorm two different life division schemes. Use the numbered spaces to write division titles for each time sequence. You may choose to divide your life into time sequences based on age, periods of school and work, geographic locations, or other arrangements you find appropriate. These divisions mark the various chapters of your story.
Life Division Scheme 1
Life Division Scheme 2
Once you’ve brainstormed two division schemes, choose the one that best reflects the divisions of your life. You have now chosen the major sections that will provide the basic structure of your story. Transfer the division titles to the “Experiences and Relationships” worksheets on the following pages. Use one worksheet page for each life division title. (Leave any extra worksheet pages blank.) Don’t fill in your experiences and relationships yet, as you will do that when you complete Step B.
Experiences and Relationships
Life division title:
Before we were aware of God’s presence, He introduced people and events into our lives to draw us to Himself. However, we tend to believe that God didn’t start authoring our lives until we believed in Christ. The basis of “Life Story” is the principle that nothing in our lives has happened apart from Him. In fact, He begins chapter one of a person’s life story on the day of his or her conception (see Psalm 139:13-16).
How much of what God authors can we truly recognize? This question is legitimate because His plan for us is very broad. That which is not particularly striking to us now may prove to be very significant later in life, not to mention in eternity. And frankly, we often don’t know why God allows certain experiences. He is indeed mysterious. Nevertheless, we can see God’s hand at work. We are no different than the children of Israel, whom God admonished to remember Him and the works He performed on their behalf (see Exodus 13:3; Deuteronomy 4:9-14; 8:2; 15:15; Isaiah 46:9).
We should emulate David, who remembered God and His works (see Psalms 63:6-7; 77:11-12; 105:5; 143:5). David saw God’s authorship in his life. His psalms are living expressions of a man who saw his life—his story—in the light of a sovereign and involved God. He wrote,
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
David concluded, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). Like David, we must see that the experiences and relationships of our lives come from God’s hand and recognize and embrace the things God has done to bring us to where we are today.
You have already determined the chapter divisions of your story and transferred them to the “Experiences and Relationships” worksheets (pages 65-71). Think through the experiences and relationships that correspond to each life division, proceeding through this brainstorming process
slowly and methodically. As you do this exercise, you are finding an answer to the fundamental question “What key relationships and experiences have made up my life?” The following information on what we call the 4Hs (heritage, heroes, high points, hard times) will help you answer this question.
heritage: that which comes or belongs to one by reason of birth; an inherited lot or portion
God’s sovereignty is abundantly clear in the things you have through no achievement of your own. A sobering thought is that “he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:25-26). When, where, why, and to whom you were born is significant. The resulting economic status, ethnicity, values, traditions, skills, pleasures, and ways of functioning are important factors in your story. Particular events and relationships have contributed to your heritage and influenced who you are today.
Heritage involves the fundamental and seemingly ordinary elements of your life. The contents of this category rarely appear striking or extraordinary. Your heritage may contain elements you would write off as mundane, commonplace, or uneventful, but you may discover experiences and relationships of great significance. Some questions to ask as you think through this category are:
How have my parents or primary caregivers influenced me?
What was the general atmosphere in my home as I grew up?
How have my ethnicity and culture played an important role in my life?
What have my peer relationships been like over the years? Why?
How have geographical factors influenced me?
hero: a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal
Heroes are people who make a distinctly positive impression on your life through words or actions. They can be nearly anyone: a parent, relative, neighbor, teacher, friend, or coach. Heroes also can be people you have never met, such as political leaders or historical figures. Somehow, heroes touch you in life-changing ways.
Heroes can come into your life at any time. A hero may be a person from your heritage (such as your mom, dad, or friend), a person you associate with a high point in your life (such as a teacher, coach, camp counselor, or political figure), or a person who helped you in a hard time (such as a relative or even an author). Some questions to ask as you think through this category are:
- Who has influenced me for good? How did they specifically do so?
- After whom would I like to model my life? Why?
- Who inspires me? Why?
- Who has shaped my character or direction in life? How? Why?
high points: those periods or events that have a distinctly positive meaning in your life
High points are often the best and most fulfilling seasons or experiences of your life. These times might include winning a district championship, making the honor roll, receiving an award, going on a vacation, visiting a long-distance friend, having a year of peace in the home, enjoying two years at a great job, or getting married. Some questions to ask as you think through this category are:
- What accomplishments have brought me fulfillment or special recognition? How? Why?
- What events or people have brought me great joy?
- At what points in my life did I feel particularly good about life? Why?
- When have I made my greatest contributions to life or others? How?
hard times: those seasons of life or relationships that have been particularly difficult or painful
Hard times might include divorce, the loss of a friend or relative, struggle with an addiction, times of abuse, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, a broken engagement, an injury or sickness, a period of loneliness, or a time of great pressure and anxiety. Some questions to ask as you think through this category are:
- What incidents in my life are hard to talk about with others? Why?
- Who or what has been a source of pain in my life? When? Why?
- Toward whom do I harbor anger or bitterness? Whom do I struggle to forgive? Why?
- What has brought me great disappointment? Why?
- Through what injustices have I had to suffer?
- To what addictions or abuse have I been exposed either in my own life or in the lives of others?
General Questions. These additional questions will further stimulate your brainstorming. Feel free to use your own questions as well. Remember, this story is your life story, and God has used many different means to bring you to where you are today.
- Who are the memorable people from your past? Why are they so?
- What have been the most influential experiences in your life?
- What life dreams have you had in your past?
- When you think of your parents, what memories come to mind?
- What do you remember about where you grew up?
- What are significant questions with which you have wrestled in your lifetime? What experiences triggered the questions?
Write down all your thoughts on the “Experiences and Relationships” worksheets (pages 65-71). The brainstorming and recording will take some time. You will probably find the greatest success by brainstorming at several different times during the week. Experiences and relationships may come to mind when you’re least expecting it, so be ready to write them down. As you look back over the years of your life, pray that the Lord will help you remember the key elements that highlight God’s authorship in your life.
Spiritual Discipline Exercise—Thanksgiving
Set aside some time to spend expressing thanksgiving to God for the ways in which He has authored your life. Read back through your list of experiences and relationships to recall that for which you are thankful. You also may express your thanksgiving by contacting persons from your past and telling them how God has used them in your life.
You can most easily recognize God’s authorship through the formative experiences and relationships He has brought into your life. Formative experiences and relationships are those that have molded and shaped you. Your task now is to discern what the most formative elements are from your “Experiences and Relationships” worksheets.
First, transfer the division titles to the “Life Story Chapters” worksheets beginning on page 86. Then, distinguish those experiences and relationships that have had lasting effects from those that came and went. Many parts of life have been fun and even memorable, but you must focus on those that have been formative (affected you significantly). Transfer only your formative experiences and relationships to the appropriate spots on your “Life Story Chapters” worksheets.
Next, you will categorize each formative experience or relationship. The following three sections define the labels you will be using. It would be helpful to read all three sections before beginning the labeling process.
Recognizing Meaning and Purpose in Your Story
For each formative experience or relationship, use the following questions to try to determine the meaning and purpose behind each one:
How has the experience or relationship shaped me (my attitudes, perspectives, habits, or values)?
What primary lesson have I retained from the experience or
- How did the experience or relationship affect my view of God? My view of people?
- Why did God bring it into my life?
- Where has it led me?
- What consequences—good or bad—came from it?
Write MP (Meaning and Purpose) beside any formative experiences and relationships for which you understand the significant meanings and purposes for your story. Jot down a note to help you remember the meaning and purpose you currently attach to the experience or relationship. Keep in mind, though, that certain formative experiences or relationships may not lend themselves to reasonable explanations of why God brought them into your life. You may have great difficulty discerning the meaning and purpose behind certain events. The following section addresses this issue.
Recognizing Faith Points in Your Story
Working through the “Life Story” process is an exercise of faith. You need faith at several levels. First, you need faith to say that God’s work in your life has an overarching plot and that He wants you to reflect on it and grow in appreciating His providence. You need to believe the time invested in prayer, reflection, and writing is well worth the discoveries you will make.
You also need faith to move on with your story when you don’t understand various elements in the plots. You may not be able to discern the meaning and purpose of some formative experiences and relationships. This difficulty is okay. Those experiences and relationships are “faith points.” Though you cannot discern their meaning now, you choose to move on in faith, believing that God’s sovereign work is trustworthy and His nature is good. Because you are looking at stories not yet complete, the faith points may eventually make sense as your story unfolds. Marshall Shelley, editor of Leadership magazine, said the following about God’s authorship in his life after he lost two children:
Even as a child, I loved to read, and I quickly learned that I would most likely be confused during the opening chapters of a novel. New characters were introduced. Disparate, seemingly random events took place. Subplots were complicated and didn’t seem to make any sense in relation to the main plot. But I learned to keep reading. Why? Because you know that the author, if he or she is good, will weave them all together by the end of the book. Eventually each element will be meaningful.
Eugene Peterson offers a similar reflection:
I’m living in a plot with characters, and all the stuff connects in some way or another. What happens today—even though I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense—is going to make sense thirty chapters down the road.
Your faith points may gain clarity in meaning and purpose as you patiently live out your story. However, some experiences and relationships may remain faith points throughout life. You may have to carry certain injustices, tragedies, and pains in faith forever without explanation. Although you may recognize some good from them, link certain outcomes in life to them, or find that ministry stems from them, the events may always be unanswered mysteries under God’s sovereignty.
The life of Job provides an example. Job lost all of his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, servants, and children (see Job 1:13-19). This tremendous tragedy was obviously a faith point in Job’s life. In the following forty-one chapters, Job never found an answer for “all the trouble the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). Why did God allow this tragedy to happen? Job didn’t know. What Job took away from this experience was that he didn’t have to ascribe purpose to it. From this formative experience, he walked away in humble faith. God did bless him twofold for all he lost, but this blessing was in no way the meaning for the loss. Yes, good came from the experience, but the experience remained a tragic evil that rested in the mystery of God. You may rather not admit this reality, but you may find that some events fall into this category in your own life.
Where you cannot find meaning and purpose, you must find faith! Write FP (Faith Point) beside any formative experiences and relationships that are faith points for you. At this time in the exercise, each of your formative experiences and relationships should be labeled either MP or FP.
Recognizing God’s Faithfulness in Your Story
As you evaluate the experiences and relationships of your life, God’s faithfulness should be more than evident. You need to recognize the events that demonstrate God’s faithfulness and set them up as pillars for further reflection in the future. After the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land, God instructed them to set up a heap of stones from the river as a memorial for their descendants forever (see Joshua 4). You should set up the distinct events of your past that demonstrate God’s faithfulness as memorials for you, your children, and others. These memorials may serve as anchors for your faith in the future.
Write STONE (memorial Stone) beside any formative experiences and relationships that serve as memorials to God’s faithfulness. This word STONE is in addition to the label of MP or FP that you have already given each formative experience and relationship.
Once you have determined the formative experiences and relationships in your life, reflect on what you have learned from them about God and yourself. As you pray and meditate on each formative event, ask yourself the following questions:
1. As the Author of my life, what has God revealed about Himself through this relationship or experience?
- His attributes
- His character
- His works
2. What has God revealed about me, the main character of my life, through this relationship or experience?
- My temperament
- My strengths
- My weaknesses
- My values
Use the answers that come to mind to fill in the “What I learn about God” and “What I learn about myself” sections of your “Life Story Chapters” worksheets (pages 86-92).
Spiritual Discipline Exercise—Meditation
Spend some time reflecting on and looking up Bible verses that have had a significant influence on your life. Meditate on those verses and how God has used them to shape your view of Him, yourself, and the world. Note the verses and any thoughts about them below.
Now that you have gained significant understanding of the elements of your story as well as insight into God and yourself, ask yourself, How do the different parts of my life relate to one another? As you think of how various people, events, and lessons relate, you will discover the themes of your life story. In a work of literature, the theme is what the author seeks to communicate. The theme answers the question “What is this story about?”
After considerable reflection, write down several themes that emerge from your life on the “Themes” worksheet on page 93. Identifying themes will help you effectively evaluate and articulate your story.
Spiritual Discipline Exercise—Evangelism
Pray for and commit to sharing your life themes with at least one friend who isn’t a Christian. As you share your themes, be attentive to opportunities to explain the gospel of Christ to him or her. Use the space below to write down the name of at least one nonbeliever with whom you will commit to sharing your life themes.
Based on what you have uncovered thus far, create chapter titles for each of the chapters of your story. You already have life division titles that explain each division straightforwardly (“College Years,” for example), but the chapter titles capture the flow and meaning of your story (“Out of the Nest,” for instance). Chapter titles are more descriptive. Be creative, and if you have a predominant metaphor, connect the titles to your metaphor. For example, if your metaphor is one of a journey, you might label your chapters “Preparation,” “Setting Out,” and “Encountering Obstacles.” Write your chapter titles on the “Life Story Chapters” worksheets beginning on the next page.
Life Story Chapters
Life division title:
My formative experiences and relationships during this time:
You will now plan how to creatively communicate your life story by using images to help the listeners see and understand it. One way to use images is to look for a dominant metaphor. A metaphor is an image used to make a comparison for descriptive purposes. You could describe your life as a hike up a barren mountain. You could describe yourself as a student always struggling to win an A+ grade. You could say you spent the first half of your life falling deeper into a spiritual sickness and the second half getting progressively well. These are all metaphors.
Your themes and chapter titles may suggest a metaphor. For instance, one of your themes may be “Pursuing confidence through recognition from authority figures.” A possible metaphor that emerges from that theme is “A student driven to get an A+.” Note that this picture of a student diligently studying for the top grade could also be a metaphor for a theme of “Seeking popularity at all costs” or “Doing whatever it takes to obtain wealth.”
The connection between metaphor and theme is very important. The metaphor communicates the theme vividly with a strong mental picture. So if your life naturally surfaces a metaphor that communicates its major themes, then develop and use the metaphor. However, your goal is not to come up with a dazzling metaphor; your goal is to communicate your story effectively.
Some people find it extremely hard to encapsulate their lives within a single metaphor. If you have this difficulty, look instead for illustrative material. Think through images from the world of sports, literature, mechanics, the arts, or nature. Consider using drawings, personal photographs, magazine cutouts, computer graphics, and even old video clips or family movies to animate your story. You might choose to include music or poetry to enhance your story.
For example, one could use a briefcase filled with various contents as an illustrative way to tell the story. Someone else may use his skill in painting watercolors to present his story to the group. Another person may make a collage or a photograph album. Be creative, but remain concise. You have a limited amount of time to present your story to the group. This time will pass quickly.
As you work on the creative expression of your story, keep these questions in mind:
- Can I present my story within the allotted time?
- Do my chapter titles reflect the content of each life division? Can I explain why I chose the titles I did?
- Can I make a clear connection from chapter to chapter? Does my story flow?
- How does the metaphor and/or illustrative material enhance my message?
By the end of this step, you should have a clear and tangible presentation of your life story in hand. You will tell your own story as God has authored it, so tell it honestly and tell it well.