We begin by thinking we are the authors and heroes of our stories. We give ourselves a starring role. We start with plans, aspirations and expectations: studies, marriage, children, career. Perhaps our dreams have the appearance of selflessness: ministry, mission, service. But still we are the heroes, preferably sung rather than unsung. Our families flourish. Our ministries are fruitful. Our plans succeed.
And then they don’t. Earlier this year, I was at the hospital – again – with my chronically ill son. We walked past the room where my husband had chemotherapy two years ago. Sometimes I wonder if I imagined that chemotherapy has a smell, and then I walk down that corridor and realise, nope, it wasn’t just in my mind. It’s a chemical smell that sticks to the back of your throat and lingers in your nasal passages. One sniff, and I was swallowed up by memories: weeks of sitting by Steve’s hospital bed, and months of watching him endure chemotherapy. We’re now in that nervous waiting stage where we don’t know whether the cancer will return. In a few weeks, we’ll get the results of another scan. You learn not to dwell on it; but the awareness is always there, like something flickering at the edge of your sight. This has become my story; a very different story from the one I would have written for myself.
Life refuses to shape itself to the neat narratives we write for it. When you’re young, you lay your plans: you’ll study this course, get that job, marry, have this many kids, do these ministries. At some point you realise life isn’t turning out the way you thought it would. Sometimes, as in my case, this might be because life takes an unexpected turn – our son’s chronic ill health, my husband’s cancer – but often it’s simply because we’ve reached a certain age and our hopes haven’t been realised (aka: the midlife crisis). This can lead to grief and fear. But it’s also an opportunity to learn something we should have known already: that we’re not the author of our stories; God is. He is the one who ordains every one of our days (Psalm 139:16 cf. Prov 16:9).
God is the author of my story. And he’s a far better author than I could ever be. I wouldn’t have written so much hardship into the recent pages of our life. But as I look back, I’m surprised to realise that, in some ways, the suffering is the part I’m most grateful for. It’s helped me see just how weak I am, and driven me to rely on God’s strength. It’s chased me into his arms, and deepened my knowledge of him. It compels me to set my hope on eternity rather than this life, and moves me to comfort others with the comfort I’ve received (2 Cor 1:3-7). I don’t fear the future like I used to, because God has been with me in the darkest times. I have tested him, and he has proved true. His faithfulness seems tangible to me now, solid rock under my feet. My faith is more stable, my joy more intense, and Jesus more precious. No one would ask for it – the grief, pain and fear – but in God’s mercy I have gained more than I have lost.
Of course, this perspective is only possible at one of those pauses in the story when you stop and reflect on what is past. On the darker pages that perspective is lost. There was one morning – I don’t like to remember it – when I woke out of a deep sleep to gut-wrenching tears and faced fully, perhaps for the first time, what all this might mean: my husband gone and four children to bring up on my own. On that day going on seemed too hard, because I don’t want to live this story – who would? Yet I know that, however dark these pages – however hard it is to see now – the day will come when I will see and understand. For the author of this story is a master story-teller, and no sentence is wasted. He crafts every paragraph with care and precision. I may be bruised and battered and broken – sometimes I wonder if I will make it at all – but he turns my weakness into strength and my brokenness into blessing. This story may pass through darkness, yet in his hands, I know it will end in joy.
Better than that, this author hasn’t stayed outside the story, an omniscient, removed narrator; he has become a character on its pages. He knows what it is to cry out in the dark, and he is the one who overcomes the darkness. For in the end, this isn’t my story at all. Not only am I not the author of my story, I’m not the hero either. My part in this narrative serves to do one thing: highlight and direct attention to Jesus. He is the hero of this story, not me. My story is a tiny part of a much bigger one, the story of God making and winning a people for himself, from the creation of the first quark, to the crisis of the cross, to the climax when everything is brought under the kingship of the Son (1 Cor 15: 22-28; Eph 1:3-10; Col 1:15-20).
So forget me being the author of my story. The real Author is far more skilled than I am. Forget me being the hero of my story. Jesus is front and centre on all its pages. Forget this being my story. It’s God’s story, and it’s moving towards the glory of his Son. We’re all caught up in a bigger story, you and I, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Image: Manuscript of David Copperfield, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.