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What to do with “wrongs suffered”

Stove Pain versus Bicycle Pain

If a child touches a hot stove and burns his hand, he learns not to touch the stove again. That’s simple wisdom, right? But what would happen if children took the same lesson from every conflict?

The first time they fell while trying to learn to walk would be the last time they ever let go of the coffee table. What if we let pain teach us to never again touch a bicycle or a musical instrument or a romantic relationship? What if we let trauma keep us from developing passions and skills and experiencing life to its fullest?

The stove lesson works for the stove, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all response to hardship. We can’t learn to interpret the slightest hint of conflict—pain, suffering, setbacks, resistance—as a message from God or common sense telling us to stop and turn around. If we want to tell great stories — or have a great story to tell — we have to understand the difference between stove pain and bicycle pain.

Of course stove pain signals us to stay away — there is no benefit that awaits us beyond the recklessness of touching searing metal. But bicycle pain is different. If we’re willing to endure the fear, anxiety, wobbliness, and scrapes, a whole new world will open up to us. Learning to ride a bike is, as I recall, pure conflict. But for those who push through, the ability to ride is pure possibility.

The Contribution of Wrongs

When we face the pain of a stove or a bicycle (metaphorically or literally), what do we do with it? Where do we go when conflict abounds? The answer, at least as far as this article is concerned, is we must frame it in story. Story says conflict is to be expected, but it also says that conflict is not all; conflict is not the end.

Through the lens of story, we’re empowered to acknowledge that conflict tests us, shapes us, and changes the way we see the world—ourselves, our objectives, and our neighbors. Conflict, properly framed, imbues us with perspective. We can count the cost of that which we pursue. We can assess the triviality of our worries and comforts. We can empathize with others who have been wounded on the journey.

Conflict can yield both good stories and good storytellers.

Overcoming conflict and integrating it into our stories gives us an entry point into connecting with others in our weakness. Conflict helps us become His witnesses—we identify with Christ in His suffering and we experience a measure of the bad news which necessitates good news.

In The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, theologian Miroslav Volf reflects at length upon a year he spent in the Yugoslavian military, during which he was the subject of systematic surveillance, manipulation, and interrogation. In the book, Volf considers what we can and should make of what he calls “wrongs suffered.” At the heart of one of his conclusions is story.

“We integrate [wrongs suffered] into our life-story by coming to understand how they contribute to the goodness of the whole. We perceive that, in one way or another, they have made us better people.”

In other words, we give a conflict a place. We take a difficult situation — in Volf ’s case, a difficult year — and we refuse to view it in isolation. Rather we view conflict as a scene, a chapter, in a story that spans a lifetime and beyond.

A Change in Perspective

Joseph — he of the Technicolor dream coat — was forced to confront the wrongs he suffered as a result of his brothers’ treachery when they appeared before him years later. But by that time, Joseph had framed the conflict he endured in the larger context of his life story. He was a wise ruler now, no longer a careless boy, and he knew that his hardships had not been the end of him. On the contrary, his journey shaped him into the man he’d become.

Joseph’s brothers threw themselves at his feet, desperate for mercy instead of vengeance. “Don’t be afraid,” he assured them. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Joseph didn’t deny, minimize, or repress his suffering — he integrated it into his story. When Joseph looked at his story he found God there, doing the things we know God does — making good from evil, shining light in darkness, and causing hope to spring forth from ashes.

If we acknowledge that conflict is inevitable, and if we participate in the practice of viewing conflict in the context of narrative, what then? We must persist in telling our stories. Our objectives, whatever they may be, still need pursuing. And our calling as witnesses to His story still needs fulfilling.

The challenge is that it’s difficult to tell your story while you’re still in the middle of it. Telling your story in the midst of unresolved struggles — doubts, anxiety, and pain — requires a certain amount of conviction. Why? Because you can’t be entirely sure there will be a happy ending, or at the very least, you can’t be sure what form the happy ending will take. We must, however, tell the stories we find ourselves in, even when we’re waist-deep in conflict.

Keep Going

You have some objectives: to follow Christ, to bear witness to his story, to love your family, to serve your neighbors, to go to college, to start a business, to contribute to the flourishing of your community, and so on. As your story unfolds and you pursue these objectives, you will endure conflict. What then? Will you stop?

Story says no. Like Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5), story says we cannot stop. So, if your objective is worth it, keep going. Tell your story.

Excerpt from Tell Me A Story © 2013 by Scott McClellan, Moody Publishers (Chicago). Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.

Flickr photo (cc) by Kristaps B.