On Believing Our Own False Narratives

 Photo by  Jonathan Simcoe  on  Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I was trying to get my kids out of the house to go pick up breakfast at Chick-fil-A. It was “Cow Appreciation Day,” when dressing like a cow earns you a free entrée. But one of my children was not thrilled about having to wear spots on his or her shirt. And the other child was talking incessantly. My husband was working from home, and I felt my temper rise rapidly. The next thing I knew, I was lecturing both kids (loudly enough for their father to hear) about how, “Dad’s working from home so we have to be quiet, and that’s why I’m trying to get you out of the house. I’m just trying to do something nice for you all.”

In that moment, even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew how wrong I was. First, my husband never asked us to be quiet. He never asked us to leave. Second, it’s understandable to not want to dress like a cow. For a maturing child, that can be socially humiliating. The truth is that I’m the one who wanted to go get free breakfast, not because we needed to get out, but because those chicken biscuits are one of the greatest things America has ever produced. But in that moment, I noticed myself losing control, and my pride wouldn’t let me admit it. Yeah, maybe I’m getting a little intense, but obviously it’s because I’m just trying to help everyone. And the implication is that it was my husband’s fault. If he wasn’t working from home, we wouldn’t have to leave. And if we didn’t have to leave, I wouldn’t be so angry right now.

I was shocked to discover how easily I believed a false narrative that made me feel and look good. I felt justified in my anger. In my mind, I was the victim. Everyone was working against me. I had no choice but to react the way I did.

This is a seemingly small thing, and unfortunately it happens all too often in our home, but it has stuck with me. It's been important in recent days for me to remember how easy it is for me to believe I'm a victim, when really I'm largely the cause of discord at times in our home.

Right now my alma mater, Bryan College, is embroiled in yet more controversy. This article recounts many of the issues that are coming to a head. A petition set up last Friday by friends and alumni has over 1700 signatures of those calling for the resignations of the school's president and board chairperson. 

Interestingly, the school administration's official statement in response to this petition and the recent firing of a well-loved, tenured professor would paint the president and board as the victims of an effort to go against the truth of Scripture. A "clarification" to the school's Statement of Belief a few years ago caused much turmoil, but not necessarily for the reasons given. The act of changing the school's document was expressly forbidden by the charter. While the administration claims nothing was changed, merely "clarified," the problem was that faculty were quickly forced to sign this clarification. Many agreed with the statements of the clarification itself, disagreed with it being immediately forced upon faculty. Two professors whom I greatly love and respect refused to sign and were immediately fired. 

President Livesay would seemingly have us believe that he is fighting a holy battle against those who are out to make the school more liberal. The official statement from the school paints dissenting alumni and faculty as being against God's Word. He and, it seems, the Board are firmly entrenched in a narrative in which they are standing for truth in the midst of those who would bring the school down.

But the proof is in the many beloved faculty and staff members who have left and been belittled. It's in those honorable, respected men who have resigned from the Board, unable to to enact change and unwilling to sit any longer and helplessly watch the demise of the institution they love. 

I've seen it repeatedly--in churches, organizations, schools. When leaders see themselves as victims of injustice or crusaders in a holy battle for truth, they will remove anyone who stands against their mission--even if those dissenters are lovingly seeking the best for the leaders and the institutions. I've seen elders forced out of churches for these reasons. I've heard people claim those who leave churches under such leadership are "leaving the gospel." And I don't think these are just willfully harsh and misleading statements. I'm convinced these leaders are assured what they're doing is right and good. 

But how? How does one get to this point?

Recently Lore Wilbert wrote this in a helpful blog post about Christians in the writing and publishing world:

More than once a week I get a message from a reader asking how to start a blog or how to break into the publishing industry or my best book recommendation for writing. My answer is almost always the same: get people around you who won’t lie to you or about you, and ask them what they think of your writing. If they gush yeses immediately, find more people to ask. You’re looking for someone who says, “No.” That’s your person. Get close to that person. Annoy that person with your first drafts. Cry when they’re hard on you, but then dry your tears and do one of two things: recognize that writing might not be your gift or go back to the drawing board. If you can do this for many years without any applause at all, then, perhaps start a blog. If you skip that, though, and go right to publishing because pressing publish has never been easier, expect the stumble to come. When it does come, don’t make the same mistake you made in the beginning: this time listen.

I've been working on a book for the past several years, and am now in process with a publisher. As I submit each chapter to my editor, it comes back to me (lovingly) torn to shreds. At first this was humiliating and frustrating. Writing seemed way more fun when I just wrote stuff and put it on my blog. But over time I've found a safe place in this editing process. I realize how much I need my editor's wisdom and insight. I'm terrified to think I might have self-published or put this book's content on my blog without this oversight. 

I've been studying 2 Samuel 11 and 12 lately. It's the story of David's sin regarding Bathsheba, Uriah, his military, etc. It's also the story of God's love for David and his merciful act of sending Nathan to confront David about the sin he seemingly got away with. Talk about an abuse of power. Who would dare to stand up to the king? But when Nathan confronts him, David comes to his senses and says, "I have sinned against God."

The danger comes when we either have no Nathans in our lives, or we get rid of them. An elder board or board of directors full of those who refuse to say "no" or ask difficult questions is unhealthy for everyone involved--not just the school or church or organization, but also the president, pastor, or CEO. We're not meant to live without loving editors. It's in our nature to believe the best about ourselves and the worst about others. 

Here are some things I've been thinking on and praying through--safeguards against believing ourselves victims when perhaps we are actually abusers:

1. Listen - Listen to the check in my heart when I find myself thinking I'm a victim. Is it actually true? Listen to those who confront me in love--maybe not always the stranger who doesn't know me, but certainly the people around me who want God's best for me. Listen to those whose character is proven, even if at this moment they seem to be going against what I think is right. Over the years have I and others known them to be faithful to the Word of God and servant-hearted in their ministry? Then why am I assuming they're the ones shifting? Is it possible that it's me?

I also need to choose people in advance to whom I will listen. I can't wait until conflict comes to find godly counselors. That's the same as publishing a book or blog post, getting a mess of backlash, and then hiring an editor. I need people who will flat call me out when I'm falsely believing myself a victim. (NOTE: this is not the same as actually suffering real abuse...we also need people who will listen and care and seek justice for those abused.) We need to choose these people now and hold them close. 

2. Protect - Our instinct is to protect ourselves and our reputations. But particularly for those in positions of leadership, we should seek to protect those under our care. When we have power, we must use that in order to lift others up, not to push them down. When people come to us with concerns, our instinct will be to defend or protect ourselves. And the truth is, sometimes people confront leaders in the most unloving manner. We naturally respond defensively, battle lines are drawn, people take sides, and we find ourselves in the midst of a huge mess. But to seek the best of those under our care (be it students, a congregation, or even my own children), I need to be willing to listen even when the delivery isn't loving. 

3. Speak - We have to be people who speak truth about the injustice we see. But we live in an age where we speak past each other, with each side vehemently spewing angry rhetoric, unwilling to listen to one another. I wonder how much damage is done when we speak truth, but without love. Unfortunately, as much as I want to be the kind of person who listens well (see #2), nothing will further convince me I'm a victim than someone calling me out in anger. I won't hear or see the truth if I'm blindsided by the delivery. Empathy goes a long way. 

When President Livesay came to Bryan halfway through my college career, he replaced a beloved president. This president was the kind of man who knew every student's name (literally...I mean, there were only 600+ of us, but still...), who would grab a guitar and play with the band in chapel, who had students over to his home to watch movies. It can't have been easy to step into those shoes, especially when Dr. Livesay was a different kind of leader. The truth is that hurt people hurt people. Things started off on a rough footing, he tried to carve his own path and make changes, faced opposition, and things went downhill from there. While I think he has done immense damage to the school, I can also imagine coming in under those circumstances was extremely difficult. We have to be people who see the big picture and admit fault on all sides. 

We're all prone to believe false narratives, those stories that give us the intoxicating feeling of self-righteousness. Whether it's Cow Appreciation Day or running a college, we're all human, daily fighting (and frequently losing) the worship battle taking place in our hearts. It's the age-old problem--do we believe God's truth about a situation, or do we believe Satan's narrative that makes us look better than we are? The "clarification" to Bryan's Statement of Belief was about the historicity of a literal Adam and Eve, and ironically it's from Adam and Eve that we learn what happens when we buy into a false narrative. 

The truth is that only One of us has ever been an innocent victim, and He did so willingly, subjecting Himself to torture and death for the sake of his image bearers. In Him mercy and justice met, and in Him alone do we find hope to see ourselves clearly as sinners and yet as those dearly loved.

I pray I'll become a person who seeks out those who tell me the truth in love, and that I'll become that person as well. I have a long way to go yet. 

Would you please join me in praying for healing, repentance, and restoration at Bryan College?