If you happen to run into me 35+ years ago, deliver this letter from me to me

If there is anyone who can’t plausibly take any credit whatsoever for their salvation–even for their purported “decision” to follow Christ, or for cooperating with Christ in any helpful way in the wake of that decision–it would be me.

I have previously written a little (and with equally little insight, I might note) about my coming to Christ:

When I was saved in my late teens, I turned to the person who had just led me through the sinner’s prayer and asked, “So what do I do now?”

My guide replied, “Well, that’s the great thing: You don’t need to do anything.”

Though I knew nothing about Christ or Christianity at that moment, I intuited that my guide’s answer was likely true but trivially so. However, after 35+ years of reflecting on these “baby’s first words” of my Christian life, I have concluded that it was actually my own intuition that was trivially true, while the words my guide spoke were spoken from the mouth of Christ himself.

Therefore, if you happen to run into me 35+ years ago, and you see me sitting across from my guide at precisely the moment the above conversation took place, please deliver this letter from me to me:

Dear Me,

Congratulations! You have just discovered what will become the title of your spiritual biography and the theme verse for your life: “So what do I do now?” This conversational exchange–your question and Craig’s reply–the very first utterances of your Christian life–you will never move beyond. You will continue to ask that question and hear that answer for 35+ years. At that point you may begin to understand it. And that will prompt you to ask the question again, as if for the first time. And you will hear the answer as if for the first time, too.

First, some news that will be most difficult for you to hear: Everything you will misunderstand and mishandle in your life (which–and don’t let this be a cause for alarm for you–will be most of it) will be will be rooted in your misunderstanding of this conversation with Craig.

But here is good news: Everything that will ultimately come to blossom in your life will likewise be rooted in this conversation, too. And not because of your understanding but in spite of it, because of the grace of God.

Essentially, the meaning you intend behind your question about what to do next is this: “OK, I got Step One of the Christian life right. Now what is Step Two?”

And essentially Craig is answering, “There is nothing for you to contribute to your salvation. Christ did the whole thing. Your part is just to receive it, be grateful for it, and trust in it.”

Even in your limited understanding and patience, you know that this is true. And yet you are also right to intuit that Craig is omitting a few of the more important parts.

But that’s hardly his fault. The most profound things we are ever given by God to say to other people are things that we don’t even have the faintest clue what they will really ultimately come to mean; they are God’s words, planted in the middle of our mundane human sentences like divine land mines designed to go off only in the midst of trespasses decades hence. (Yes, God really is like that.)

What you are missing at the moment is this: In entering the waters of baptism you have exited your own life and been welcomed into Christ’s. This does not mean that you have forfeited your autonomy. But your initiating action will not serve you well from here on out.

I mean, really not serve you well.

Let me be clear: Everything you undertake–from your college to your seminary to your first marriage to your employment to your church service to many of your most treasured relationships–will not turn out as you want. And I don’t just mean that these things will turn out differently but successfully. To say it plainly, flatly, you will fail beyond anything you can presently conceive. And by fail, I mean, fail miserably and painfully.

That is because the Christian life is all about our giving up the right to know and initiate Step Two. And our efforts to anticipate each next step and bring it to pass, these Christ is not obligated to honor, no matter how noble and rightly ordered our initiative may appear to be. (Our initiative only appears noble and rightly ordered to us because our hearts are deceitful above all things. Christ is under no such delusion about us and cannot afford to be.)

But take heart: The words of your question itself are strikingly correct, even if the frame of reference (and thus all of what you will undertake accordingly) is cockeyed. Walking on the road to the Cross with Christ will necessarily adjust your frame of reference so that you may come to understand that “So what do I do now?” means that Christ has initiated an action in your life that is so unusual, so alien to all you have known, that you have no human way to respond. Grace, in other words, does not enable responsible human action. It disables it altogether.

And so, welcome to the Christian life. Christ will continue to initiate unprecedented (and, by any human measure, especially yours, often quite undesirable and unwanted) actions moment by moment for the rest of your life.

And I do not mean that he will do this occasionally, at the major crossroads in your life. And I further do not mean that he has commenced to do this now that you are a Christian. I mean that Christ, the Lord and Creator of the world, has been doing this since the moment you were born, and he will do so until the moment you die. In becoming a Christian, you did not initiate a process. You simply stopped kicking against the goads.

It is called The Way of The Cross: Christ, the master carpenter, applying to your life in all its minutiae and ordinariness the sole tool in his toolbox, namely, his Cross.

For vast stretches of your life he will be undertaking “detail work”, which involves his virtually undetectable cutting away tiny flecks of flesh that you may not even notice and will hardly consider consequential until much later, but which will prove surprisingly crucial to his overall design. At other times he will swing that cross straight into your torso like the un-peaceful sword he warned he came to wield, and you will beg for him to stop, or at least slacken the pace so that you can mop up a little of the blood.

At times he will cut away things that you will be delighted for him to cut away–things like illness and sin and all that uncomfortably hems you in. At other times he will cut away things that will have you swear (literally) that he is going much too far, much farther than certainly God ought to go. He will unceremoniously turn into sawdust all that you hold to be good about you, and all that you believe to be good about life. Despite your protestations, he will continue to cut, and dig, and pierce. And you will not be consulted or consoled by him on any of it.

This is why about halfway between where you are and where I am now, in an effort to encourage yourself through the onset of difficult times, you will write down on a yellow lined notepad everything you know to be good about yourself, and every good thing you are on the way to accomplishing, and every good thing about life. And then one by one, in a matter of months, you will in absolute amazement strike through each item, and all that will be left of you are the strike-throughs, and near-overwhelming embarrassment, sadness, and fear.

And then the question you are asking today will finally be able to be asked from the right framework: So what do I do now?

And then Craig’s words to you will become Christ’s words at last: You don’t need to do anything. Because, in truth, even if someone handed you a book that showed you in perfect detail what you were supposed to do, and what the purpose of everything is, and how things will end, you would still fail spectacularly, and you would be fully culpable in the process. Because in fact you do have this book–the Bible–and you do fail spectacularly even as that book becomes the center of your world, and there is only you to blame.

Then and only then can you really hear what Christ is saying to you through Craig, which is what he said to Peter at the apostle’s own nadir“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 

That someone is Christ; that leading is grace; where you do not want to go is out of the kingdom of self and into the kingdom of God. When you are old, you will at last let yourself be led, not nobly, but because you can no longer stand on your own, and he alone remains to keep you from falling.

And then, divine blossoms will unfold from that Tree of Life, that Cross that he has dug down deep in the dead foundations of your life; and you will be amazed, and grateful, and not responsible for any of it.

But in this happening do not suppose that you will somehow at last become “better” than you are now. In fact, you will become weaker; balder; less sure of your speech; your charisma will depart to younger men; you will be humbled, though not yet truly humble; your shortcomings will become more evident than your virtues; you will cease to trust yourself at all. Sin rustling in the leaves will not cause you to stand more manfully but instead set you to flee to Christ quickly. You will not become a valiant under-shepherd, but instead a dependent old sheep.

And that is as it should be.

So, to answer your question: What do you do next?

“His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.'” (John 2:5)

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If you want to be transformed, share your testimony before you’re transformed (and other lessons I learned from coaching traumatized North Koreans)

A Guest Post from Dr. Hyun Sook Foley

Contrary to what you may have been taught or maybe just assumed, you do not have to live a successful life first and then tell your testimony once your life is polished and perfect. You don’t have to suddenly start making great choices and produce astonishing results in every area you touch before your story is worth hearing and telling. Instead, when you learn to tell your story the way God does, you’ll discover that you really are already in the middle of something truly amazing, right in the midst of your difficulties. You are already on a hero’s journey.

And it’s okay if you’re not the heroic type, because the heroics come from God. We’re the recipients of His heroics, not the other way around.

A close reading of the Bible reveals that God never gives anyone a victim story or a life consigned to failure. “No,” says the apostle Paul to the Roman Christians, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” He who loved us is God. Human beings are created in the image of God, and God is no victim. Victim stories come from Satan, who, according to John 10:10, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” And nothing can steal, kill, and destroy your life as a victim story can. God, on the other hand, only narrates redemptive stories, or what we might call hero stories. And He reserves hero status for individuals who simply trust in that truth and in His goodness, and thus let Him narrate their lives accordingly. Wouldn’t you rather let God narrate your life story than Satan? That’s all that being a hero requires.

Nearly two decades of work with North Korean Christians has led me to recognize that the difference between those who are happy and those who are traumatized does not lay in their experiences but rather in the narrative frame they use to understand and tell their stories, right as they are in the midst of living them. I coach traumatized North Koreans to narrate their life stories using a different frame than the ones they learned from North or South Korea–a biblical frame, where God can be revealed as guiding and caring for them at each step. With surprisingly little outside coaching, life change became possible for these North Koreans because they changed the way they told, thought about, and lived their stories. In very much the same way, you can learn to change the way you tell your story, and the way you think about it.

In fact, my own life has been fundamentally transformed by changing my narrative frame. Like you, perhaps, I have experienced a number of near-crippling psychological, spiritual, and physical episodes over the years, including losing my health, getting divorced, being physically abused, and suffering the painful betrayal of close friends. As each difficult episode was added to my life story, I became more and more tempted to narrate it as a sad, broken, and disappointing story.

But what I learned through coaching North Koreans through trauma is that the path to positive life change did not begin with us somehow starting to get everything right in our lives but rather in us first getting the narrative frame itself right. In fact, until you get the narrative frame right, very little else will go right in your life. The wrong narrative frame will lead you to make unsatisfactory choices, as I did. I needed to learn to tell, hear, and live my story for God’s glory, not my own. That meant embracing His narrative form, which is always gracious, redemptive, and Christ-centered, rather than the narrative forms of the cultures around me (American and Korean) which were either self-focused, shame based, or success oriented.

Take it from North Koreans: Learning how to hear and tell your story the way that God does is the key to coming to greater peace with yourself, others, and God even though you might be right in the midst of nearly impossible circumstances. It is these challenges that make your story so very, very good and important, after all.

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How North Koreans Can Help Us Tell Our Life Stories the Way God Wants Us To

A Guest Post from Dr. Hyun Sook Foley

The estimated population of North Korea is nearly twenty-five million people, but North Korea is actually the country of one story: the story of Kim Il Sung.

As North Koreans grow up, they have to memorize more than one hundred stories about Kim Il Sung’s life. That includes exact dates, place names, details, everything. Kim Il Sung is the subject of nearly every North Korean’s story, and Kim Il Sung is the hero of nearly every North Korean’s story.

But when North Koreans escape their country and enter South Korea (where more than thirty thousand North Korean defectors have now resettled), they are confronted with the reality that Kim Il Sung is no hero. For North Koreans, learning to tell their own stories as anything other than Kim Il Sung’s story is quite challenging. They quickly latch on to the stories that others tell about them, and those stories are always deficit stories: Defectors are considered traitors by North Korea, and even in South Korea there is strong prejudice against them. They are viewed as lazy, stupid, dishonest, and untrustworthy.

Many North Korean defectors internalize these negative narratives about themselves, and the results are literally fatal: North Korean defectors have the highest rate of death due to suicide of any group in the world: more than 16 percent. That shows how deadly it is to adopt any narrative frame but God’s for telling your life story.

That’s why I became involved in listening to the life stories of North Korean defectors and coaching them to retell their stories using a “hero’s journey” framework. It really was a matter of life and death! Virtually every defector with whom I have ever sat down with tells me his or her story as a victim story, as a story of worthlessness, unbearable pain, or both. The person’s life is filled with memories of starvation and concentration camps, combined with the worship of the leaders that made it happen—a worship that is ultimately transformed into hatred.

So after I hear them share their stories this way, I share with them about God, who, according to Revelation 12:11, intends for us to triumph over our enemies by the blood of His Son, Jesus, and by the word of our testimony. In other words, our very survival depends on the stories we tell about ourselves. I advise my North Korean defector brothers and sisters to learn to tell the stories God tells about them, because if they don’t, they will end up living forever inside the story of Kim Il Sung, even though they have left North Korea physically.

After I coached North Korean defectors in these truths enough times, I started to realize that the same is true for the rest of us too. We also have to learn how to tell our stories the way God tells them. If we don’t, we will always tell (and live in) stories about ourselves that lead to unhappy endings.

The good news is that those who experience the most pain and suffering and setbacks and life-shattering tragedies are those who go on to do the greatest things and have the best lives—if they learn to see, understand, and tell their own “hero’s journey” story the way God tells it.

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