The Power of the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Almost 60 years ago Admiral Jim Stockdale was an officer and prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned for eight years, from 1965 to 1973. While a captive he was relentlessly and ruthlessly tortured. But he survived this horrific experience, and the way that he survived has now been studied and taught around the world.

Bestselling business leadership author Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, called this survival strategy “The Stockdale Paradox.” The key, according to Stockdale says, is this: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Stockdale survived because he lived inside this story, this paradox of brutal reality and hope. It’s a powerful reminder of a universal truth: The story we tell ourselves about who we are and what things mean is the story we live inside. The good news, or gospel of Jesus, is simple—He wants to tell a better story in our life, a story that leads to “abundant life.” And that story embraces two realities at once, strengthened in the tension: “The one who has found his life will lose it, and the one who has lost his life on My account will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

In losing our life we embrace our brutal reality; in finding our life we trust Jesus to lead us into joy—to strengthen us to “prevail in the end.” This is the story He’s invited us to live inside; and this is the story that offers life and strength to the families in your congregation that are struggling with meaning and hope…

The Power of Competing Stories
But, of course, we have other forces at work in our world that want to tell a different story—a story that “kills and steals and destroys.” These stories tell us that we can have it all outside of an intimate relationship with God—that happiness is tied to financial success, academic achievement, sexual fulfillment, physical health and fitness, and power. The American Dream, our collective entitlement, promises that every person can achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. These sound like givens, but are actually destructive storylines masquerading as hope. Control over our “success” is assumed to rest solely with us—our agency, apart from God, is our guarantor. The Great Lie of the Garden of Eden fuels the way we think about the American Dream – “we can be like gods.”

To counteract the way these stories insinuate into our lives, we help the people in our congregations and homes to follow the path Stockdale has given us, because it’s a path Jesus trailblazed before him:

  1. Confront the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be… and
  2. Exercise an everyday dependence on Jesus to develop in us a faith that prevails.

The Beauty Behind the Brutality
During the Covid lockdown—a brutal reality shared by the whole world—our competing happiness storylines were threatened by the painful realities affecting our health, finances, and power. But according to a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge, “people of religious faith experienced lower levels of unhappiness and stress than secular people during the lockdowns.” Why? Somehow, the followers of Jesus experienced a prevailing hope in the face of “the brutal facts of our current reality.”

Pain in life is brutal and inevitable, as we well know… But what is Jesus doing in the middle of our pain to redeem what is ugly and morph it into something beautiful?

I have a friend who went through pilot training, and he sees direct connections from his training to the pain we experience in life and the redemptive intent of Jesus. In pilot training, explains my friend, there is intense book learning—they learn about weather, instrumentation, the functionality of airplanes, the physics of flying, and so on. Book-learning helps them know about flying, but they really don’t know how to fly until they are in the air, where real pain is a distinct possibility. The best method, regardless of the training, is to go out with an instructor pilot. In the “brutal reality” of a cockpit the instructor can use what’s actually happening—real choices made in the face of real circumstances—to cement the skillset every pilot must have.

Thinking back to his pilot training, my friend observed these connections between his growth as a pilot and his growth as a follower of Jesus…

  1. “Flight trainers teach pilots to fly using the pain of mistakes. This is how a pilot can learn quickly and retain those learnings longer—at a visceral level and emotional level.”
  2. “In flight training, in a real airplane, everything else is pretty well stripped away. When I was learning to fly, the upcoming exams in college, or other concerns from ‘normal life’ quickly faded away. It was just me, the instructor, and the situation. Likewise, when I’m experiencing painful circumstances or consequences in life, I’m forced to really listen to the sound of Jesus’s voice—it becomes much more clear in those situations with other things stripped away.”
  3. “As a student you learn the voice of the instructor and to listen to that. In training you have the instrumentation, the situation, the sound of the plane, but you quickly learn to recognize the voice of the instructor and tune other things out, especially in painful situations. These are ‘dependent’ building exercises. You knew they would step in to keep you from hitting the ground if necessary, but they would let you work through the exercise. You would have chatter on the radio, but you recognized (from the painful experiences in training) your instructor’s voice that cut through all of that. You would instinctively know the sound of the instructor’s voice over other voices on the radio and you paid attention to those instructions first. Likewise, God’s voice becomes clearer in painful situations, and you begin to rely solely on Him, and listen to Him in a much clearer way. And when the situation resolves, we are much more in tune with His voice.”

Living Inside a Better Story
All of this suggests that the best way to help families in our congregations to grow in their faith is to see ourselves as pilot instructors—mature guides who accompany parents in the pain and disappointments of their everyday life, simultaneously maintaining our heightened connection to Jesus and to the people in front of us.

I grew up thinking I was too much for everyone around me—a false belief that I’m responsible for. But nevertheless, I believed that who I was at my core was too much for my parents, too much for my friends, and too much for God. His response was: “There is nothing, nothing, nothing too much for Me.” Now that I am His, and share in His life as an “adopted son,” I know there’s nothing too much for me. The worst things I can imagine seem unendurable. That is, until I am in them, and He helps me endure. And He will help your congregants and parents endure as well…

A friend told me this truth: “God created darkness as a backdrop for the beauty of light.” We sink or swim according to the narratives we embrace about ourselves—we need to learn how to tell a better (and truer) story about who we really are, and who God really is. And that “better story” is the story Jesus is telling about us. Oswald Chambers says, “God does not tell you what He is going to do; He reveals to you Who He is.” Also, He is revealing who we are. Jesus is far more interested in naming us than fixing all of our challenging circumstances.

What would a church culture look like if it more and more embraced The Stockdale Paradox? Check out our lineup of 2024 MasterClasses HERE. And if you would like help as you explore what this might mean for you and your congregation, reach to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.  

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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