Three Reasons Why You Should Tell Your Story…and the Three Audiences You Should Tell

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Signing books at the Seventh-day Adventist Gulf States Women’s Retreat. Photo credit: Heather Severance.

“Sharing our stories of how God has saved us is the best way to share the gospel,” I told my audience at the Gulf States Women’s Retreat this November. That’s what I said, and over the course of the weekend that’s what I did. Stories, as Jesus well knew and demonstrated in his ministry, have a way of penetrating the heart like pure information cannot—and for this I am glad. It means I don’t have to be a Bible scholar to share Jesus, I just have to be willing to share what Jesus has done for me.

You see, stories from the heart open up other hearts in beautiful, sometimes painful, but also healing ways. After my first talk (of four), one woman caught my shoulder and said, “I need to talk to you,” and proceeded, for two hours, to tearfully tell me a story she’d “never told anyone” before. The next day, one woman after another approached me to confide their own stories of pain. “I could tell you some stories,” grandmother-aged women winked at me over lunch, and proceeded to do so. Over a thirty-six hour period, I heard stories of abuse, divorce, death, and attempted suicide, and not just me–the women started talking to one another! Praise God, this was one of my goals for the weekend: to get the women talking. To get them telling their stories.

But How Do I Know If I Should Share? 

“But how do I know if my story should actually be shared, and if it’s actually going to bring glory to God or not?” the question came to me anonymously on Sabbath afternoon during a roundtable discussion. Good question, and I’ll answer it with the remainder of this blog.

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Photo Credit: April Hobbs

The short answer is: defining your audience and purpose for sharing will guide you as to what to share, and when.

Defining your audience and purpose for sharing will guide you as to what to share, and when.

Each act of communication—each story we tell—has an audience and a purpose. What are yours? Let’s look at three levels of storytelling I have identified in my Christian/writing journey. You’ll see that each level has a different audience and purpose, and they all build upon one another to eventually lead to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, or our ultimate goal as Christians. Let’s talk about the audience and purpose for sharing the ugly stuff first.

Level One: Start Small

Purpose: To Heal from Your Pain and Your Past

Audience: God and One or Two Trusted People 

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Two attendees at the women’s retreat. Photo Credit: April Hobbs

If you’ve read Ending the Pain, you know that I believe sharing our painful stories is a first and necessary step in the journey to new life (whether we’re talking “new life” as Christians or “new life” after trauma). But when you are still in pain, with wounds still fresh, your first purpose for sharing must be to help you—not to witness to others.

I resent when Christians and churches ignore this part of our Christian journey—the part where we are broken and need healing—and simply tell us to go witness to others. Uh uh. Nope. True discipleship doesn’t work like that, because we can’t share what we don’t have. (See Part 2 of my book, the “New Beginnings” chapters, to read how effective we are when hiding behind plastic smiles at church. [Not very]).

Who should we tell our stories to when we are still broken and bleeding? Share them with a small audience that includes God and at least one other person—a spouse, a friend, or a trusted pastor or counselor. I don’t know why, but there is something freeing in the simple act of putting our stories outside ourselves—maybe it’s the new perspective and validation we gain; maybe it’s the support that comes when others suddenly know how to pray for us or help us. Whatever it is, it’s important to tell someone how you are hurting as a first step to healing.

Level Two: Identifying with Others

Audience: A Small Group

Purpose: To Get Support from and Give Support to Others Who Have Gone Through the Same Things

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More attendees at the Women’s Retreat. Photo Credit: April Hobbs

The next step to healing and moving your story outside of yourself is to tell a small group. Sometimes you will have to search for a group, and other times it will come together organically, as has happened recently in my life.

Three women at my “new” church in Missouri (my post Ending the Pain church) read my book and caught on to what I was presenting, and all three reached out and asked me for the prayer ministry I described receiving in the book. After praying with two of them individually and repeatedly over the summer (becoming their “one” person to confide in for a time), I gathered them into a small group because it felt like time to take their healing to the next level (also because I couldn’t keep up the pace of all the prayer appointments!). These two women had begun to feel hope through connecting to Jesus in prayer and sharing their story with me, and it was time for them to find support in connecting with one another.

We’ve met three times now as a group, and it’s been a beautiful thing to watch them open up to one another (as I once did with my initial, Ending the Pain, prayer groups), realizing that other Christians struggle in the same ways they do. I have witnessed such relief in their faces and postures and words as they learn it’s actually okay to talk about their ugly stuff…in this audience, among kindred spirits, among others who “get” their pain.

This is key at the second level (and the first): choose your audience well. It’s already hard to share and be vulnerable, so make sure you will be safe when you share. Don’t believe the lie that no one else has gone through this. Oh, what a lie! (There is nothing new under the sun.) Pray for God to show you those who will understand, accept, and support you. When you find this audience, as the ladies in my group have “found” one another, you’ll find not only the release of telling your story, but also the blessing of identification. You will be blessed at hearing others’ stories, and you know what? Suddenly, though you are still a work in progress, you will be blessing others! You’re not all better yet, but the beauty of opening your broken heart to Jesus and several trusted others begins the process of sharing your story for God’s glory. You and your small group get to watch, together, as you are transformed into God’s likeness. Now that’s a testimony!

Level Three: Going Public

Audience: Anyone the Lord Moves You to Tell

Purpose: To Comfort Others with the Comfort You Have Received

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During my third talk, I shared a bit about my publishing journey, I talked about story structures in the Bible (and in all our lives), and I encouraged the women to also tell their stories for God’s glory. Photo Credit: Heather Severance

When it feels comfortable and natural to share your story, when it ends with victory in Jesus, and when it no longer hurts (very much) to tell, praise God! You have gained a testimony that has gone past the “rough draft” stage and is ready for a larger audience. You are ready to share your story for God’s glory, not only to a couple close friends, but to whomever God moves you to tell.

That said, the audience for “public” sharing varies. We are not all called to go hugely public, and that’s okay. We all have a sphere of influence that only we can reach, whether it is one person or one thousand. The point here is, if God has changed your life for the better, you have a testimony, and because you are a Christian, you are called to share it with someone, some audience. Whether that audience is Aunt Mabel or coworker Bob or your book club or Bible study group—or whether God calls you to write a blog or publish a book or give a talk—God wants you to be ready to share the reason for the hope you have (1 Pet. 3:15).

Still Scared to Share?

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Gulf States Women’s Ministries leader, April Hobbs, praying with me before a talk. Photo credit: Heather Severance

Now, what if you have found victory in Jesus but still get weak-kneed at the thought of sharing? First I’d encourage you that even Bible giants like Moses got scared, and I’d remind you, as God reminded Moses, that God was the one who made Moses’ mouth (Ex. 4:10, 11); it is God who works in you to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13); and it is God who will embolden you to share. Just as you learned to ask him for healing in your hurt places, ask him to prepare you to speak to the audience he has for you. And he will. And guess what? The more you share, the easier it will get, until you realize that sharing your story is as easy as simply having a conversation.

Last Thoughts

Finally, after decades of not knowing how to “share Jesus,” I know what to say to people when they ask me about my faith: I just tell them my story. And I hope you, dear reader, are feeling encouraged to do the same…if and when you are ready.

But before you bust out a blog or a Facebook rant, first check your audience and purpose for sharing your story today. Ask yourself, and God, these questions to help you figure out when and where to share:

  • Is this primarily about me, or is it about God working in me?
  • Do I need more healing before I make this public?
  • Could I benefit from sharing this with a small group?
  • Am I at a point where my story would benefit others? Whom?
  • Will my story be good news to someone? Lots of people?
  • Finally, can I share my story publicly without needing approval from everyone? Perhaps a certain demographic won’t like it, but does it speak true of God and have the potential to bless more lives than it would ruffle feathers? (Remember, Jesus certainly didn’t base his ministry on approval ratings!)

Only God can answer these questions for you, but one thing I know: wherever you are right now, God can rewrite your sad story, and he can finish the good work the he has begun in you. We all have stories of sadness, suffering, sin, or struggle, but by God’s grace, over time, they can all become testimonies to the good news of Jesus Christ; they can all have happy endings.

Writing Towards Honesty

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At first I thought I was writing a book about recovery from depression, the love story that brought my husband and me together, and finding a relationship with the Lord. Now that I am revising for my book consultant, Christian memoirist Trish Ryan, I feel the topics expanding. She wanted me to set a greater context for why I ever got to the point of suicide and bulimia and all the other struggles I write about in the first place. She wanted to know more about my faith in God as a child and my family. In short, she asked me to venture into places I realized I didn’t want to go (which is why I originally did not go there).

Now that I’ve been trying to write scenes from childhood for the last several weeks (and they are coming out messy and muddled and badly), I’m finding that my story might be bigger than I thought, and it all has to do with being honest about how the church has failed me.

The more I write, the greater anger I uncover at a church culture that would not let me speak up and share what kind of help I needed. This theme also shows up when it comes to my relationships with friends and relatives—people you’d think it should be okay to share with! The revisions I am working on now are slowly bringing me to new conclusions about why I became suicidal in the first place. Maybe I will never totally understand why or how it happened, and maybe it’s not a problem that is specific to me or my family or my church. But through the messy, ugly, painful writing coming out in the last few weeks, I know it has something to do with speaking up, and the fact that I felt I couldn’t for so many years.

Sometimes it’s discouraging to think that after a year of working on this memoir, I’m only just keying in to the real point of it all—and maybe I’ll decide next month that I need to backtrack yet again. But maybe it all goes back to this blog and why I started writing it: I needed to share with people.

I’m working on a series of blog posts about my ugly, messy rebirth experience, and these posts, more than anything I’ve yet written on Writing to my Roots, have given me pause: Do I want to publish them? Do I want to share how I feel my church failed me, how it failed my parents, and how that resulted in a family’s demise and a girl’s death wish?

I feel a need for Christians to be honest about their struggles; it’s just hard to be one of the leaders in this “genre” of witnessing. I told Trish I felt like there were very few memoirs on the market like the one I’m trying write: that is, Christians seem to write really simplified accounts of how they found Christ (and what a difference he made to the before and after of their lives), which leave me hungry for the real details. Show me a life story I can relate to! Conversely, the writers who are willing to divulge the messy details of their lives are, for the most part, those who haven’t really emerged from the mess—so the story is real and raw and often literarily well executed, but not uplifting. I want my story to be all of the above.

Trish agreed with my assessment of the market, saying that when we writers undertake a project like she’s done and like I’m trying to do, we put ourselves out there as screwed up Christians, saying, “Okay, I’ll go first.” Not easy, but necessary if we hope to change the climate of things.

So if I publish some things that put my church or my religion in a bad light, it’s not that I’m denouncing my faith. It’s that I want us to take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, so we can fix it! Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free, and I just want to help the church see how we can help fulfill his mission. Sometimes, that means being brutally honest with where we’ve failed.

If you feel the same way, please pray for this writing project as it moves forward—that it would tell a story the world (and maybe just the Christian world) needs to hear, and that God would give me the wisdom and discernment to tell it.

 

The Question Every Young Couple Must Answer

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“When are you having kids?” my high school students always used to ask. Why they were so interested in this detail of my life I never understood—much like I didn’t understand when family members or anyone else asked. The question used to come frequently when we were first married, and then, as year after year slid by with no child, but only new feats such as a bachelor’s degree, teaching job, and master’s degree, the question all but went away, and with it, my child consciousness.

But when I got to my first semester of grad school in 2010, I had an epiphany. Sitting in class at that time as both student and teacher, I was to finally understand why students and so many others wonder that question.           

It happened one night in literary theory class, when my professor, trying to explain the infant stages of Freudian development admitted, “Well, the research says this [insert windy explanation of anal and oral stages]; but I don’t have kids, so I don’t really know firsthand.” That’s all. One comment. Then he continued his lecture on Freud. But I was stopped.

Before that night, he’d been Mr. Know-It-All.

Now, he was just a man out of touch with reality…who, perhaps, had never changed a diaper.

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(Photo from giftsfordadtobe.com)

What did my professor have? He had his books and his scholarly journals and his research (and with those, late night library visits while bedecked in baseball caps [to blend with students, he’d told us]), but what, beyond that? He didn’t have a wife. Or kids. Or religion. (Lots of grad students and professors end up losing their religion, I was also to find out.) The closest relationships he had seemed to be with us, his students. And he was great with us, very gentle and caring, and genuinely concerned for our welfare.

But in general…in general, I had to ask myself that night: Is this really the life? And more importantly, is this the life I want for myself? Do I want to be like this professor someday, standing before a class of adults (or high school kids, for that matter), in my forties or above, with no life experience to share with them, besides what I had read in books?

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This was a profound moment for me. I journaled at length about it the very next day. And I talked to my husband. Was I missing something here? Was I about to embark on the wrong path, this path to the PhD? What did it mean that I was having all of these questions?

Mind you, I was hardly ready to toss the birth control, quit teaching, and/or withdraw from my graduate classes. Just then I wouldn’t admit that I wanted kids. Because I wasn’t actually sure I wanted them.

But one thing I now understood: If I had kids, I would become a more interesting professor…and a more interesting person. I would become more credible. More human. And that alone was something worth considering.