We have all seen them, the stories of those who have suffered and won. Disabled people face two “stories” about themselves – the disabled person as scrounger, as the faker who is in it for the benefits and not really disabled/ill (which has become increasingly the story of choice for the government/media) and the disabled person as a saint. These stories involve a person who overcomes adversity to end up participating as though they were not disabled in life. So we get the stories of business people who, despite their disability, own large companies and make a lot of money. We get the stories of disabled people who are athletes – we can see this in the coverage of the Paralympic Games’ athletes, those who participate in what is not traditionally a disabled sphere. The human mind seems very fond of these stories, of sinner/saint and particularly of adversity overcome.
We see these stories in Christian literature as well. The “biography” section of a Christian bookshop will be full of stories of former drug addicts, criminals and those who have had terrible, abusive childhoods, who have come to the Lord and been released from their pasts. (There are of course secular stories in a similar vein – the “misery memoirs” for example).
I admit that I enjoy reading about people who have triumphed, people who have overcome great odds and gone on to lead normal/extraordinary lives. The trouble I see with these is that we end up expecting too much of people.
I have met Christians who expect that I, as a Christian, should have overcome my disability – my bipolar disorder – and be leading a “normal” life as an inspirational person. I have met people both Christian and non-Christian who expect me to excel – regardless of my illness – and who believe that if I do not, that I must be in the “sinner/faker” category. I would assume that my experience is the same for others. I would imagine that, say, if I were a drug taker and became Christian, that there are those who expect me to be “clean” from conversion, to have that triumph over addiction that is played out in the bestselling stories.
I think this can be unhelpful. One of the reasons I enjoy reading these stories of triumph is that they are unusual, I have met precisely one person who has had anything near the utter change of life that they describe. It is true, of course, that we as Christians are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) but I do not believe this means all has been changed at that moment. We grow in Christ, we do not become adults all of a sudden! The Believer’s Bible Commentary writes:
5:17If anyone is in Christ, that is, saved, he is a new creation. Before conversion, one might have judged others according to human standards. But now all that is changed. Old methods of judging have passed away; behold, all things have become new. This verse is a favorite with those who have recently been born again, and is often quoted in personal testimonies. Sometimes in being thus quoted, it gives quite a false impression. Listeners are apt to think that when a man is saved, old habits, evil thoughts, and lustful looks are forever done away, and everything becomes literally new in a person’s life. We know that this is not true. The verse does not describe a believer’s practice but rather his position. Notice it says that if anyone is in Christ. The words in Christ are the key to the passage. In Christ, old things have passed away and all things have become new. Unfortunately, “in me” not all this is true as yet! But as I progress in the Christian life, I desire that my practice may increasingly correspond to my position. One day, when the Lord Jesus returns, the two will be in perfect agreement.
It is very easy to start rewriting my own story to fit into this heroic model. This is a challenge to me at the moment because I have been well for a year now, and at the moment have experienced no symptoms of my illness for many months. It would be easy for me to declare that the Lord has healed me – which perhaps he has, but if so I do not know about it, no one has told me so and I cannot rely upon what may well be wishful thinking. I can and I do rejoice in my health, the more so since I have experienced ill-health, but to rewrite my story as a “triumph over adversity” type would be wrong. Yet it is tempting for me to look back and say, I was very ill, I became a Christian, things got better with some lapses and it is now, at the time when I am most involved with church and Christian life that I have been healed of my illness. It would be even easier to try to work that out to other people and state that if they too just trust in God and pray, read the Bible and so on that they too will experience good mental health. This would, I feel, do a disservice to other mentally ill people because I know and have known many good and devout Christians who still experience mental problems, and would fall into the trap of blaming the victim which is so prevalent in our society. The other issue is whether, by translating my story into a triumphant one, I am glorifying God, or myself. After all, we may say, God is good, after reading about someone’s journey from illness or sin into a glorious Christian life, but we also admire the person. That is not wrong when that is indeed that person’s story, that God has blessed them in that way, but for me, that would not be the truth and I would probably be seeking the admiration of others rather than for them to bless the Lord for his goodness.
I find that the narratives of dishonour/despair to glory are wonderful to read, and I do enjoy them, but they have not been a regular thing in the lives of those I have known. I try to exercise caution and recognise that, just because I or someone else has become Christian, it does not mean that all our problems, temptations and sins go away in that instant. I believe myself to be on a journey – I am not perfect but I strive to emulate Christ, and I am being transformed. I must remain aware of the temptation to “Christianise” my story, my own story of being ill and now being well, to avoid a simplistic “God made me better” narrative, when the truth is more complex than that. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to those who suffer alongside me, and who suffer more than I do while being faithful servants of our God.