“I learned to swim when my dad threw me in the deep end of a swimming pool.”
That’s not my story, but I’ve heard it told several times in my life. Interestingly, I’ve heard it told as both a horror story and a fond memory, depending on the interpretation of the teller. For some, it explains how they came to be the kind of person who overcomes challenges with tough perseverance. However, for others, such an experience may explain why they have always struggled to trust authority figures. The meaning, to some degree, depends on interpretive choice.
I don’t think we realize how much our life experiences are interpreted. We speak about our lives as if certain experiences have obvious meaning, but even in telling our life stories, we make interpretive decisions about which events are significant enough to include and which ones can be omitted. We typically have the story we want to tell first, and then we go back and search our lives for the experiences that help us get there. The preacher at the prison probably won’t lead with his homeschooled upbringing. We’re choosing certain episodes to share because we already know what kind of story we want to tell.
Just as we choose which episodes to include when we tell our stories, there is also some degree of choice involved in the interpretation of individual events. Nothing just happens to us without interpretation. Experiences are placed into narratives complete with preconceived notions of heroes, villains, identification of conflict, and expectation of resolution. We’re storytellers, and we rely on the stories we tell to make sense of everything.
You may be wondering, why does this matter? Let me give you two reasons. First, recognizing how much our experiences are interpreted helps us see we are not stuck. We can’t change our experiences, but we might be able to reach a different interpretation of them. Sometimes we point to certain experiences of our past to explain present tendencies. “I’m like this because that happened to me.” But what if the meaning of whatever happened is not static? What if I can interpret it in a better way? What if the interpretation I’ve relied on my entire life does not sufficiently explain the experience?
Second, if we are “in Christ,” the story of Christ provides the interpretive key to all our experiences. Yes, Christ lived, died, and was raised to save his people from their sins. But that’s not all. Christ also lived, died, and was raised to replace all other stories with his. The gospel story now provides the interpretation. No one models what this looks like better than Paul. When he wrote, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), he was declaring that Christ had become the interpretive lens through which all his experiences were interpreted. In Christ, his life was telling a new story with a new hero. For the first time in his life, the hero of Paul’s story wasn’t Paul; it was Christ.
How did this change Paul’s perspective? What new interpretive tools did Paul use to make sense of his experiences? One would have to study the entire corpus of his writings to get the full picture, but I have room for a couple examples here.
In 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, he tells about an affliction experienced in Asia in which he and his companions “were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” It was so bad that they thought they “had received the sentence of death.” We would certainly label such an experience “traumatic.” But notice how Paul interprets it: “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Because of the gospel, Paul now sees his life in the context of a story about learning to rely on God through faith. His suffering gains new meaning in the context of that story. In Christ, his “light momentary affliction” is preparing “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Again, Paul writes Philippians from a prison cell where he was unjustly imprisoned. Can you imagine how terrible that experience would be? Can you imagine how angry and bitter that would make a person? Yet, Paul interprets it differently. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (Philippians 1:12–13).
Christ wants to save you. But Christ also wants to transform your mind by becoming the hero of your story. You’re not stuck. In Christ, all your experiences gain new meaning.