“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”

Most psychologists believe that as humans, we interpret data in narrative form. We engage life as a story. You can debate the reasons for this, but I believe it goes beyond an evolutionary survival mechanism. Call me crazy, but when everyone is drawn to a story, I tend to believe it’s because there is indeed a beautiful and terrible narrative behind all things. I say beautiful and terrible because the ultimate story of life is full of tragedy and goodness. It’s a mixed bag. For that reason, we’ve spent millennia writing stories to make sense of it all. You and I are storytellers—and the stories we tell matter.

You may not picture yourself as the person telling stories around a campfire or engaging an audience with a charismatic message, but trust me, you are a storyteller. We all are. The problem is, we are often unaware of our audience. You see, you are your primary audience. We interpret the data points of life—every experience, every news article—and we craft a story out of it all. Before we share that story with anyone else, we tell it to ourselves. Over time, these internal stories begin to shape the way we live. The question is not “Do I believe in an ultimate story?” but rather, “What story am I ultimately telling myself, and how is it shaping the way I live my life?”

Every culture has a unique ability to influence the stories of its people. There is a long-told story here in America, one that continues to haunt us today. Built on the premise that everyone gets a relatively fair shake in life, this story essentially says that anyone can come to America and become anything or anyone they want. It’s a highly individualistic message that puts the weight of success on an individual’s shoulders, and therefore builds a value system around individual success. You could summarize this narrative with five words: You are what you accomplish.

The only problem is this narrative isn’t true—far from it. Consequently, this narrative’s message is unbelievably destructive. If you control your own destiny, then your successes or failures are solely your responsibility, which inevitably leads to one of two conclusions. In that context, success leads to arrogance, and failure leads to shame. There are many problems with this, not the least of which is the fact that both arrogance and shame are soul-crushing conditions to live in. The stories we tell ourselves matter.

The good news is that life’s ultimate story is full of redemption. It offers a living hope to those who receive it. It claims that all people have been made in the beautiful image of God, and nothing can change that. However, this story also claims that each of us is born alienated from that image, far from our God-given potential. We’re meaning-making creatures searching for love, joy, and purpose in a world that is groaning under the weight of sin, selfishness, and tragedy.

The story of redemption proclaims that the architect of all things is a personal God of love, who entered into our story, suffered the consequences of our sin by dying on our behalf, overcoming the grief and tragedy of our story by being raised from the dead. The biblical story maintains that God did this because He loves us and intends to restore all that is broken, starting with each of us. Through God’s death and resurrection, we’re forgiven for our participation in the world’s pain. We’re given hope that transcends the tragedies that inevitably befall us. And we’re given the promise of personal transformation through the power of God’s presence at work in us.

If that is indeed true, it is the most honest and hope-filled story we could ever tell ourselves. It gives us the space to acknowledge life’s pain without the need to create simple characters portrayed as victims or villains. It allows us to recognize our role in the suffering that exists in our world without being condemned by that contribution. It enables us to accept life’s grief without being overcome by it. It allows us to admit that things are not what they should be while holding out hope that things will, one day, be made right. And finally, the Bible’s story of redemption reminds each of us that we have a special role to play in God’s mission to make all things new. Could there be a more hopeful and empowering story to tell ourselves—and our neighbors?

We are all more than our circumstances, our decisions, and our accomplishments. We are more than what we have or where we’ve come from. By God’s grace, our personal stories become signposts, pointing to the redemptive power of God coming to bear more and more in our world. That story matters. Here’s the catch: Before we can tell that story to anyone else, we need to begin speaking it to ourselves. Great leaders are not formed through their accomplishments. They are formed through the hope and security that comes from the ultimate story of life—God’s story of redemption. Within His story, every story becomes a story of grace, and every story ends in light.