It may sound strange, but when Jesus declares “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43) He is also inviting us to enter His school of the martial arts—His “Dojo.” In the martial arts we learn to use the momentum of our enemy and redirect it in our favor. It’s the skill of defusing the assault of what seems a much larger attacker by using the force of that attacker against him. And this is the problem facing the Trinity—the “much larger attacker” of humanity is separation from God through death, the consequence of our original sin. And the grace won by His sacrifice on the cross is the redirection of the assault into redemption.
In the martial arts, one strategy emphasizes a “hard” approach—match violence with violence. But the second strategy is “soft,” and it is more shrewd, more Jesus-y: “The goal of the soft technique is deflecting the attacker’s force to his or her disadvantage, with the defender exerting minimal force and requiring minimal strength.” If we consider our twisted schemas and distorted narratives (the natural consequences of our brokenness) as the attackers they are, then perhaps we can learn from Jesus how to counter their influence in our thought life, redirecting their force using strategies that reflect the soft technique of the martial arts.
We see God practicing this soft technique in the life of Joseph. After the envy and cruelty of his brothers, who sell him to slave traders and lie to their father about his fate, Joseph confronts them with the truth. They are desperate and needy now, because a famine has spread across the world and only Egypt (because of Joseph’s prophetic leadership) has the food reserves to survive it. So the brothers come to Egypt to beg for help, at first unaware that their fate is in the hands of the brother they left for dead. When Joseph reveals himself, the brothers (naturally) fear for their lives, especially after their father Jacob dies. But Joseph tells them:
“Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children” (Genesis 50:19–21, emphasis added).
Joseph’s Organizing Principle (the lens through which we see all of life) would’ve included “Even Personal Pain Can Be Redeemed For Good.” Here he is relating more than his own experience of God—he is describing a martial-arts pattern in the way God relates to all of us. God will take what is intended to harm us and redirect its momentum into a life-giving, redemptive outcome. But we have to bring Him the harmful thing in our life—the destructive momentum of our self-narrative—so He can “reapply” the force of it to bless instead of curse. Jesus is inviting us to give Him the raw material of our pain; He won’t waste the impact of that pain if we actually give it to Him to work with. He will then take the momentum of our shattered life and treat it as clay, the medium He’ll use to fashion a new work of art. He is a martial artist. And here is how we can partner with Him in this work:
- “Out” your self-narratives. It seems counterintuitive, but we can use the force of our negative self-stories against them when we set free our interior dialogue from its captivity inside our soul. When we keep those looping narratives inside they are like bulls in a locked china shop—they smash around our soul, wreaking havoc. But when we open the door to let those bulls out, their impact can be dispersed and even negated by the larger community.
I (Rick) have a friend who experienced debilitating trauma when he was young, and was having great trouble overcoming the narrative seeds planted in his soul as a result. His counselor advised him to start telling his story to those in his close Christian community, but he resisted at first: “My counselor at the time was encouraging me to share my story of abuse with others, but I was reluctant because it seemed like asking a lot of those around me to ‘carry the weight’ of that story. My counselor reminded me that part of the calling of true community is to bear the burden of one another’s stories. It was transformative for me to realize I needed my community to help me bear my story, just as they needed me to help them bear theirs.”
Clinical psychologist Todd Essig adds: “Introspection is a closed system. Patterns of growth only emerge by opening yourself to input from others. Can you imagine doing a search on an iPhone with no network connection? Even the best search strategy, i.e., introspection alone, would be terribly limited. So too with cognition, feeling, and desire.” We who represent the “network connection” (the Body of Christ) to those whose interior narratives hold killer intent can “be Jesus” to them by asking questions that might seem like “prying” to our risk-averse sensibilities. I (Rick) often ask people lots of follow-up questions about their story, using cues from what they share to take the conversation deeper. When I explain to others what I do, their first response is that I must get a lot of awkward, pushback responses. But the opposite is true—most people are so starved for someone who will pursue their story as if they actually care about it that I’ve never, ever had someone balk at my pursuit.
Learn to question your self-narratives. Jesus, who physically left the earth so that the Spirit of Truth could enter our hearts and influence us from the inside out, plants in us a love for truth in all its forms. We can join the Spirit’s work in our life by questioning the “givens” of our interior narratives, using the force of their arguments to expose their weak foundation. That means we ask ourselves questions like these:
-Is this true in light of what I know about Jesus? (Is this the sort of way Jesus would really talk or act? Can I imagine Jesus urging people to get on board with this?)
-Is this a truth universally embraced by the Body of Christ? (Jesus insists on a diversity of gifts and perspectives in his “Body,” so how would a “foot” or a “hand” or an “eye” weigh in on this truth?)
-Is it biblically true? (Is this truth consistent with what Jesus says and does in the gospel accounts of His life, and is it congruent with the “meta-narrative” of the Bible’s message?)
-Is it true based on what I already know is true about the Kingdom of God? (Jesus told parables to help us understand how things work in the Kingdom of God, so does this truth fit with what his parables have already revealed, or would it violate something Jesus has already made clear?)
-Is it true on the face of it? (If I scratch the surface of this truth do I find a wellanchored foundation or a thin veneer under it? How quickly does it fall apart under closer scrutiny?)
-Is the source of this truth healthy and Jesus-centered, or does it come from a distorted, unreliable source? (Is this truth obviously serving a twisted, damaged, or pre-determined agenda?)
-Is it the full truth, or does it represent only disconnected snippets of truth? (What has been left out, accidentally or on purpose, in the description or context of this truth?)
-Is it a culturally bent truth that serves a self-centered agenda? (Is it a truth that makes sense no matter where I come from, or has it been reconfigured to support a narrow cultural perspective?)
- Push back on your self-narratives by labeling them, then releasing them. Because our Organizing Principle leads our interior conversation, the themes and “catchphrases” of our soul don’t change all that much without intentionality. Most of us are familiar enough with these narrative patterns that we can actually give them shorthand labels. For example:
-A “Victim” OP might generate this thought: “This world is out to get me. That person’s random comment was meant to hurt me.” Label: That’s my Personal-Attack story.
-A “Clueless” OP might generate this thought: “I’m really just a Poser—I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I fake it.” Label: That’s my Poser story.
-A “Never Enough” OP might generate this thought: “No matter how hard I try, or how much effort I throw at things, it never seems enough.” Label: That’s my Poverty story.
-A “Try Harder to Be Better” OP might generate this thought: “If I can just reach the goals I’ve set for myself everything in my life will be okay.” Label: That’s my Overachiever story.
The idea is to get in touch with the common way you deal with struggles or hurts or disappointments in your life, identify the story you tell yourself, then give that story a label. Then, in the middle of that repetitive narrative cycle in your head, simply speak out that label, then treat it like a bird you’ve captured and let it fly away. Better yet, when you’ve identified the story and given it a label, ask Jesus to take it from you and release it “into the wild.” Do this as often as you need to during your everyday life—there is no “acceptable limit” for the number of times you may need to repeat this “jailbreak” habit.
- Redeem your self-narratives by defining your OP, or the mission of your life. We can launch a preemptive strike against the downward slide toward depression and suicidality by adopting an Organizing Principle that represents “the confident hope he has given to those He called” (Ephesians 1:18). Developing an Organizing Principle takes time, and can morph and change right along with your own developing maturity, but it is not a passive process. That means it’s important to write down your OP and the truths that undergird it, so you can marinate on it until your soul is infused by it. Do this as often as you are able. This can be part of your daily devotion and daily prayer—calling on God to reveal His truths to you daily. This is especially important after labeling our unhealthy self-narratives, so we can avoid marinating on them.
Yes, Jesus will help us define our identity directly and indirectly through His Body, and He will “edit” our OP as we “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). But this process will not have traction in our life until we write it all down. Consider this a quest to develop your personal mission statement—the purpose of your life, and the way you are determined to live with your relationship with Jesus at the center of it. It’s a preemptive shift to living more intentionally, rather than drifting with the current of your default OP.
Dr. Daniel Emina is a child/adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the associate medical director of Amen Clinics, and the co-author of The Suicide Solution (Sept. 14, 2021).
Rick Lawrence is an award-winning author, journalist, cultural researcher, editor, national speaker, and the co-author of The Suicide Solution (Sept. 14, 2021).
Excerpt taken from The Suicide Solution: Finding Your Way Out of the Darkness by Dr. Daniel Emina and Rick Lawrence. Available Sept. 14, 2021. Used by permission of Salem Books.