The Healing Power of Story

By on May 1, 2012

By Rita Schulte –

Have you ever felt lost and alone? Ever asked yourself where God is during those dark nights of the soul? It seems like the universal problem we face with God doesn’t it? We don’t feel his presence as we face the battles of life, so we assume he’s abandoned us. We may even believe he doesn’t care, or that he doesn’t love us. If he does care about our hearts, there are times when he isn’t doing much talking, and so we find ourselves feeling lost, abandoned, and alone.

William P. Young captures this lonely cry of a heart walking through grief in his best-selling book, The Shack. The story’s main character, MacKenzie, gets a front-row seat into the heart of the Father as he converses with him about the effect of loss on his heart.

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“Jesus?” he whispered as his voice choked. “I feel so lost.” A hand reached out and squeezed his, and didn’t let go. “I know, Mack. But it’s not true. I am with you and I’m not lost. I’m sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost. (Italics mine)[1]

I remember reading those words for the first time, sensing the powerful impact they had on me. It felt like someone pierced my soul with a hot iron. I wondered why; it wasn’t as if some sacred truth or ancient wisdom was revealed in those few lines. But in an instant I knew why; it was because I felt so lost. A deep emptiness settles into our souls in moments like these. I realized that the words pierced my soul because they connected me with my own pain, not just the character in the novel.

We don’t feel lost for no reason; we feel lost because some part of the story went terribly wrong, and it left us changed forever. But changed or not, we are not alone. Like the character in The Shack, Jesus asks us to walk with him through the rough terrain of our experience to show us that we’re not alone, and that the resurrection of our hearts is possible. The words he speaks to Mackenzie resonated deep within my spirit, and gave me courage and purpose to forge ahead. They will do the same for you if you understand a few simple truths about the healing power of story.

How Story Connects Us

According to authors Dr. Daniel Siegel, (The Developing Mind) and Dr. Curt Thompson (Anatomy of the Soul) recent findings in neuroscience and related fields are now providing us with relevant information on how being known can actually re-wire neural pathways in our brain and facilitate emotional healing. In his book, Dr. Thompson says that it is through this process of being known that we come to know ourselves, and learn how to know others.

How does this occur? How did Mackenzine, the fictional character in The Shack, go from feeling so lost and alone, to simply believing the words that Jesus spoke to him? What changed to move him forward and give him the courage to press on? The same thing that effected change in my own heart as I read and connected to his words.

The telling of story.

Story is a powerful tool in the healing process for a couple reasons. First, because it connects us with the hearts of others and let’s us know we’re not alone. That’s why we love books, movies, and Bible stories. They’re full of real life drama, passion, and purpose. They’re also profoundly personal, so we can relate. For a couple hours, the telling of story allows us to remove ourselves from our own mess and focus on someone else’s sad tale.

Story gives us a common bond, one with another, making our lives more bearable and creating connections in our minds that help us make sense of life and relationships How? Through the empathic and attuned presence of another, a re-wiring of neural pathways begins to occur in the brain.

For me, knowing Mac felt lost revealed the commonality of our struggle. Hearing him share the story of his pain connected us at the heart level and made me feel a little less lost and alone. In other words, listening to his narrative helped me make sense of my own. How does that happen? Through the emotional responses elicited through the listening and telling of story.

Emotions are the catalyst around which the brain organizes itself. They are also the means by which we connect to others and to God. By allowing Mac’s emotions to intersect with mine, I experienced being known, and knowing at the same time, both crucial for healing according to brain neurobiology.

On a deeper level, I experienced the heart of a Savior who faced his own dark night of the soul. Jesus felt alone in the garden, so he gets it when we feel lost. He’s been there, so when he validates Mac’s feelings, (“I know Mac, I understand”) and speaks an empathetic word into his life, (“I’m with you, and you’re not lost”) something powerful happens at the physiological, neurobiological and heart level—- we’re changed because the consistent loving presence of another creates interactions that re-wire the brain. It’s not just our emotional experience with God, but God’s to us that create a haven of safety through which we can experience healing.

This is what attachment theory teaches us. We were created for safe and secure connection. Brain neurobiology tells us that the brain is capable of being wired in response to interactions.

What does all this mean for us? In short, it means we can receive healing. We can repair damage done to us by significant people who disappointed us, broke our hearts, or told us lies about who we are, by allowing the compassionate presence of another to begin a re-wiring process in our brains. Enter Jesus.

The Art of Being Known

Being known is what we all desire, and that’s accomplished through the power of story; it allows us to feel and be known at the heart level. In the Shack, Mackenzie’s pain pushed him Godward. It connected him to God. Even in his confusion and anger, the telling of his story gave him the opportunity to experience relationship with a God who was ready to listen and understand his heart.

Mac knew God intellectually, but as he spent time with the three persons of the Trinity, he experienced God in a new way. He felt known by a God who was searching for him. God became real and personal, and in the context of that relationship, he not only learned he wasn’t lost; he learned he would never be alone.

MacKenzie’s experience of the loving persons of the Trinity began the re-wiring process in his brain. (How this occurs is beyond the scope of this article; readers who are interested can refer to Dr. Thompson’s book).

It led him into a bigger story. God’s story. It’s a story about relationships, and you and I are among the lead characters in the narrative. God is searching for us. He’s calling us to enter into his story and find healing within the context of knowing, and being known. Will we take the risk?

[1] William P. Young, The Shack, ( Windblown Media: Newberry Park, CA) p. 114.

About Rita Schulte

Rita A. Schulte is a licensed professional counselor in the Northern Virginia/DC area. She is the host of Heartline Radio and a 1-minute feature “Consider This.” Her shows air on Alive In Christ Radio ( Rita writes for numerous publications and blogs. Her articles have appeared in Counseling Today Magazine, Thriving Family, Kyria and She is the author of Shattered: Finding Hope and Healing through the Losses of Life, (Leafwood) and Imposter: Gain Confidence, Eradicate Shame and become who God made you to be (Siloam), follow her at, on FB and twitter @heartlinepod.

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The Healing Power of Story