Story and Agency

Recently my children have been debating the question of responsibility. Whose fault are their actions? At times they own them, sometimes too much. They blame all of their struggles on their choices and their strength of will (or lack thereof). This can express itself both in absurd pride (doing 10% of a project and then declaring, “Look what I have accomplished”) and heart-wrenching self-condemnation (“I’m so stupid, I can never do anything right). 

At other times, they want to own nothing. “My brother made me do it” is declared as if their sibling were in that role traditionally consigned to the devil. Indeed, my daughter has even declared that her sins are Adam and Eve’s fault.

Like most childhood struggles, they are really exploring a great question of human existence, that of agency and story

Human beings are creatures with agency. We make real choices, we are capable of self-reflection, and we can change the trajectory of our lives. We are not robots or automatons. “Choose this day whom you will serve” is a decision presented to God’s covenant people throughout their lives (Joshua 24:15).

Agency is a part of what it means to bear the image of God. We are given a real dominion over creation, including our histories and actions in it (Genesis 1:28). Part of the first sin is a denial of that agency. “The serpent/that woman made me do it” is a claim echoed by every fallen heart (Genesis 3:12-13). In Christ, that agency is only strengthened. We are set free from bondage to sin and law, and that freedom is to be lived out and defended in the Christian life (Galatians 5, Romans 8:1-4). 

At the same time, we are also creatures with stories that limit and shape our choices. No one can hear Paul’s agonized cry in Romans 7, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” and not recognize that our agency is profoundly broken by sin (Romans 7:19). Some of this helplessness is a result of the story we inherit in Adam, a brokenness we are born into (Psalm 51:5). Some of it is also the result of living in a broken world—“the fallow ground of the poor” is not fruitless simply because of laziness or bad decisions but because of society’s injustice to them (Proverbs 13:23).

So what do we do with that tension between agency and story? The answer is, of course, that we must recognize the role both of them play in ourselves and in others. Both are biblical; neither can be ignored without great distortion to our experience of the world.

We must confess: we are creatures with stories. We do not come into our lives as blank slates, and we experience the consequences of sin’s brokenness throughout them. Our childhoods shape us. Our relationships shape us. Our own past choices shape us.

Our stories should teach us to be kind to ourselves. If we believe we are creatures of pure agency, we can easily settle into cycles of self-condemnation. We think we should be better than we are, should be able to run the race faster and with greater endurance, not recognizing the ways we were wounded and are left limping from our pasts. Growing in understanding our stories teaches us to live out of the gospel rather than trusting in our strength and capacity for good works.

At the same time, we are creatures with agency. Our stories shape and stagger us, but they do not define us. Especially if we are in Christ, we should recognize that we are “no longer enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). We have the capacity to choose life, to experience growth, and to overcome temptation.

The greatest lie of the devil is that we are helpless thralls to our basest desires. We don’t fight against sin, we don’t seek to change, because we believe it is impossible. We are defeated before the battle is even joined. The truth, though, is that we do have the power to choose how we walk. Not in a way that denies our stories, not in a way that will always be perfectly consistent, not in a way that removes the need for God’s empowering grace, but nonetheless truly—we have agency. Christ has set us free. 

It is also crucial to recognize that other people have stories. This realization should teach us a spirit of listening compassion. It is common, at times, for us to use our stories to excuse our faults while viewing others as consisting of pure agency, without hurts and fears wrought from a broken past and a crooked world. When we sin, it’s because of our circumstances; when they do, it’s a product of inexcusable choice. We must constantly remind ourselves that other people are creatures who are just as messy as we are.

Yet while we show mercy and deep compassion, we must also admit that other people have agency. We should be quick to overlook a sin, but we should never excuse evil in a way that allows it to grow. This is why the Bible’s formula for judgment is not to never correct our neighbor; it simply demands that we have owned our own agency and sought to overcome our own failings before pointing them out in others. Likewise, we should honor the choices of others and their capacity to change; no human being is a hopeless case. Not in a world where Jesus has risen from the dead.