My Storyline Conference Lessons: Suffering is Good

Last week, I blogged about my impressions from my recent trek to Nashville for the Storyline conference. Storyline is an organization run by Donald Miller and friends; its sole purpose, to help people of all shapes and sizes and ages find their subplots in God’s story. Moving beyond those first impressions, I learned a thing or two. Here’s the second of this two-part Storyline recap!

TMZ at the Parthenon in Nashville

Storyline Conference Lesson #1: Clear is Good

A good story is a clear story. If I had to pare all the quotes and all the notes from Storyline into a single line, a single lesson, it would be that: good stories — good lives — are clear about what they are, what they’re not, and where they’re going.

And any good story, any good life, starts with a good character.

Good characters know who they are; in the context of God’s story, good characters know who they are in Him. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, and yet I feel like I wasted my first 23 years.

Yes, I ventured away to college and a dorm my freshman year and studied abroad one summer in a foreign country and did a host of other memorable things. But did I ever really know who I was?

Did I know and believe God intended good — great — things for me? Did I know and believe God could — would — elevate my story from mediocre to marvelous?

Why did I basically spend two decades assuming nothing great or meaningful for my life? What a depressing story.

It’s only been since my cross-country move to California that my eyes have been opened to a better story. A story that’s only been overwhelmingly affirmed in the aftermath of Struggle Central.

God doesn’t just rescue us from our situations; He rescues us from our stories. — John Richmond


The more I come to know the context and direction for my story in the over-arching story God is writing for all humanity, the better a character I become in said story, and the more unthinkable things God can do through me.

If I didn’t know who I was in God — a child, an aroma, a victor — none of this would be happening. The move to California, the baptism, these crazy camps, this even more insane book, and who knows what else to come.

It’s the most thrilling awakening I’ve ever experienced, and I’m still very much experiencing it beyond those horrid childhood years of bullying and perpetual isolation. I’m discovering I have value. Actual value beyond a mere Christianese cliche.

It’s a story worth living, and for me as a writer, a story worth telling.

A story — life — makes sense when the character knows what he wants. This must be clear or the story gets muddled. — Donald Miller

Storyline Conference Lesson #2: Action is Good

When I moved across the country in 2010, my story finally got going. And yet even in the two years separating that move and my first book’s ultimate release this year, there was much learning to do and many hard awkward steps to take out of isolation.

Great characters take action.

It’s one thing to have dramatic dreams and fantastic fantasies, but gosh, we have to go for it. All of it. We can’t leave anything on the table. I feel sorry for people who’ve lived within the same five-mile radius their whole lives — either geographically or metaphorically. Never venturing out.

In many ways, then, I’m actually grateful for the horrific move I experienced at 12 from Home Sweet Home Pennsylvania to Awful Isolating Georgia. It was an inciting incident that forced my character from a world of comfort and safety, sparking an entirely new existence. A new story.

I shudder to wonder: what if I’d never been forced to move and stayed in easy comfortable Pennsylvania my whole life? Never venturing out? How long would it have taken for my soul to feel remorse over a life and story wasted in the convenient mire? Something tells me such an awakening wouldn’t have happened until long after 23.

What-ifs aside, I want to be a great character in a great story who continues taking action. And with my identity rooted in Christ, such action can have exponential effects on humanity.

The most powerful moments in a person’s life are the moments in which they realize what they are capable of. — Ryan Forsthoff

Storyline Conference Lesson #3: Suffering is Good

I love Donald Miller; this is no secret. I’m jealous of his ability to be blunt and just say what’s true even though it sounds iffy or heretical without any context.

Case in point:

God has no problem with you being in pain; He intends suffering for your story.


This isn’t to say God is some merciless tyrant in the sky who hurls down hailstones and lightning bolts, chortling with derision through the millenia.

But as the Author of story, God knows what He’s doing.

He knows conflict is needed.

Without conflict, without suffering, there is no change, there is no growth —

There is no story. And thus, suffering serves a critical role in our stories.

Elaborates Miller:

Suffering isn’t the source of pain; it’s the lack of a narrative context in which this suffering fits.


When I moved to Georgia at 12 or when I was bullied at a Christian school and hid in bathroom stalls at church, I had no context for this suffering. NO CLUE what purpose any of it could possibly serve.

Now, I do; now, I see.

My suffering from middle school has transformed and attuned my eyes to the souls of kids today. Kids I tutor, kids at camp, kids I’m somehow able to bless.

Suddenly, all that “suffering” from yesteryear doesn’t seem so bad. I don’t even view it through such a dramatic lens anymore.

Suffering is never fun at the time. But when suffering makes sense, everything changes. Our stories need the suffering.

Even when my dog — my best friend — died, as wretched as I’ve ever felt in 26 years, I almost immediately saw the context for the suffering: I journaled about my recent pornography use and lifelong homosexuality, I told my parents everything, and I forever entered a door that could never be un-entered.

It was an intoxicating freeing door that would have never been possible without some suffering.

Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning. — Viktor Frankl


At Storyline we examined the life of Joseph from Genesis, and it revolutionized my eyes to the need for suffering in our stories. How being outcast to the bottom of a well by your own brothers and being sold into slavery and thrown into prison for accused rape all contributed to an eventual #2 position of power in all the known world.

This perspective — considering your very life like a story — changes everything. No longer is life “meaningless” or “random” or “what it is.”

Gosh, life is such a great story. A story where we’re the main character, but a story not even meant to be about us.

Your story is not about you; your story is meant to save many lives. — Donald Miller


After all, the best stories are the ones that save many lives. It sounds dramatic for “normal” everyday people who aren’t dynamic world leaders or Bob Goff, but what if we’re not meant to be “normal”? What if that really is what God intends for every life, every story, for His glory?

To save many lives?

I’m learning to believe more and more that I am, indeed, made for such a story; you are made for such a story. We need only step boldly into this story — suffering included. Suffering that will change the world.

Storyline was amazing; I’m so blessed to have gone. I’m still processing a ton in these weeks removed from Nashville, and I’m forever grateful for the experience.

Oh. And this totally happened. Words cannot express:

Thomas Mark Zuniga and Donald Miller at Storyline

Thank you, Don; thank you, Storyline. My life — my story — may never be the same.

Question: What will the world lose if you don’t tell your story?

  • Andy

    Did you awkwardly do any of the 11 things you did not want to do?
    Suffering and struggling… I love what it can produce but hate hate hate the process. There are definitely some things that I look back and go, “Okay… That was good. But I never, ever, in a million years want to ever do that again.”

    • TMZ

      Alas, no Snuggie talk with Don. Such a nice guy though. I’m with you on that whole suffering dilemma. Even now, I know the less-than-desirable I’m currently experiencing is going to produce something spectacular. But gosh it’s a slow hard process waiting for this cocoon to burst.

  • Rebecka

    I’ve been struggling to write a comment here that makes sense, but my brain just isn’t working today. So, I’ll just say I really liked this post and it gave me a lot to think about (when I get my brain back).

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