Learning By Witnessing
Back when I was in college, there was a prison ministry program which I was very involved in. Our main focus was a weekend retreat we put on three times a year for groups of teen boys at a juvenile detention center not far from our school. This may be surprising to you, but spending a weekend talking about God with juvenile delinquents isn’t a popular college past time. So we often struggled to maintain a large enough group of volunteers to keep the program going. At some point we reached out to Wheaton College which was just a few miles away to help fill the gap. It turned out that spending weekends with young criminals wasn’t any more popular among Wheaton College kids than it was at my school, but we did get a few volunteers to help us out. They were very gracious and didn’t say a word about our swearing, dirty jokes and the way we’d crank up the Violent Femmes and dance around like crazy people to blow off steam after a long day in juvi. There was a slight conflict one summer when an interpretive dance major from Hope Bible College joined us while home for summer break. She saw her dancing as a gift from and to God and took offense at Wheaton’s taliban-like ban on dancing. Civil disagreement ensued.
As amusing as that was, the only real problem we had with our Wheaton volunteers was when it came to witnessing. You see, the retreat we put on was a common Catholic model in which each member of the leadership team would give a talk centered on a particular topic using their own story as an illustration. So we were witnessing. The problem was that there’s a strong “script” among evangelicals for witnessing which basically goes, “I used to be bad, then I met God and now I’m much better (if not actually good) and you can be too.” Which resulted in on particularly memorable (to me) talk in which a very nice guy from Wheaton stood up and told a room full of criminals – including a couple who had killed or tried to kill someone – about how as a degenerate youth he used to pick on his sister and ridicule her until she went crying to mommy. Hair tugging may have been involved. But then his mom convinced him to accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior and he learned to cherish rather than harass her. Fortunately the boys on the retreat were so in awe of the fact that real, live college students were spending a weekend with them rather than spending it drinking and banging that they took it in the spirit it was intended.
Ever since Andrew went to his brother Simon (Peter) and told him, “we have found the Messiah”, people have been sharing their experiences with Jesus as a way of bringing others to the fold. But when we try to insist that there’s a script which our faith and life must follow, witnessing can’t work the way it was supposed to. It would have been much better if that young man had simply shared what his faith meant to him – how it helped him find meaning, discipline, comfort – whatever. And while it wasn’t much of a problem for those of us whose actual stories fit the script (although it was usually “I was suffering” rather than “I was bad”), the introduction of this evangelical dynamic was a problem for some long time volunteers whose stories didn’t work like that. A couple of good friends left the group because they were feeling pressured to do what that young man did – shove their own unique, nuanced faith experiences into a predictable, easily digested script that diminished their witness immeasurably.
In Revelation it says that at the end times, the enemy will be overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Our testimonies are powerful things. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that the most powerful thing about our testimonies probably doesn’t have as much to do with bringing others into the Christian fold as we think. Rather, the real power of a testimony is what it does to the one who it belongs to.
First of all, when we put together our testimony, we’re creating a story. There’s a lot of research which has found that people are much happier and more satisfied with life when they see their lives as a narrative – a story – rather than as simply an assortment of experiences and events. Creating a testimony requires looking back at your life in a way which brings the internal experience of faith and the external experience of life events together. It helps us learn to see our lives with spiritual eyes. And once you’ve done that while looking backwards at your past, it’s much easier to do it going forward as well.
Having a testimony – preferably an ongoing, ever developing one – also means you have a compelling story to tell yourself when life gets too hard and your own faith starts to wane. Going back to the prophets and through the testimony of many saints and even to Jesus on the cross, there come times in the life of most serious believers when it seems that God has disappeared. When you begin to doubt that he’s even real. Or that if he is, he can’t possibly be good. But when you have a testimony and you have committed to memory those times when you most knew that God was real and experienced his goodness, it helps you move through those times rather than getting stuck in them. In the Old Testament God is forever telling people to build an altar or make a pile of rocks at the place where man encountered God. As a reminder. Our testimonies are our altars and rock piles which remind us that once, God met us here on this earth and in this life.
Of course, testimonies aren’t only for us to sit home and repeat to ourselves. Ideally they are for telling as well. Only we Christians often strip the telling of our testimony of all it’s power – both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we do it like my Wheaton College pal above by trying to cram our story into a script that doesn’t fit. But nearly always, we’re guilty of destroying the power of our testimony and it’s benefits to us because of our myopic and disrespectful attitudes:
The Cherokee Baptist theologian Bill Baldridge tells a story about white missionaries who arrived at the Indian settlement. “We are here to tell you the story of our God and of salvation,” they announced. The elders welcomed them, brought them food, and gathered around to hear this story. The missionaries, pleased by this enthusiastic audience, decided to go with the Long Version. They started at the beginning and over the next several hours they told the whole great Christian saga of creation, fall and redemption. When at last the missionaries were finished, the elders thanked them. “This is a good story,” the elders said. “Now we would like to share with you our story.” The missionaries were furious. Hadn’t these people been listening? Didn’t they realize that they had just heard the One True Story and that their old story, whatever it was, no longer mattered? The missionaries abruptly left, shaking the dust off their shoes and heading out to find some other group more receptive to to their message. (From “Use Words if Necessary” by Fred Clark at his blog Slactivist.)
In Luke 16:8, Jesus comments, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Everyone knows that when you tell a story, the people listening will often want to share their own stories. But when we Christians go out into the world, we often forget that basic rules for civility, etiquette and conversation are still in place – even when the subject is God. But the truth is that a lot of us think that having already gotten ahold of the truth, there’s just no good reason for us to conform to such social norms and nicities. Perhaps we’ll sit quietly as a courtesy while you talk, but it’s not like anyone has anything to say that might actually matter or be worth our while.
Like a lot of us, when I was young I tended to think that I had a decent handle on the answers to how life works. It wasn’t just youthful arrogance. I had been taught those answers. I was being a good student of my parents, my church, the cultural messages which I was surrounded by. Which if I had been raised by the good Lord Almighty and taught by a perfected church and lived in a Christ shaped culture, might be well and good. But of course, I was raised by mere mortals, attended a very imperfect church and live in a culture which is shaped more by talk radio and sitcoms than Christ. So the answers I had didn’t comport with reality nearly as much as I had been told they did. Being wrong isn’t necessarily a problem per se – we’re all wrong all the time. However being wrong tends to be a big problem for Christians because what we’ve been taught carries the label of Truth. We’re like cups which have been filled by our parents, church leaders, culture, etc. And we think that what’s in our cups is Truth. Only Truth must come from God. And you can’t fill an already full cup. Before God can fill us up, we have to figure out how to empty our cups of what doesn’t actually come from God. For me, telling my testimony turned out to be one of the major tools by which my cup got emptied.
You see, when I told my faith story to someone else, it was with the hope that they would take it seriously. That they’d give it the benefit of the doubt and not just dismiss it out-of-hand. That they might think about it. That what I had to say might even influence or change their thinking. And at some point, I made the connection between what I wanted when I shared my story and Jesus’ teaching that we need to treat others as we’d like to be treated. Which meant that if I wanted my story to be taken seriously, I needed to take other people’s stories seriously as well. If I want people to actually think about, be challenged and influenced by my story, then I need to be willing to be challenged and influenced by other’s people’s stories. Which meant no allowing other people to talk as a courtesy without any real interest in what they said. No finding ways to ignore or dismiss other people’s accounts of what it’s like to be them. In practice it meant I couldn’t tell a gay person why they were gay. I couldn’t pretend that the spiritual experience of a Hindu or Muslim was any less real than my own. I couldn’t try to fit reality into scripts that I knew and believed in and was comfortable with. I couldn’t have a knee-jerk “you’re wrong” reaction to what someone had to say and just walk away. Because I wouldn’t want someone trying to do that with my own testimony.
Sharing my testimony turned out to be the things which forced me to deal with life and people as they actually are rather than as I think or presume they ought to be. And it’s hard. The temptation when faced with someone whose understanding of themselves and their lives is in conflict with how you think things work is to find a way to reject what they are saying. Some version of “they’re crazy/stupid/evil/deceived” does the trick easily enough. And of course, the reality is that people’s perceptions sometimes are false. But if I’m going to try to treat others as I’d like to be treated, that requires me to at least be willing to play, “what if they are telling me something true?” I need to be willing to try to understand why a person would see things or believe things the way that they do – without resorting to the “crazy/stupid/evil/deceived” shortcuts. It’s not that I take everything at face value, but I do try to at least consider it at face value. Although it is hard (especially during election season!) the reward for being willing to be challenged like this is great. The more I allow myself to be challenged like this, the more I understand reality. Including that reality is not always so easy to understand and categorize.
A good part of the problem with much of what passes for Christian faith (and especially Christian apologetics) is that it’s devoted to trying to preserve what’s already in its cup against the unrelenting force of reality. But the funny thing is that contrary to the fears of a lot of Christians who find reality threatening, the more I understand reality, the more my faith makes sense to me. I still hold orthodox beliefs, but what I think those beliefs teach and mean has changed. It’s what happens when you allow reality to teach you. God created reality, after all.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony . . . ~ Revelation 12:10-11
The character of Satan in scripture is overwhelmingly described with one word: accuser. That’s his job – to accuse, to offer an alternate explanation of reality which contradicts God’s truth. In the garden, he tells baby Adam and Eve that God isn’t worried about them dying – he’s trying to keep them from being powerful like God himself is. When God points to Job as an exemplar of faith, Satan offers an alternate interpretation; it’s not faithfulness, it’s comfort. Job is faithful because you protect him. This is really no different than what we do when we resort to our “crazy/stupid/evil/deceived” excuses for dismissing other people’s testimonies about their own lives. We are choosing to impose an alternative interpretation of reality on the world around us. But testimonies are powerful things. Powerful enough to help overcome the accuser. Even when the accuser is you or me.
BTW, I don’t plan to ever share it here on the blog, but if you’re interested in reading my account of coming to faith you can find it in my first book The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress. It’s a pretty good story, if I do say so myself!