In last Sunday’s gospel (Lk 8.26-39), Jesus tells the man delivered from demons to “return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” Here’s the heart of personal testimony, that ancient and yet superlatively evangelical practice. There’s nothing like the power of the personal story testifying to an encounter with Jesus to persuade and enlighten another.
In some ways, testimony is the key to community in the evangelical world. In my childhood church, giving your testimony was required prior to baptism. I was baptized when I was 12, and I distinctly remember being very uncertain about what exactly I was supposed to say. I knew the catch phrases: “Jesus lives in my heart.” “I accepted Jesus as my Savior.” “I believe in Jesus who died for my sins.” These were all acceptable code, but they don’t come close to feeling really like testimony. “Declare how much God has done for you.”
What should I tell you? The ones who had radical about-faces in their lives—from lives of knavery to lives of purity—they’re the ones who had interesting testimonies. “I spent my life running around naked in a cemetery until Jesus saved me. No one could catch me for a long time, and when they did I was supernaturally strong because of demons and I broke all the chains. Jesus was more powerful than the demons.” That’s a story that sells. Mine? Not so much.
Certainly God’s great obsession—his majestic creation with all its purposes—has worked itself out in the Grand Narrative, and we not only read about it, we are within it. This is a lovely thing, and a wonder to contemplate. God’s testimony is one of generating life and love, of beauty and redemption, of Passion and Salvation. We, I, you are a part of God’s beautiful story, and your role—scenes, lines, and actions—is a meaningful part of what God desires.
The point, however, is experiencing God in our lives, not making ourselves the center of all the activity. If we lose sight of what God is all about, and spend our energy fussing around ourselves, it can become a bit like fixating on getting the perfect selfie to post on Instagram instead of enjoying the experience itself. What’s more important? The experience of loving and being loved, or the story about it? As Leslie Leyland Fields wrote, “The emphasis on understanding God’s metanarrative and placing our story within God’s story has so affirmed our own stories, we’ve begun to displace the scriptural narratives with our own ‘better stories.’”
Consider Jesus. Jesus taught in stories much of the time. His parables were provocative and clever and upsetting all at once. They delighted the crowds and befuddled them. But he didn’t only teach in stories. The Sermon on the Mount is not a parable or narrative. The woes of the Pharisees in Luke 11 are not embedded in a story. The teaching of the Upper Room in John 14-16 is not a story.Stories entertain and pique interest and draw us in, but storytelling is not the only form of divine communication. Not once do we get Jesus talking about his childhood or relating the way he felt when the Spirit descended like a dove or how he heard God in the desert or what the angels tending him in the wilderness was like. Those were stories he must have felt would distract rather than direct. We don’t hear Jesus talking much about himself at all, unless he is speaking about his relationship with the Father.
I consider some of my mentors in faith, both ancient and those contemporary. Paul has his conversion story, and he shares it three times in the book of Acts. And yes, it’s a great story and a powerful one, but his ministry was not just that story. In fact, his real “personal testimony” comes in Galatians, a short, enigmatic description of a mystical relationship: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives me in, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Julian of Norwich, living as she did in England in the 14th century, certainly experienced the social crises of the black plague, the peasant uprisings, civil unrest, most likely personal loss, grief, and difficult friendships. Did she mention even one of these? Not relevant, in her eyes, to the truth of what Christ revealed to her.
George MacDonald wrote out of personal sorrow, but not of it. Pascal drew from a rich body of experiences in exploring the relationship between faith and reason; writing the Wager was possible because of his knowledge of mathematics and love of gambling. But does he regale us with his experiences throwing dice? He does not. Teresa of Avila and her colleague, John of the Cross, both had mystical experiences of God, but were these the substance of their writings and ministry? No.
Dr. Vernon Grounds, former president and chancellor of Denver Seminary, a contemporary saint beloved by so many (do you even know how many people I meet who say to me, “Vernon was like a father to me”?), taught and wrote and ministered, and yet was his personal story the avenue of his grace? It was not. In fact, some of the greatest preachers I’ve heard or writers I’ve read draw on deep wells of experience to give energy to their teaching about Jesus, but they don’t bother much with their own narratives.
I want to teach and preach and write about Jesus. That is the best testimony I can give.