Don’t you love to hear a good testimony? I mean, if you’re a Christian, a testimony can really be used to encourage you in your faith in who God is and what He’s doing in the world. Sometimes you cry with the person telling it, and others you laugh as you relate to aspects of it. Often, testimonies include everything from the grandiose to the mundane. But regardless of how dramatic the story, its details should share one aim: glorifying God.
However, testimonies can have the opposite effect and can actually breed jealousy or an ungodly discontentment. In my travels across the country speaking and performing I’ve come to realize that even the story of what God has done in one’s life can become a subtle battleground for sinful comparison.
The Problem with Testimonies
One of the great joys I used to have was being able to share my testimony. Upon request, I would share the details of my life that involved guns, drugs, murder, betrayal, prison and eventual salvation. My life, to some people, was the stuff of movies, but for the most part I believed the emphasis of my story was on God and how awesome He is.
I learned the skill of highlighting the aspects of my testimony that would be helpful to my various audiences. For example, an audience that could relate to the circumstances of my life was more impressed with how I changed, while an audience foreign to this kind of life was more impressed with the depravity and boldness of my sin. I could always tell which was which by the questions asked afterwards.
Over time, my audiences began to look the same. More and more I found myself speaking to audiences of a different culture than my own. Because of this, many of my life experiences were only visible to them through the media, which glamorizes sin.
I would address thousands of people at a time, and you could hear a pin drop as I shared my experiences in the underworld of pop culture, where danger is cool and death is a badge of honor. I would talk about my lowest lows only to end with the highest highs of redemption accomplished and applied. People would roar with applause as if the grace of God was more evident in my life than their own. Almost always people would come up to talk to me afterwards and thank God for His work in my life.
What would follow was more the usual than the unusual. One after another people would ask me questions about my life, and then they would begin to share the details of their own lives. Here is where the problem with testimonies began.
A common statement, especially for those who grew up in a Christian home, would go something like: “My testimony is pretty boring. I never did the stuff that people like you did. I am not even sure when I became a Christian. I just kind of grew up into it.” Then they’d wish they had a better testimony, maybe some Apostle Paul, Damascus Road experience. Maybe if that had happened, they’d be more grateful for their faith and maybe even a more dedicated believer. There were many that actually said and hoped for this.
It was then that I began to realize that there can be a real problem with testimonies. I decided if I was going to share my story with people who would compare their salvation with mine, I needed to find out what God thought so I could encourage them.
The Great Misconception
I have often wondered, what is a testimony that pleases the Lord? And also, how does a person who has not sinned grievously against the Lord realize they still have a testimony? Two thoughts came to my mind.
The first was a passage in Luke 18:15-17. It reads: “Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’”
There is a lot that you can learn from these verses but I don’t plan on fleshing out all the sermonic details. I do want to highlight something from this passage, though, and it’s the fact that God desires children to come to Him. God is pleased when children glorify Him from the earliest ages. Jesus even says the kingdom of God belongs to them.
This means the belief that God-glorifying testimonies must involve dramatic pursuit of sin is a great misconception. Those who follow God from a young age likely won’t have the experiences I did. These people would have testimonies like those of the Christians I meet who, underneath it all, appear to wish they had sinned more.
My second thought was that when you have the perspective of “I never did the stuff that people like you did,” you are actually saying your sins aren’t severe enough to warrant Christ’s death on the cross. And that only those “serious sins” required His substitutionary sacrifice.
What sins are excusable to God? Did lying to parents, disobedience and idolatry of music, people and possessions somehow escape God’s notice? Has anyone who grew up in the church or in a Christian home loved the Lord with all his or her heart, soul, mind and strength? How many have continuously loved their neighbor as themselves? What Christians, who grew up into their faith, call rebellion and “not that bad” God calls sin, and all sin is worthy of His wrath.
Apart from His grace, a holy and perfect God has never looked favorably upon anyone who has sinned, even one time. Whether you have grown up in the ‘hood or the woods, I guarantee that you and I fall into that category, incurring the wrath of God for all eternity. Yet, because Christ died on the cross for that sin, you and I instead fall into the category of forgiven.
A Better Testimony
Lastly, I would like to take a moment to encourage those who do not have the dramatic stories of conversion. I want you to know that if there is such a thing as a better testimony, you’re the one who has it. Think about it like this: We live in a world where sin is greatly encouraged and promoted. Sex outside of marriage, drug use, immodesty, lying, pride, anger and anything you can name beckons to us from all sides. In this society it is much harder to not sin than probably ever before. Sadly, a virgin is novel. At its best, humility is called being “down-to-earth,” while gross sins have cool names such as “an affair” or “alternative lifestyles.” This is the fallen world we live in.
So, how easy is it to pursue sin? How easy it is to sell or use drugs, or do any of the sins that make up a dramatic testimony? The answer: too easy.
In this day and age, honoring your parents and being pure, humble, patient and honest are powerful miracles. I would even venture to say it is abnormal to not sin in “dramatic” ways.
Which is the better testimony? The person, like me, who was easily and whole-heartedly in the world, or the person who didn’t do those things even though they are heavily encouraged? I think it is more powerful to say you haven’t done much then to say you’ve done it all.
I recently told a group of college students, who have mostly grown up in the church, that I wanted my son to have their testimony instead of mine. I would rather him say he hadn’t experienced much of the “grotesque” sin that his dad did than to say he sinned so willfully and wickedly against God. At the end of the day, that is all having a dramatic testimony means. I have sinned against God more than you. No rewards for that.
If it is possible to have a better testimony, then to me, the one with the least amount of sin has it.