The word testimony likes to flit between the courtroom and the church sanctuary. It is a cornerstone of both law and religion, functioning in a similar way in both locations. We might assume that its implications in the court of law are more weighty, but I’d argue that the vitality of testimony in religion is just as strong. Truthful witness in court can powerfully affect whether a person lives or dies. I believe religious testimony is just as influential.
The World English dictionary gives this definition of testimony: a declaration of truth or fact. The Latin word testimonium has the word testi in it, meaning “witness.”
To remove testimony from our vocabulary wouldn’t just cause problems for the legal and religious communities; it would frustrate detectives, advertisers, and businesses everywhere. Testimony is the filling in a jelly-filled doughnut; the savory part of courtroom drama for which everyone waits. Crime shows like “Criminal Minds” and “CSI” depend on witnesses to testify so the crime can be solved in a 45-minute episode and everyone can head home for dinner. Commercials and infomercials rely on testimonials for products; if celebrities didn’t swear by ProActiv’s magic, would parents still buy it by the bucket for their teenagers? And if no one testified to the quality of restaurants, the charm of vacation spots, the technological ease of gadgets, would consumers still consume?
The former pastor at the church I attend in Michigan once shared a sentence in a sermon about sharing the gospel that comes to my mind frequently: “The most powerful form of advertising is word of mouth.” And I believe he’s right. Testimony works. A successful testimony of hand-picked words can change a person’s buying habits, opinions, court conviction – even their life. Thus, there’s immense pressure to testify well. And because of this, intense pressure often forms a dirt path that leads into the swirling, churning waters of fear.
This is how the prospect of testimony plops many of us into terrifying territory.
I have no problems sharing my love for good food, learning, and books. Lately all I seem to do is get caught in conversations about food. And just the other day, my cousin and I had a long talk about the Twilight and Harry Potter movies (she is on Team Edward; I tend to prefer wizards to vampires). This is the stuff of daily life. If there’s any pressure associated with testimony about my love for Greek yogurt, Joy the Baker, and G.K. Chesterton, it’s only that my friends may develop similar passions and spend extra time eating that creamy yogurt, reading Joy’s delightful blog, and thinking through Chesterton’s brilliant philosophic musings, like I do. No pressure; no fear.
Testimony about my Christian faith, on the other hand, is a matter of more serious consequences. Christianity deals with life, death, eternity, salvation, and damnation, not just your humble hobbies and your grocery cart. Suddenly there’s pressure to testify well. In a casual conversation, the other person changes the subject. And somehow, the talk turns religious. They mouth his name. God. All my years of church, summer camp, Christian high school and now college, mission trips, spiritual literature, chapel, and more have emphasized this moment: share your faith. My conscience screams, “Opportunity! Go! Go! Open door! Share your testimony! Now’s a good time; what are you waiting for?”
And I want to stomp my foot and say, perfection! The perfect moment! The perfect words! A receptive audience! Instead, we are wiping down booths, tired, clearing dirty plates. You’re sharing a story, and here’s an opportunity. But what do I say? I don’t think you’re listening. You don’t want another Christian to just blab about God and pretend to be all spiritual. You brought God up, but you don’t really want to talk about him. And I’m not the right person to talk to, anyways. I’m young and inexperienced and still growing. What do I know, anyways?
This spring I took my first creative writing class. Not only did my professor teach me how to write ghazals, sonnets, and sestinas, how to use dialogue, how to triangulate, how to discipline yourself to write frequently (apparently I let that go in one ear and out the other, as this blog testifies), but she taught us honesty. In writing, in life, in everything. Readers know if you are lying to them or withholding the truth. Because my professor wanted us to write “best whiskey” (a concept that means the best you have to offer, out of the depths of your spirits and experiences; like the highest quality beverage you might offer a weary traveler), she said that meant we had to be very real with each other. Our commitment to honesty meant that sometimes she handed back a poem to me with an “LC” scribbled in black pen at the top – “look closer.” That LC meant: find the truth. Try again and be real with me. Stop writing what you think I want to hear. Stop being phony.
People want to hear the truth, whether they are reading or listening two feet in front of your face. And how honesty in creative writing relates to testimony is this: honesty is the most crucial part. Testimony is “a declaration of truth or fact.” If you share what is true, real, compelling about God’s work in your life, that is a successful testimony. Regardless of an imperfect situation, or whether the other person listens, or whether or not you feel like it went well.
In my college fellowship group a few months ago, Ron, our teacher, challenged everybody in our class to share a short testimony. College students reached for another danish. I sipped my coffee. Out of the blue, Ron asked me to share. I started, a bit short of breath, pink-cheeked, generally saying that God had been very faithful in my life, and he nodded and listened intently. I finished, thinking that a vague testimony was good enough for a Sunday school class of college students who were already Christians, most of whom I didn’t know very well. I didn’t feel like divulging personal information.
Then he asked, “Can you be more specific? Can you think of any specific examples of God’s faithfulness?”
Of course I could. And his question reminded me of the importance of honesty in testimony. For some reason in the church, we are often scared to share what God has done. We think people won’t believe us. But it doesn’t matter, because if we are honest, whether we testify about God, or movies, or books, or our favorite brand of socks, testimony is a powerful tool.
Having said all that, you’re probably thinking, well Brooke, easier said than done. How ’bout you go ahead and step up to the plate. What’s your testimony? Valid point, dear reader. However, as you’ve already put up with me for 1128 words (far too long for a blog post. You are too kind), I will save it for another day, another post.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours. Your testimony, that is – of love, literature, life, God, or all of the above. It doesn’t have to be formal. Make is short. Be sincere, honest. I want to hear you tell a true story that has significance in your life.
Because that’s all a testimony is, really.