June 3, 2020

The Gospel: My Personal Testimony

By Chaplain Mike

Though evangelicals of most stripes disdain the word “traditions,” they like all people have many of them. One salutary Gospel tradition they maintain is that of the personal testimony. In the churches and groups I have been involved with, every believer was encouraged to have one. Each Christian should be able to tell the story of what Jesus has done for him or her personally.

The Bible certainly encourages this. “Let the redeemed say so!” exhorts the Psalmist. From recounting God’s saving deeds in the midst of the congregation to declaring his glory among the nations, Scripture encourages an outpouring of verbal praise and thanksgiving as we tell the story of what God has done for his people. The word “Hallelujah!” is in actuality an imperative, a command. The Bible commands us over and over again to “Praise the Lord!”

There are problems, for sure, and many things we could critique concerning the personal testimony, but I don’t want to focus on them today. We will save that discussion for another time. For right now, let us agree that it is helpful for a person to be able to articulate his or her faith and personal experience of God’s grace and salvation. Not only is it helpful to that person’s own spiritual formation, but it can be an encouragement and witness to others of the saving love of Jesus Christ.

In this post, I will share a personal testimony of my own in two forms. One is my “short form” prose testimony; my basic story. The other is a more literary form of the same story.

As I have written in other posts, I have had questions over the years about how to interpret this experience. Was it my “Damascus Road” conversion from darkness to light à la Paul? Was it a “turning back” to the God who had met me in my childhood, even though I did not then grasp his presence? These days I tend to call this an “awakening” rather than “getting saved.” The more I have contemplated, the more I believe and see evidence that God was with me in some sense from the beginning. As with David and John the Baptist, I believe God knew me from my mother’s womb.

But this is all extraneous to the point of this post. When God meets us personally and opens our eyes in fresh ways to his grace and mercy in Christ, no matter what we call it we can tell the story and point to him.

Here are two of my own attempts to do that.

My Testimony
Back when I was a teenager, I was confused about the purpose and direction of my life. This became clearer to me, when, at the start of my senior year in high school, my family moved across the country from the Midwest to the east coast. Suddenly, in an instant, all of the activities and relationships that I had looked to for meaning and significance were gone. I had to start all over again. I began to wonder, “If the meaningful things of life can be taken away so easily, what is the use of putting so much effort into pursuing them?”

I did not know the answer to that question and I had no idea where to find it. In the meantime, I wanted something to numb the pain and fill the void in my heart. For a short time, I basically dropped out of life’s race and sought satisfaction in substitutes like alcohol and drugs. I wasted a precious season of my life with so-called “friends” who did not really care about me, doing “fun” things that led mostly to regret, causing the people who truly loved me much anxiety, and finding that the pain did not go away and the emptiness only became deeper.

However, during those days I also became acquainted with schoolmates who said they were believers in Jesus Christ. They were not a whole lot different than me. They had problems too, and they certainly were not perfect. But it soon became clear that they had something different in their lives. Actually, what they told me was that they had someONE different, who was helping them with life’s challenges. This Person gave them joy, optimism, a capacity for caring, and a sense that life matters.

Through the influence of these friends, I came to embrace Jesus by faith, turning away from those substitute paths that were leading me to dead ends. He opened a way of purpose and meaning for me that I have tried, by his strength, to walk ever since.

In Christ, I have come to understand that God made me and put me in this world to know him and to serve him along with the other members of his family. This has given shape and significance to a life that once was aimless and without direction.

• • •

Where Are You?
Sunny Sunday morning. The month of March. Early spring in northern Maryland. A young man, seventeen years old, almost eighteen, sat with friends in the church service. The regular preaching pastor was absent that morning. Too bad — that man could preach! With deft phrase turns, immaculate enunciation, and careful attention to the room’s emotional temperature, his word-arrows usually struck the bullseye. Most Sundays, come invitation time, at least a few truth-stabbed souls staggered to the altar seeking divine solace. However today, in his place was the second-in-command, an adequate plodder and capable administrator, but not the type to call down fire from heaven. Being in the background suited him. Nevertheless, his job description entailed preaching on those occasions when Chrysostom’s reincarnation took his leave.

The pastor announced his text. The young listener located it in the early pages of the Bible. It described the aftermath of a quiet, devastating choice. Ah yes, the first story; story of us all. Story of creation, provision, vocation, question, temptation, capitulation, contrition, alienation. And then, a Voice. The Voice did not accuse. No swift passing of judgment. The Voice did not castigate. Rather, as the fugitives foolishly sought to screen themselves from their Father’s all-seeing eye, the Voice asked a question.

“Adam, where are you?”

“Where are you?” — the question that reverberated through the Garden was spoken again. On a sunny, Sunday morning in the month of March; early spring in northern Maryland. The divine Voice came enfleshed in an occasional preacher. The one who heard the question this time was no leaf-clad miscreant, but a young man sitting in church. Or was he a fugitive as well? The teenager shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. “Adam, where are you?” The sanctuary offered none. No trees to shield. An uncovering was taking place. The question was simple, not eloquent nor profound. Yet it kept coming. Napalm words. Defoliant spray. You could see the fig leaves shriveling.

“Adam, where are you?” The preacher noted the obvious. Why did God need to ask this question? Certainly not because he was unaware of Adam’s location. He knew where Adam was better than Adam himself. Ah, perhaps there’s the point. Did Adam know where he was?

Of course, God knows where I am. Do I?

The thought caused the young man’s heart to jump. “God knows where I am! I guess he has always known where I am and where I have been. But I’ve had no idea. Where am I? I’m lost. I’m hiding from God. I’ve broken his commands and I am guilty. I have tried to make it on my own and it has gotten me nowhere. I have been hiding behind trees, trying to cover my shame with pathetic costumes. Running. Hiding. Covering. That is where I’ve been. Trying to avoid God.”

And then, an inner cry. “God, I’m over here! I’m coming out from behind the trees. Here I am! Please come and talk to me! Help me! Save me!”

The sermon ended. The invitation hymn was sung. The pastor called people to the altar. A young man knew it was his day.

“Adam, where are you?”

“Here I am, Lord. No more hiding. I’m coming to you.”

Comments

  1. I loved this, Chaplain Mike. No fluff, no brouhaha. Simple. I, too, came to think that God was with me in the beginning. When my eyes were opened I knew that HE knew where I was. It was amazing. But then how did the simplicity of the Gospel get so complicated? About 25 years down the road I am finally coming to a grace-filled Gospel that seems to be what IM is about…and others who have helped me along the way. It is all about God’s grace to broken people. It is why we love. The more I see myself without the coverings…the more His grace astounds me. Thank you for maintaining this site. I am one of many who are so blessed.

  2. Harvey Cooper says

    American evangelicalism, with its roots in that country’s waves of religious revivals, has a tendency to valorize emotionalism. The expectation that believers “give their testimony” is of a piece with the expectation that they “know” they are saved, perhaps by having a “born again” experience. Thus the habit is instilled in evangelicals, of pretending to feel–if not actually feeling–certain about everything, as if God himself were whispering in their ears. The introspection of the above story, while charming, will never be found directed at anything that threatens the prejudices of the group, and is more often found pressed into the service of authoritarianism than of liberation.

    • Very cynical, Harvey. Certainly there is a place for telling one’s personal story. I noted that there are many caveats and potential abuses with regard to this practice, but this post was not the place to focus on them. One thing evangelical pastors should do is teach people how to give good testimonies. There is plenty of Biblical material to work with. In my view, this is where fault lies if testimonies are lacking.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        A good testimony should not include any hint of one-upmanship or pushiness. More like it should just say what happened; even if what happened didn’t match the audience’s preconceived notions of what a testimony should be. Probably best done in private, one-on-one or in a small group; with public testimony to a large audience, there’s always the danger of playing to the audience.

        • Whenever someone gives such a “testimony” before a large audience (including here), the subtext is something like, “I am very devout. Follow me.” It’s basically the same thing that politicians do when they talk about how much they love America.

          • So I guess you are accusing me of saying to everyone who reads IM, “I am very devout. Follow me.”

            Doggone, Dan. You found out the real reason I write for this blog, and now the secret’s out. I guess I won’t be able to build my kingdom after all.

            Hey Jeff, all those big donations are gonna be droppin’ now. Time for plan B.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        I grant the point about the impropriety of the venue, but I also understand the reaction. Many Evangelicals consider (or at least often seem to consider) the conversion testimony a necessary element of being a Christian: an additional non-optional sacrament. I come from a tradition which does not emphasize such stories. (Ask around the Lutheran church you are now attending and see how many of the congregants have one. There may be some, but probably not many, and there would be even fewer in other parts of the country.) I also am a pastor’s kid. I have gone to church my entire life. The closest I have to a testimony story is that in high school I was attending church because it was expected of me. Then I went to college and was mildly surprised to find myself attending church on my own. A Road to Damascus story this isn’t. Indeed, a skeptic might point out that church was a source of familiarity naturally attractive to someone away from home for the first time.

        The thing is, those Evangelicals who emphasize the conversion testimony are all too likely to question my faith due to my not having a story. This does not concern me greatly. I don’t particularly care what they think. But it does produce a defensive reflex when the topic arises.

        • I find the ones who believe that the testimony proves the rightness to be quite interesting. After all, other religions also have testimonies.

          Anyone who has wondered by exmormon.org or exchristian.net can read some fascinating testimonies.

          • I’ve never really liked hearing Paul’s conversion set forth as the template for anyone. It’s significant that his so-called altar-call experience is usually limited to the highly dramatic Damasus Road events; seldom mentioned is the completed story: Ananias laying hands on a blinded Paul, causing scales, as it were, to fall from his eyes, then Paul’s immediate baptism. Whose testimony includes all that? A more common experience, I suggest, is that of the Ethopian eunuch, in the chapter preceding Paul’s account. The man reads Scripture, his curiosity is piqued by what he does not understand, he seeks out help, he finds a Christian who can tell him about Christ, and he requests (and gets) immediate baptism. Whose testimony even mentions baptism?

    • I don’t know about everyone else Harvey, I can’t speak for anyone but me.

      God did speak in my ear in 1973 and my life turned right around. It was one of those very rare moments when I realised that the choice I made then and there would shape the rest of my life.

      When I announced that I decided to follow Jesus people than knew me were dumbfounded. At that time I was not headed down a very good path.

      My mother (who was not religious) died in 2007. In a personal moment I asked her ‘where do you think I would be today if I did not become a Christian’

      She said ‘Prison’

      I am not proud of what I was becoming, but I do know that God spoke to me and my life has never been the same. And through the years at key points in my life he has continued to talk to me.
      I don’t completely understand why, but I am one of those who believes that the narratives in scripture of God talking to man are not there just as metaphors, but a record that the Hebrew God is one who talks.

      Am I any better than anybody else, I don’t think so. In fact I am not really worthy of his love. I was a screw up from a young age from the wrong side of the tracks.

  3. A lovely story of how you were called to the One you were seeking, unaware that you were even looking.

    May I add, from personal experience, that in the same way some couples fall in “love at first sight”, others have a friendship quietly grow into something much more.

    And some Christians are converted in a Damascus road experience, a flashbulb moment they will never forget. Others have always know Christ in some basic and/or childish way, and that relationship deepens over time without any “ah-HA” moment of metanoia or conversion.

    It is part of the reason Catholics have difficulty with the famous “Are you Saved??” question. We are living and moving and growing, and as much as we love Christ, many of us lack the Big Conversion Moment and pray that we will be forgiven for our shortcomings and sins. ‘Lord, I believe. Help me with my Unbelief”.

    • Have to agree, Pattie.

      What do you do if you’ve never had a “Once was lost, now am found” moment to testify about? If God has always been there in the background, even at moments of doubt, because He makes the most sense of Life, the Universe, and Everything?

      I could (can!) point to times when I have (when I am) turning away, turning my back, refusing to hear or see, giving lip-service but not circumcised of my heart – as you say, Chaplain Mike, hiding in the leaves – but I can’t give you a time when I said “This God stuff is all nonsense” or “Well, that form of religion I grew up with is too irrational/judgemental/mired in the past; all you have to do is love God and then do what you will” or “My informed conscience tells me this is not a sin for me”, because it never happened (nearest I ever came was when I was eleven, thinking about ‘so do I believe this? why do I believe this?’ and as a thought-experiment decided to think as if I were an atheist, so right: strict materialism, no God or gods – and it failed within days, because it just did not work and I couldn’t deny the reality of God.

      But I don’t have any ‘God caught me by the hair and dragged me back’ moment(s) to describe; I’ve always known when I’ve been pursuing my own way that it was my own way and the wrong way, and God is there and I should come back, but I’ve never had my heart scalded – well, unless it counts that I always start crying when I read things like this in Dante’s “Purgatorio”:

      88 The fair creature, garbed in white,
      89 came toward us. In his face there was what seemed
      90 the shimmering of the morning star.

      91 Opening his arms, he spread his wings
      92 and said: ‘Come, the steps are here at hand.
      93 From here on up the climb is easy.

      94 ‘They are very few who answer to this bidding.
      95 O race of man, born to fly on high,
      96 why does a puff of wind cause you to fall?’

      Does that count as being convicted? 🙂

      • My growing closer over time had more to do with intellectual curiosity at first.

        I was helping a Ugandan Priest with his computer (I was open but still just going through the religious motions – hadn’t taken my faith for my own yet), when he mentioned while discussing the origin of the Gospels, that there were other Gospels out there.

        Curiosity piqued I went searching and soon realized that if I was going to do a fair compare and contrast then I had to know what the canonical gospels said, and so I became voracious with scripture…

        and then I needed to know the context of the other gospels so I delved into Church history…

        and then I found I was being too heady (by this time the Mass was really intriguing me) so I delved into prayer/meditation/contemplation an the Christian Mystics…

        tthen I needed to know what other Christian believed so I dug into Calvin/Luther/Zwingli etc, … then I needed to know what was different from the eastern lung do I delved into Eastern Orthodoxy, then Judaism etc etc etc….

        So mine wasn’t a flash moment either – but that’s just my personal story…

        • Martha….and all this time I thought I was the only little girl in the pews who went throught the “this is all crap that I am not sure at all I really believe” moment well before my teens! I was nine or ten, and remember those few weeks clearly.

          Then I decided to look at the possible alternatives, and none of them made a bit of sense to me. So, I returned to fold…with the Lord and I the only people who ever knew about it.

          So, I do not mean to denigrate anyone else’s experience…just to point out that it is by NO means universal to our faith. Perhaps some of us were just blessed to have one person in our lives who introduced us to Jesus with our pablum, and our faith grew along with our bodies and minds.

        • Josh in FW says

          So Radagast, after all that researching where did you end up? (protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, something else) and why?

          • I am Catholic, though if the Church were to disappear tomorrow I would become Orthodox. But I will admit Josh that my foundation is in Catholicism so when I read the Church Fathers it seemed to jive with my faith though I admit that there may have been the rose colored spectacle thing going on.

            I find much depth in the faith, and I can go deep both spiritually and intellectually. There are some shortcomings (faith in action types of things that I find the Protestants do better) but I just take that into my own hands and implement it in my small corner of the world.

            Thank you for asking…

  4. textjunkie says

    Mike–what a great presentation. Truly hopeful!

    Having grown up in the charismatic movement, I always felt odd that I didn’t have a testimony. I’d never wandered, never doubted deeply or given up, so while I had my mountain top experiences, I never had a succinct story about what Jesus had save me *from*. No miracles, no healings, no “I was there and now I’m here” stories.

    But a priest once pointed out there are a bunch of models for conversion–there’s the Paul model, bolt of lightning, change of life, once and forever model; but there’s also the Peter model, which swings closer and farther from God at different times, and has, in effect, many small conversions over time. And there’s the John model, who was always there, nothing major, but always knowing God’s love. That made me feel better, somewhere between Peter and John. 🙂 Less dramatic, but such is life.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I think what happened in the past is that the Evangelical tradition focused too narrowly on “the Paul model” as THE conversion experience. Mine was more the Peter model.

  5. I do not know how to express it in my dog English, but many many thanks for this blog!
    It is helping me to know where I’m 🙂

  6. Mike, while you’ve gotten relatively few comments for your series this week, I just want to say I’ve enjoyed it. Complaining about the problems with the church has its place and is obviously popular (Lord knows I do it too), but articles like the “Gospel week” are welcome.

  7. Both versions of your testimony are undoubtedly true, but the first one sounds like a thousand others. The second one is a gem and has a greater impact because it is so real. You are an excellent writer.

  8. Wow, Chaplain Mike. Very well written second piece!

    You know, this may be sad or bad, but I don’t remember the sermon that sent me to the altar at the age of 8. I remember the talk my parents gave me about Christ and the need for salvation. I felt convicted by their presentation but didn’t want to convert merely because Mom and Dad told me to. Don’t know what it was that sent me over the edge.

    However, in all the stories I have heard, no one has ever been converted by “Adam, where are you?” How interesting! Thank you for sharing.

    • In one of Watchman Nee’s books, he writes of a man who was converted by the genealogy in Genesis 5. The continual repetition of the words, “and he died,” drove home his mortality to him and he cried out to God. Nee makes the point that sometimes people are saved by the wrong verses!

      • I also read about a Filipino who was converted by the genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew. The translator had thought about skipping ahead to chapter two, but when she and her language teacher got through the “begats,” he declared, “Now I know this is real history if it can be traced back through Jesus’ ancestors! That’s just what we do.” And he became a Christian.

        • How wonderful! Sometimes we overestimate what can “convince” someone to become a Christian, particularly with those from less structured, more tribal societies. Interestingly enough, those from more traditional societies are closer to living in ways the Biblical authors lived and would understand.

  9. Love it, CM.

    Growing up in ministry, I was shamed by others when I couldn’t verbalize a “Damascus Road” experience. I was a covenant child. I never remember a time when I didn’t believe. My parents didn’t baptize me as an infant, although that was an option. I became a member of the church at age 11, completed my profession of faith, and was baptized. It was an incredible time for me as a kid, and it hurt me deeply to have fellow Christians downplay the significance of my experience, and discount my baptism as illegitimate. In order to be ordained in the Baptist church, it was insisted upon that I be baptized again. I did so, but I regret that choice to this day.

    The problem with the miraculous “I was blind, but now I see” testimonies I have heard is that many believers can’t maintain the testimony. They slip into the old habits again…addiction, pornography, adultery, etc…then are labeled as “backsliders”, or even worse, “They weren’t really sincere about the prayer they prayed before.”, which inevitably leads to yet another altar call response and baptism.

    I believe that there are real Damascus Road experiences, no doubt, and there is a need for altar calls. Not everyone is going to participate in catechism and do a profession of faith. Those of us who didn’t have a dramatic conversion should never be made to feel that their own testimony is invalid, though. I may not have the dramatic conversion story, but I’ve done my share of sinning! I need deliverance, too. My own story is not about a miraculous change, but a continual story of God’s grace in my life.

    • And I love your story too, Lee. When I hear such a grateful presentation as yours, it makes me think…that surely is sweet to the Father’s ears. It is so thankful of His faithfulness in your life and the gift of His grace.

    • For some it can be that emotional high thing… and once it wears off disillusionment sets in. In my younger days I dabbled in drugs and alcohol (ok… more than dabbled) and it led me on a life of extreme highs and lows. I haven’t lived that way for a long time – prefering rather to stay close to the line in the middle. Its that way with faith for me as well. A guy I once knew and respected described his conversion experience and his time after as being on fire. While he liked that – he liked it better when it cooled a bit into a comforting warmth – which I interpret as knowing God is there and that we are loved…

    • Amen to all of the above. In the world of physics and human emotion, what goes up must come down.

    • I used to attend a Teen Challenge breakfast meeting.

      At breakfast, the guys would get up and testify. Most had lived some rough lives and had a strong testimony of how God had met them. And it was a joy to hear them. One thing to keep in mind is that with some people they need the high initially, because they need something more real than what they have been living.

      One Saturday there was a young lady there who when it was her turn to speak she said something to the effect “I grew up in a Christian home and did not go off and do drugs and I am thankful for it”

      I was so glad she spoke up. Because either way, God is glorifed. It is a miracle when people who are living rough lives turn to God and are delivered. But be aware that with that there is a huge amount of growing they have to do.

      Others don’t have to learn the hard way, but still walk with God.

  10. Was it a “turning back” to the God who had met me in my childhood, even though I did not then grasp his presence? These days I tend to call this an “awakening” rather than a “conversion.” The more I have contemplated, the more I believe and see evidence that God was with me in some sense from the beginning…

    yes. amen. my epiphany when i was 20 years old after an amazing automobile accident. i was the back seat passenger of the car my good friend backed off a mountainous cliff September 7th, 1974…

    nope. my life did not ‘flash’ before my eyes as we slowly rolled off the turnout that had no guardrail. the actual events of how that accident happened were never replayed for me via divine/angelic video feed (shucks). however, it was almost 2 months later after being out of the hospital for about half that time that Jesus invaded or became ‘present’ in my consciousness. i was off any strong medications since being out of the hospital. my left leg in a cast with a steel rod from knee-to-hip (still there). was late morning (no drowsy half-dream influences). i had been stumped by the details of my survival & spent many fruitless hours going over the possible scenarios in my mind, but always baffled by the obvious violation of the laws of physics as i understood them. as i was in this state of mental frustration once again, He ‘entered'(?) or invaded or became manifest in my mind. it was like my consciousness literally retreated at His appearing; it was as if my mind bowed down & ceased its futile search. He ‘spoke’ (about as close to an audible voice as i have ever experienced): “I AM responsible for the results of the accident…” (sans video replay). that was it! i had my answer! He satisfied my curiosity even without the details revealed. He revealed the source. i think i laughed out loud. and smiled. a lot. i was so aware of His providence (good theological definition). after a few minutes of joy & giddiness, He spoke (hard to define here–mental telepathy?) again: “You can go back to the way you were (came?), or come, follow Me…” yeah. that was the easiest decision i ever made! but it was also the most challenging one as i have discovered after 37 years of fits & starts, stumbles & questions, still unanswered…

  11. I’m glad that the “REASON for the hope within you” is not me or my testimony. The REASON is Jesus, not me, not how I feel , how I x,y,or z’d.

    The best testimonies are those that do not have I or me within them.

    • Rob I see where you are coming from, but I don’t think it is realistic. What God goes objectively is still for ME. Paul had no problem telling his own story, and the psalms are filled with folks inviting others to hear what God had done for them personally.

      Having said that I absolutely agree that the focus must remain on Christ and his work.

  12. Highwayman says

    Jesus said we were to be his witnesses, not his sales reps. A witness’s responsibility is simply to report what they have seen and heard – “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. As long as we do that, then he who is The Truth can use that testimony in ways we often can’t imagine.

    I admit I don’t give my testimony very often – it’s very boring – but on the other hand, I’m unhappy when people are invited to speak simply because they have a dramatic story and have been saved from lives of untold crime and debauchery. Praise God that they have been, but in reality, I’m not convinced that the sales pitch that says, “If God did it for [XXX], He can do it for you”, is very effective.

    • Well said

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …but on the other hand, I’m unhappy when people are invited to speak simply because they have a dramatic story and have been saved from lives of untold crime and debauchery.

      I suspect some of that is the Christianese version of Tabloid Voyeurism — “JUICY! JUICY! JUICY!” Here they get to hear all this “untold crime and debauchery” they are normally forbidden from even thinking about, and maybe even get to live it vicariously.

      I do know a lot of that type of testimony can end up making the pre-Saved life a lot more interesting and exciting than the post-Saved — “I was immersed in a live of Booze and Dope and Sex! And boy was it fun! Then I Got Saved and nothing exciting or fun has happened to me since! But I tell you this only so you can avoid the same Fun-filled Mistakes!” Kind of like the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from the original Fantasia where after all the on-screen action and wild exciting music of the Witches Sabbat, we cut to a static scene of sunrise with a choir singing a slow-paced hymn.

  13. I wish I could put into words my testimony. But, it is such a mess and I have failed so damn much… Yet, As lame as this will sound, Jesus Christ REALLY had mercy on me, He surrounded me when I didn’t know a bible from a bottle of beer. He had mercy. And he liked/loved me when He showed up all those years ago…
    Then, I got religion/church and I lost my first love.
    Now, it is pretty simple, I clean my Mom’s butt and her dentures, I care for my husband when he hits a medical hurdle, and I just try to help when & where I can. Not impressive or exciting. But, I sure love Jesus.