This past September I was asked by a youth pastor to give my testimony to about 40 high school students. I had never given my testimony in front of a large public group before, but I’d heard many testimonies, most of them rather dramatic. I was conflicted about how much to share with the youth, fearing too much information might glorify my past alcohol use or cause the youth to conclude one of two things: “See, she drank and turned out okay,” or “So I have to hit an alcoholic bottom in order to really feel the need for Christ?”
There had been previous “hitting bottom” testimonies in youth group, and I was concerned that these testimonies might imply that a “true” testimony is one that involves past criminal, drug, alcohol or sexual activity. So when it came time to share, I gave the Reader’s Digest version, leaving out my past alcohol use altogether and only talking about my secular humanist upbringing and how my independent self-reliance was a stumbling block to God.
Needless to say, the testimony was terrible. My son, who was in the audience, said I sounded extremely nervous, which I was, and that he couldn’t really hear me (which, in hindsight, is probably a good thing!)
As I look back on the experience, which soured me on testimonies in general, I am positive that I was not led by the Holy Spirit that night and that it was me deciding what to say and why. The more I tried to choreograph my testimony, the more it backfired.
God has used this experience to show me where strong pockets of pride exist and that I’m still way too self-conscious (another form of pride). And after all these months, He finally brought closure to the whole debacle in the form of another man’s testimony given at the recent Good News Jail and Prison Ministry Banquet. There, Rick Sweenie, a former inmate who has been involved in the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry for 35 years and is now a regional director, taught me what true testimony is when he said, “I’m not going to stand here and tell you how bad I was. I’m going to tell you how good God is.”
As I’ve read my Bible in the days since the prison banquet, God has shown me how Mr. Sweenie’s words are Biblical. In Matthew 9:35-36 especially, we learn that Jesus spoke out of compassion for the lost. Jesus’ focus was on the needs of his listeners. His heart broke for them. He wasn’t trying to wow them with an amazing testimony. He was trying to point them to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God where they could find healing. What point is testimony if it doesn’t do the same?
The risk of testimony is that we get too specific with our personal experience and lose people. The listener may not be able to relate, thinking they are either not as bad as us, dismissing their need for God, or are much worse and conclude God cannot redeem them. But when most of what we share is focused on the answer, regardless of the sins committed, that’s where the harvest is. The facts of broken lives are many and varied, but the answer for all of it is God through Jesus Christ.
I know now where I went wrong in my testimony. It was in thinking of it as mine and not God’s.
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:35-36