I was converted through the work of the Navigators at Glasgow Uni back in 1980-ish. It was a great year for conversions – 10 in my hall of residence out of just over 200 in that year. One of the guys who was converted came up to Uni at the same time. I knew him in secondary and primary schools. Ken was converted some months before me and became something of a mentor to me. We would meet once a week, he would choose a topic on some aspect of Christian living and we would kick it around for an hour or so. It was great fun and immensely valuable to me.
One time we were talking about testimonies. It is always good to be able to say clearly how you came to Christ if there is ever the opportunity to tell someone. Ken was very wise. He said that it was important not to over-dramatise the story. You know the kind of thing, “I was hanging from the cliff by my finger-tips. At that moment I realised I needed to be saved and so I cried out to God, ‘Save me!’ Amazingly, God did! ” It was an important lesson.
Even so, it took some time to learn. I remember giving my testimony at a mid-week meeting at New Prestwick Baptist Church. I also did so when I was baptised there. Each time I was told “just a couple of minutes”. Each time I took more than five. My story was a long one with lots of interesting detail which I was sure everyone wanted to know.
I have heard many testimonies now, and quite a number in formal settings. Over the last few years there has been a number of young people baptised at my church. As is traditional they were given the opportunity to give a word of testimony. I have to say I have usually been disappointed and even a little concerned. Whereas testimonies used to focus largely on the experience of conversion, I have noticed that more recent offerings have focussed on the experience of being baptised. “It wasn’t the right time until now”, “I felt ready to be baptised”, “It felt like the right thing to do”. After all, it can be quite emotional experience with all your friends around you, singing etc. But I must admit, on the basis of what I have heard I really doubt whether some have been converted at all.
Why do I say this? Well, it seems clear to me that testimony has two aspects to it – the objective and the subjective. The objective aspect consists of the work of Christ. Paul testified to this clearly, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4. It was the substance of the apostles teaching – you only need to read the Acts narrative to see this.
Now, there is room for a subjective testimony. Paul does gives testimony in Acts 22 before the crowd in Jerusalem, and before Agrippa in Acts 26. He “tells his story” to the Galatian Christians in Galatians 2:13ff. However, it seems to me that he has two purposes in mind. The first is to explain Christ’s interaction with him. For Paul, Christ has not simply acted in history, but in his life personally. Redemption has been accomplished and applied. His second purpose is to explain why he is doing what he is doing. After all he was a zealous Jew intent on destroying the church. Now he was its strongest advocate. This takes some explaining. Further, as far as the Galatians are concerned Paul needs to establish the source of his gospel in order to bring them back in line. Thus his testimony has a specific objective in ministry.
Paul’s use of testimony seems to be a far cry from what we see today. The strong individualism of the surrounding culture affects us all, perhaps especially the young. It makes much of personal experience. True, this provides opportunity for Christians who have marvelous personal experiences of Christ to share. But it also can be a temptation to become self-absorbed. What seems to matters in ‘my testimony’ is the greatness of my problems before meeting Christ (‘poor you!’). But I decided to follow Jesus (‘good for you!’). Now my life is great and full of purpose. Is that really what it is all about? Substitute ‘Bhudda’ or ‘Krishna’ for ‘Christ’ in the above story and you have the testimony of many other people. No, this is not the testimony the Holy Spirit enables us to bear.
Christianity is not a recipe for self-help. Nor is giving your testimony an occasion for focussing on me. God save us from that! It is about a man whose life, death and resurrection are the only hope for the world. This is the only testimony that we have and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to share it.