What Is “Testimony”?

Josh Hamilton clobbered twenty-eight baseballs over the outfield wall at Yankee Stadium back in 2008 during the Home Run Derby of the All-Star Game festivities. Afterwards he gave credit where credit was due during the post-Derby interviews: to God . . .? I had a friend at church who, after witnessing Hamilton’s display of power via his television, came up to me the following week and asked, “And did you see his testimony, too?” and the tone with which he said this denoted a sense of awe, respect, appreciation, and Christian “Yeah!” The same sort of thing happened when Kurt Warner won the Super Bowl with the Rams. He thanked his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I had a friend—different one—back then talk about how awesome that was. He wasn’t alone. This always happens. Christians are moved by celebrities’ proclamations of dependence on God . . . to perform well in sports. And we feel like someone really said something pregnant with profundity.

If we reduce God to being the reason we can hit homeruns, then we need a new God. Commence the search for a replacement deity now.

Fact of the matter is, I don’t have a problem with Hamilton or Warner. At all. Quite the opposite. I respect both of them tremendously. I think they’re quite the men of character specifically because of their transparency. But the cloying and overly-fawning response from the religious sports crowd is sickening. I think it comes from confusion over what a testimony actually is.

The artistic side of me much more appreciates, say, what Sufjan Stevens did with his album Seven Swans. The verses are full of spiritual depth. I would be much quicker to label his actions as a more effective testimony than, say, imbuing God with credit for my ability to throw a pigskin. Art has always been a more effective voice than brute strength. The lyrical prose and poetry of Sufjan’s songs are much more saturated with depth and meaning and earnest beliefs—much more so than basically labeling God as a sports fan. But even so, we can’t label Sufjan’s songs as testimony because he acknowledged later on how he wouldn’t try to pull the same thing again with future albums, acknowledging that one’s spirituality is so intensely personal it doesn’t make sense to put it out there on such a grand stage (like Super Bowl post-game platforms on the fifty-yard line) because he believes spirituality is not meant to be grandiose but shared in personal conversation. I tend to agree. You put it out there on a big stage and it can be misinterpreted and twisted. In a one-on-one conversation it can be clarified, sketched with detail, and explained while the listener is still there and has yet to walk away.

It’s this personal aspect of spirituality that causes me to view with skepticism an idea presented in a Bill Hybels Bible study I attended while in college. The idea was put forth that it’s a good idea to get your testimony down to less than a minute or maybe under three minutes (I don’t remember exactly). Not a full-blown testimony, per se, but a simple expression of, “Here’s how God’s changed my life.” The idea was you should be able to quickly point out such paradigm alteration—perhaps to give the nudge of a notion that if God really has changed your life, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with the answer if someone were to ask you how God has made a difference.

There appears to be a dual purpose here: not wasting someone’s time, but still saying something life-changing. Or rather, not taking up a lot of someone’s time. Such a “testimony” approach, though, only lends strength and legitimacy to the microwave culture of Western civilization and, specifically, America.

Because here’s the problem: I can’t put my testimony down into three minutes or less. And I’m not even referring to simply saying what God has done that’s changed my life. I can’t put that down in three minutes, either. Why? Because God has done so much. To believe I could cram it into that amount of time is utterly ridiculous. It would take hours, multiple conversations. It’d be a miniseries of sorts. If the listener wants the whole thing, he’s going to have to come back for more. If a friend and I were driving in the car, and he goes, “Tell me how God has changed your life, but only do it in three minutes,” I’d look at him and simply say, “No, thank you.” I’d offer him alternatives, but I’m not about to cheapen and abridge my experience with God at the helm.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not the soul of the soul.

And I have no qualms whatsoever refusing to tell someone my testimony if they’re not even going to listen for the long haul. Because think of it this way: if someone doesn’t have the attention span to listen to my full story, then they probably aren’t going to have much endurance to search out Christ then. It takes time, effort, and perseverance. If my testimony of longer than three minutes isn’t accepted by listeners, the problem may not be with the testimony-teller. It could be with them. People say they’re honestly searching, but are they?

But we’ve played along with short attention spans too long (many of us suffer from them ourselves). This ailment touches many aspects of life (such as the average person only reading one book a year . . . one), but in a spiritual sense it wreaks destruction on the art of telling stories (which is really all a testimony is). And a story must be told well, but we’re incapable of doing such a thing as long as testimonies are utilitarian. The idea—while perhaps not spoken, but believed nonetheless—is that you work night and day to perfect your testimony, you tell it, and if people don’t accept it and become saved, then you obviously didn’t do something right. Real testimonies demand results. If yours can’t deliver, then it’s a fraction of what it should be.

But Peter says to give a ready answer for the reason you have so much hope. He doesn’t say give a satisfactory answer. I have my answer. If people don’t like it, that’s their deal and not mine. And if they’re tired of listening after one hour, well that’s not really my problem, either. Yes, I believe we need to make sure we can articulate our testimony well. In fact, I believe that wholeheartedly. Because I know this from my own experience. If someone isn’t telling a story very well, I’ll walk away. It’s not that I’m a story snob; I just know I don’t like to waste my time. A story must be told well. But downsize it? I can’t do that. I won’t do that.

Hemingway said to use as few words as possible when telling your story. He did this well. But he still got his point across. Even Hemingway has lengthy, rambling sentences, but they’re still fraught with purpose. So should our testimonies be. Cut out the flack, focus on that which is significant, and be ready to share the story.

My testimony is a story personal to me; therefore, it is something I should care greatly about and should be meticulous in the art of telling. I should be concerned about how the story comes off and, most importantly, how it mirrors the true reverberations of my soul and, thus, reflects the Maker. If I give people the impression God helps me hit homeruns, then I haven’t really given them anything tangible about this God I serve. However, if I make it clear how deep the level of dependency is on this God, then we’re suddenly talking about something different, something all-encompassing, something that touches the soul and the eternal. We’ve left the temporal and are now speaking in terms of the permanent.

And that’s what stories do. They touch our deeper level of existence. Should not testimonies fulfill exactly the same function since they nestle against the spiritual realm?

Much love.

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