Christians struggle with their own testimonies. Our stories are boring, uninteresting, and mundane, or so it seems to us; who would listen to us even if we did share? What often qualifies as ‘interesting’ is the sort of thing someone would write (and read) a book about: ex-felons, ex-addicts, ex-something-or-others. We are all sinners saved by grace, and as unclean and broken as we may be many of us haven’t gone a day in our lives not knowing about God. We remember repeated prayers as naturally as we recite the alphabet; some of us even had songs for both. Often we describe our testimonies in terms of a reshaping or a renewing of our current faith: we are reminded of the sin we have, or convicted of the sin we didn’t see, and now we can return to the Cross we’ve known all our lives. It isn’t so much a one-eighty as a couple of degrees at a time; we may admit to forty-five, at most.
There’s nothing satisfying, at least to our current experiential palate, about turning away from pride, for instance. No one can look and see an immediate or obvious change; pride is a matter of the heart, and our actions often contradict our motives. We look and see good people, but until they start talking, until they start telling us of their evil hearts, we can’t be witnesses to their redemptive stories. But this isn’t a problem with their redemption. We’re suckers for big and loud stories—look at the film industry for evidence—and so we tend to write off anything that doesn’t fit the bill, at least when it comes time to share. We don’t volunteer to tell people we grew up in the church and asked Jesus into our hearts right as we learned to speak; who would find that anything but boring?
The solution isn’t to seek a more powerful testimony—let’s not sin that grace may abound—but to expand our understanding of what constitutes a beautiful testimony. We can describe those who grew up in the church as spared from the horrors of the criminal life, but this feels empty. The negation isn’t nearly so powerful as the positive expression: we are saved from the damnation we earned by the great grace of God’s son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course we desire to be remembered, to be seen as moving examples of the grace God can provide. The examples trumpeted to us are those who stand out in the wide course of history, especially those saved from what we see as powerfully damning testimonies: Paul’s persecution of Christians, Augustine’s many sexual sins, right on up to the teenage-atheist-turned-thirty-something-Christian C.S. Lewis. We see that great Christians of the past have often come from broken places.
This emphasis on Michael-Bay-esque testimonies can be harmful, despite the intention to inspire us. While these testimonies can encourage us to look and see the greatness of God, our tendency is to only see God’s grace manifest in those who have been saved from what appears to be much. If we took for our role models ‘ordinary’ Christians—local pastors and elders, our parents and professors, our peers—perhaps we’d be more capable of seeing God’s explicit and awesome grace in our ‘ordinary’ lives.
I don’t recommend removing the historical ‘greats’ from our studies, nor should we discount the explosive testimonies we so often hear. Rather, we ought to broaden our understanding of what makes for a compelling story of grace.
To borrow a phrase from Matthew Lee Anderson’s discussion of the ‘radical’ movement within Christianity: if we lose out on mundane spirituality—that is, if we aren’t “more attentive to the homeless fellow nearby us than […] the grand, architectonic life that […moves us to] the third world”—then we’re certainly skipping out on appreciating mundane testimonies. While we should not fight against radicalism in one sense (in precisely this sense: Christianity is radical because God stepped into the world to save us, and our lives will be changed; we will look different), it is worth remember that Paul was a tent-maker, and continued to make tents even as he went about his missionary journeys. Jesus often met people in what seem like minor ways: eating with them, spending the day with them, and traveling with them. The disciples were ordinary people pulled out of more-or-less ordinary lives, made memorable by Christ’s interaction with them. Some we hear a lot about, John and Peter especially, while others are more-or-less forgotten: Bartholomew, Judas son of James, Simon who was called the Zealot, and at least one of the two named James. These men could have taught us much—after all, they walked with Jesus—but their Biblical conclusion comes almost as soon as they are introduced: they become absorbed by the term “the twelve,” rarely to be heard of individually again.
And so it often is with us. There are many unsung heroes in your local church, and I’m not talking about those often described as unsung heroes. Every Christian has a redemption story. Whether you are saved from cocaine addiction or a prideful heart, from deep in a prison cell or the comfort of your suburban home, your story is one filled with grace. If we can’t see the beauty of a redemption story, the problem isn’t with the story: the problem is with us.
After all, every story of redemption is one so powerful that Christ died to fulfill it.