8. A Disciple Has a Personal Story to Tell

Many people misunderstand what it means to testify to what God has done in our lives. Jesus came bearing witness to his relationship with God the Father, and Jesus’ disciples bore witness to their experience of Christ the Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples testified throughout the known world that they were witnesses to what God had done in Jesus (Acts 3:15). The four Gospels are essentially the memoirs of the disciples and others as they remembered their personal relationship with Jesus. [1] In Mark, for example, we have a clear presentation of Peter’s on-again, off-again status as follower of Christ and leader of the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which many believe contains Peter’s memoirs recorded and edited by John Mark, paints the disciples, and especially Peter, as clueless and wishy-washy, not understanding who Jesus was or the true nature of his messiahship. After the resurrection, they were completely changed and went onto the Roman world proclaiming Jesus as the Savior of the World.

One reason we read our Bibles, and particularly the gospels, is to remember and be able to tell the stories of Jesus. One reason disciple-makers memorize Bible stories and gospel presentations is so that we can share the stories of Jesus with others and bear witness to him in this way. However, there is more to disciple-making than telling stories from the Bible or sharing Gospel presentations. We must be able to tell our own story of what God has done for us and meant to us.

What is a Testimony

The word “testimony” comes from the same root word as the word “witness”. The Latin word we translate witness can be translated testify. [2] This makes sense. A witness testifies at trial. Just as a legal witness testifies as to facts of which they have personal knowledge, our testimony to Christ reflects our personal experience of God in our lives. Just as an expert witness testifies as to matters about which they have expertise, a Christian witness can be a witness of things we have come to understand about God as a result of study and consideration.

Testimony at trial is evidence one side or the other submits to the court for consideration and to prove its case. In the same way, our testimony is simply evidence for the gospel. A potential Christian will weigh this evidence just as a court weighs evidence submitted at trial. Like almost all evidence, our testimony is not the case. It is just a part of the case. Therefore, we don’t need to ask too much of ourselves as we relate out testimony to another person. We are not responsible to change minds. We are only responsible to testify as truthfully as we know how.

Finally, perhaps it is appropriate that the Greek word is also the root word for the English word “Martyrs.” We all fear potential embarrassment and rejection for speaking up about any controversial matter. As Christians, we need to die to that fear and anxiety as we bear witness to Christ.

The Importance of Testimonies

In our emerging postmodern culture, the capacity to testify to what God has done in our lives is extremely important. A characteristic of postmodernism is that it is deeply pragmatic. People believe there is no ultimate truth. There’s no continuing truth. Truth is what works at a particular point in time. [3] What is true for one person or in one society may not be true in another. In such a culture, stories of the impact God has in a single life can make a tremendous difference to listeners. Therefore, we should be willing and able to testify as to what a difference God has made.

Testimonies of Action

Our testimony is not just what we say. It includes what we do. How we live as much as what we say is a testimony. As friends and acquaintances watch Christians in business, marriages, family life, social relationships, schools, and in other venues, they notice if followers of Christ live differently and visibly wise and loving lives. In how Christians live, they give personal testimony in their lives concerning what faith means. This testimony can be as simple as saying grace during meals at restaurants or not working on Sunday because you’re in church.

When I practiced law as a young associate attorney, people knew that I rarely work on Sunday. I came in almost every Saturday and worked at least part of the day. However, I never came in on Sunday unless specifically requested to by a partner or client. People knew I did this because I was a Christian. They knew I felt it important to be in worship and spend Sundays with my family. They may not have agreed (and they didn’t always agree), but they knew it was my way of life. In at least one case, another person noticed and was impacted by my behavior. When we demonstrate Christian virtues in our day-to-day life, people take notice.

Testimonies of Words

A lived testimony to the importance of faith in Christ is important. This does not mean Christ-followers don’t need to learn to verbally share their faith with others. It is extremely important that Christians be able to tell people what God has done in their lives. Just as words without action are not enough, actions without words are not sufficient either.

The Apostle Paul told his story to other people in order to bring them to Christ and encourage their faith. His testimony is recorded more than once in Acts and again in Galatians (Acts 22:1-21; 26:4-20; Galatians 1:13-2:21). We can deduce that Paul’s testimony was an important part of his mission of sharing the gospel. In Acts, Paul tells his story at length to his fellow Jews. Here is the story as Paul tells it:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.  “What shall I do, Lord?” I asked. “Get up,” the Lord said, “and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. “Quick!” he said. “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.” “Lord,” I replied, “these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:1-21).

Paul’s testimony has three features:

  1. He tells what kind of a person he was prior to becoming a Christian.
  2. He tells how he became a Christian.
  3. He tells what happened as a result of his becoming a Christian.

Before Paul became a Christian, he was a persecutor of Christians. He hated Christ and the Christian faith. Then, he met Christ on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the Christians in that city. As a result of his conversion, Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles. This is the essence of Paul’s testimony.

All good testimonies have these same three characteristics:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ
  2. How I came to Christ
  3. What a difference faith makes.

Most mature Christians remember how we lived before that moment or period in which the became a Christian, how we became a Christian, and what changed because we became a Christian. In fact, most Christians have several testimonies of what God has done in their lives and how it changed them for the better. Notice that in Galatians the story of Paul’s Christian experience does not end with his conversion on the Road to Damascus (1:18-2:21). Neither does our conversion.

Dramatic and Nurtured Testimonies

Some Christians are hesitant to share their story with others because they feel it is not good enough, powerful enough, dramatic enough, or whatever. This is a big mistake. I have a pretty dramatic testimony of how God came into my life. My wife, on the other hand, has been a Christian almost all of her life. Her story is much less dramatic. It is important to remember that there are as many different testimonies as there are persons and there is more than one type of testimony. Each of these testimonies is important to someone and someone will respond to that testimony.

People sometimes talk about the difference between dramatic conversions and nurtured conversions. A dramatic conversion usually occurs when someone has been far from God and is brought close to God in a single dramatic event or series of events. A nurtured conversion usually involves a parent, grandparent, or some other significant person who gradually nurtured the believer as a Christian.

In my case, I was far from God, not really looking for God, when I suffered a series of failures and losses. At an important moment, a co-worker reached out and invited me to a Bible study. Over several months the members of this Bible study nurtured me until I came to believe in Christ. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a Christian family, was nurtured as a Christian by her parents, accepted Christ at an early age, and never strayed very far from Christian faith or behavior. She can, however, remember various times when God worked in mighty ways and led her toward deeper faith and commitment to Him.

One type of conversion story is no better than another. In point of fact, most of the time the reason people have a dramatic conversion story is that they were dramatically out of fellowship with God in a destructive way. I often say that my more dramatic conversion is not a matter of my great spirituality but my great lack of spirituality! Because of my hard-headedness, God had to knock me over the head with a “spiritual 2 x 4” in order to get my attention. If you don’t have a dramatic conversion it doesn’t speak ill of you. It speaks well of you.

Another reason we should not emphasize one kind of a conversion story as superior is that people have all kinds of life experiences. A person who is quiet, meditative, and somewhat in touch with God may not have a dramatic experience at all. The story of a quiet experience of Christ will have a bigger impact on that person than will a dramatic story. On the other hand, a person who is dramatically out of touch with God, may respond to a more dramatic testimony. Every Christian was given their own personal testimony which is meaningful to people who are like them. Whatever our testimony is, we need to be prepared to share it with others.

God’s Continuing Work in a Life

People love to hear the story of how someone came to Christ. [4] These stories are important. However, our conversion story is not our only testimony. Since the time we came to believe in God and came close to Christ, other things have happened. Everyone has faced times of challenge, doubt, social pressure, testing, failure, alienation from God, and the like. One of the most powerful testimonies any Christian can give to another person is to tell a story of a struggle in your life that is similar to a struggle they are having in their life. Once again, people like to hear stories of what God has been doing in the life of people they know are Christians. People especially enjoy knowing that their Christian friends have struggled and do struggle with exactly the same things with which they struggle. Once again, these stories do not have to be dramatic. In fact, sometimes they are more powerful if they are not dramatic.

Suppose you were let go from a job and it took a long time to find a new one. Suppose you prayed, reached out to other Christians, and went to a Christian ministry that helps people find new jobs. Then, after several months of looking, you found a new job! That testimony would mean a lot to a person who was just laid off. Suppose you have struggled in your marriage, in parenting, or in some other area of your life, and you prayed you sensed God’s presence in solving the problem. That testimony would be powerful to someone who is struggling in a similar way.

We might call these testimonies “Continuing Testimonies.” God continues to work in our lives after we are Christians, forming us into the people God wants us to be. This forming process, both pleasant and unpleasant, is part of our continuing testimony. It is also an important witness to what God can do in the life of ordinary people like us.

In my former church we had a ministry to people who were looking for a job. It began during a recession, and many of the people who attended had been let go by their employer in late middle age and were having a hard time finding a job. Most sessions began with someone sharing their experience and how God worked out the problem or was working in the problem. People who found jobs were encouraged to return and tell the newer participants how God had worked in their struggle to find employment. These stories were always important to newer members of the group. People are always encouraged when they can identify with someone who has struggled as they have struggles and come out on the other side.

Sharing in Testimonies

One important thing to remember about sharing your testimony is maintaining an appropriate level of self-disclosure. For many years, my wife and I were leaders in the ministry in which laypeople were asked to give their testimony to others over a weekend. Occasionally, someone would go into great detail about a series of sexual, alcohol, drug, or other indiscretions.  These were never good testimonies.

There are two problems with being too explicit: First, as I point out in training sessions, whatever you say to a hundred people is likely to be retold to a larger number of people. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to remember to share at an appropriate level of detail, so as not to embarrass your family, spouse, children, co-workers or others. Of course, if you were guilty of some sin, it is completely inappropriate to share the name of someone who may have been involved with you at the time without their express permission.

Second, there is a level of explicit repetition of indiscretions, that borders on the glorification of that indiscretion. For example, I once heard a testimony that included repeated somewhat detailed references to sexual indiscretions. At some point, it almost sounded like bragging.  This testimony was given at a retreat at which many young men were present. In the end, the impression was given that this behavior was something that young people do that is fun and exciting, but limited and in the end disappointing. I felt the testimony almost encouraged the behavior in question. Unfortunately, a number of young ladies were likely to be hurt by young men who engaged in that pattern of behavior. In the end, I felt that this testimony made the wrong point, despite the good intentions of the person who gave it.

A Good Testimony Glorifies God

Last of all, it is important to remember that our testimony should not glorify us or our activities, good or bad. A good testimony glorifies God. The level of detail we need to share is that level of detail which allows a listener to understand what God has done in our lives and how important it is to us that God acted to heal us. The point is that God loved us and rescued us from the situation—and can be trusted to love and rescue others as well. God should be the hero of our testimony, not us.

We Should be Ready and Willing to Share our Faith

Many Christians have difficulty sharing their own story. Even more people are not sure that they could tell another person what it means to be a Christian. This is nothing new. Christians have always struggled to tell others of the love of God we see in Jesus Christ. The best antidote to our fears is to learn to share a short testimony concerning what God has done in our lives.

Preparing to Share

Every Christian should be able to give their testimony when appropriate. A good way to start is to try to tell your conversion or other story in about three minutes. If you wrote it out, that would be about one typed page, double-spaced in length. Your testimony needs to be personal. It needs to be your story. Of course, it needs to be factually correct. There is a reason why it needs to be short: You may not have a long time to tell it.

I often call this testimony my “Elevator testimony: or “Starbucks Testimony.” The setting is this: you’re at a coffee shop or restaurant or some other place with a friend. In the course of the conversation it has become appropriate for you to share with them how you became a Christian. You don’t have your Bible. You don’t have notes. You don’t have your diary. You don’t have a lot of time. You’re sitting at a table looking at another person. What would you say? Obviously, what we say will vary from person to person and situation to situation. What we need to keep in mind is the major point of what we intend to say.

In my particular case it goes something like this:

I grew up in a Christian home. Our family went to church regularly. When I was in college I drifted away from God. I became selfish and self-centered. I made decisions that were unwise. Over the next seven years, while I was objectively successful in the minds of a lot of people, my life was a mess. And a moment of personal suffering and tragedy, a friend brought me to a Bible study, and that Bible study witnessed to Christ by word and deed. I made Christian friends who shared God’s word and God’s love with me. About six months after I was first invited to the Bible study, one afternoon after church, I was pondering the worship service, and suddenly believed that the Bible was true and that Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. After that moment, my values, my objectives, and my goals in life began to change. Over time, some of my worst habits were overcome. God has made a big difference in my life personally, professionally, morally, and spiritually. I’ve become a much different person than I was on that day forty and more years ago that I became a Christian. I have a wonderful wife and family, a satisfying career, and good and healthy friendships.

After forty years as a Christian leader, I’ve given my testimony in many different venues, sometimes for as long as two hours. Obviously in two hours you share a lot more detail. In one minute, you share a lot less detail. The important thing is to outline in your mind the contours of how it is you came to Christ in such a way that you could tell the story to another person. Of course, the truths of the Scripture and faith in Christ are primary in the Christian life. However, people are touched by the stories of people who have been touched by God. We don’t need to worry about having a lot of scripture in our testimony.

Don’t Deprive Others of your Witness

When we don’t share what God has done for us with others we deprive them of the opportunity to understand what a difference God can make in one single human life. A person struggling in their career is touched by the story of a friend who struggled in his or her career. A person struggling in their marriage is touched by the story of a person who has struggled in marriage. A person who is struggling with their children is touched by the story of a person who is struggling with children. Our human stories, and what God has done in our lives, is a source of hope in the lives of others. We need to remember this when we are shy or fearful about sharing with others.

It is important that we are able not just to communicate what the Gospel is, but also what the Gospel does. A personal testimony should allow another person to see not only what God as done in the past (the Gospel) but what God continues to do (our testimony). This is why we need to continuously be aware of what God is doing in our lives and be able to share it. Someone will be touched by that testimony.

Recently, I semi-retired. In the beginning, I was not terribly comfortable with the situation. Then, God opened up a door for me to use my gifts in a new church, far away from any congregation I ever served. It was a wonderful experience. This particular testimony resonates with many retired or semi-retired people who feel a need to continue to use their gifts and abilities for the glory of God. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow God will give me yet another testimony? The continuing story of what God is doing in our lives is part of the bigger story of what God is doing and about to do in every life we touch. Each day we are alive involves a new act of God in our lives that can benefit someone.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] There are various theories concerning the writers and compilers of the Gospels. Tradition held that the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew, John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter and Paul, wrote Mark, Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, wrote Luke, and the apostle John wrote John. Critical scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke each borrowing from Mark. The exact writers are not as important as the observation that the Gospels are largely edited memories of Jesus.

[2] The Greek word “martereo” means “to bear witness.” It can also mean to testify It is also the root from which we get the term “martyrs,” i.e. those who die bearing witness to Christ. Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, Eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged Ed., Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 564.

[3] Despite its usefulness, this pragmatic definition of truth is limited. Christians do believe that people will be better off if they follow Christ. We don’t mean by that that they will always or inevitably be better off. In fact, the benefits of faith can never be fully experienced in this world.

[4] Once again, in my over forty years as a Christian, I have participated in many renewal weekends, meetings, testimony services and the like. I have heard hundreds of testimonies by ordinary lay persons. Much of the time, there were non-Christians in attendance. Almost without exception, everyone in the room was interested in and moved by the testimony being given. This does not mean that everyone responds to testimony. This is not true. What is true is that people are almost never offended or dismissive of a testimony.

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