We Christians love a good story. We know that stories are powerful, and sometimes we get caught up in the craving for that power.
I’ve told my life’s story hundreds of times. In fact, when I was a pastor, I was applauded time and time again for the “power” of my testimony. I had a big, painful story, you know; the “drugs, sex, and rock & roll” type. I told it flawlessly, with drama and flair, wrapping it up with a pretty little Jesus bow, and brought down the house. It brought my listeners deep joy and stroked my fragile ego to contentment. So, during my first year of practicum group at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, when I was asked to tell my story, I was ready for the same accolades. I was practically chomping at the bit to impress my new classmates.
When the day came for me to share my testimony, I did it with the same gravitas and bravado that had brought me so many accolades in the past while in ministry. You can imagine my surprise when, as I finished, I looked around at the faces encircling me and was met with silence and looks of confusion. “Where are you?” asked the professor curiously. “What do you mean?” I replied. “Well, it seemed like you told such a big story, it made it impossible for any of us to enter into it with you.” He was right, and I was caught. I didn’t allow myself to need their engagement while telling my story. I told it honestly, but without vulnerability. I was in full control of my performance, in hopes that I could control my classmates’ reaction as well. It was not an invitation to intimacy and connection with the shadow parts of myself, but rather a form of manipulation trying to subtly seek affirmation without having the courage to ask for it.
I came to realize that all the times I had previously told my testimony in church had been displays of faux-vulnerability. I had even preached about the power of vulnerability, but without actually having the self-awareness to live it out. My story of sin had given way to a perverse pride rather than a humble grief. Revealing the depth of our stories must be a sacred choice with presence, heartache, and vulnerability, which can be terrifying. Few courageous souls are willing to pay that high cost.
I believe this distorted view of story leads to a mindset of “my testimony is better than yours”. Our twisting of the power of story has perverted churches’ spaces, preventing them from being a source of deep healing. Instead they are simply places of comfort, justification, and complacency. A client once said, “Well, if I ever stop my objectification and abuse of women, at least my life will make a great testimony.” He somehow used his future hope of a “good testimony” to lessen the pain of his current reality and unwillingness to grieve the harm he has continued to perpetuate on others.
When we fake our way through our spirituality, lying to ourselves about the lack of courage we actually possess, we make a mockery of redemption and cheapen the sacrificial blood of our Savior. Jesus suffered into crucifixion so that he could defeat Hell and taste the glory of resurrection. Our call is no different. As Phillipians 3:10 states, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Becoming like him in death! Are you willing to die? Are you willing to tell your story in a way that makes you bleed? Though the shedding of our blood will not redeem the world, it may help us know our Savior and each other more intimately.