By Christopher Yoder
I wish to say a word or two in favor of the practice of giving one’s “testimony.” That is, narrating for others how God has been at work in one’s life. It is, of course, a practice commonly associated with the Evangelical movement’s emphasis on being “born again,” evoking altar calls and the sawdust trail — and thereby eliciting much looking down the nose in certain quarters of the church. But it is a practice with a solid pedigree in both Holy Scripture (especially the Psalms and the letters of St. Paul) and in the Christian tradition. And, I want to suggest, it would be a great good if more Christians learned to tell the story of God’s work in their life.
The classic form of the testimony was expressed by the Anglican clergyman (and former slaver) John Newton in his famous redemption hymn: “I once was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see.” Such a form of testimony fits well with dramatic conversion experiences in which there is a stark and immediately discernible change in the life of the person who comes to Christ. As, famously, in the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus: before that moment he was a persecutor of the early church; after, he became one of the persecuted. But, of course, the shape of the lives of many Christians do not conform readily to such a neat, black-and-white pattern. Indeed, the story of conversion is more complicated than this, even in the case of such dramatic instances as that of St. Paul, who insists that, while his life has been radically transformed by Christ, the story of his giving himself to Christ is not yet over:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12–14)
Alan Jacobs, in his Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life, argues that the fundamental shape of any Christian life is determined by the movement from one form of life to another. Using the language of St. Paul, he traces this movement from the kind of life called “Adam” to one called “Christ”: “I once lived, as every human being after the Fall lives, as Adam; but eventually I came to live the life of Christ.” That movement from Adam to Christ is what my testimony narrates. This language of moving from one form of life to another provides a flexible way to tell the story of the ongoing work of God to transform me more and more into the likeness of Christ.
The Confessions of Augustine of Hippo is perhaps the best example there is of Christian testimony; it is, among other things, a richly elaborated narrative of the movement from Adam to Christ in the life of an individual Christian. It is worth looking briefly at the Confessions because Augustine gives a clear articulation of both the rationale for giving one’s testimony and the challenges of doing so.
Augustine’s confessions are so in a double sense: in them he both praises God (confessio laudis) and blames himself for his sins (confessio peccatorum). From beginning to end, the act of confession takes the form of praise to God, always addressed in the second person. Augustine begins by quoting Psalm 48, addressing God using language given by God: “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised.” It is a text Augustine returns to throughout the Confessions, notably when he explains his reasons for writing: “I am stirring up love for you in myself and in those who read this, so that we may all say ‘Great is the Lord and highly worthy to be praised’ (Ps 48:1). […] I tell my story for love of your love.” (11.1.1) That is, the first reason for sharing my testimony is simply the praise of God. Augustine even speaks of his confessions as his sacrifice (5.1.1), as something offered to God in thanksgiving and praise. “I tell my story for love of your love.”
If Augustine intends his Confessions first as divine service, he also hopes they will be of service to his fellow Christians. He writes:
Stir up the heart when people read and hear the confessions of my past wickednesses, which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself, transforming my soul by faith and your sacrament. Prevent their heart from sinking into the sleep of despair and saying ‘It is beyond my power.’ On the contrary, the heart is aroused in the love of your mercy and the sweetness of your grace, by which every weak person is given power, while dependence on grace produces awareness of one’s own weakness. (10.3.4)
In telling his story, Augustine offers something to his fellow creatures. As the critic Walter Benjamin put it: “The storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers” (quoted in Jacobs). In confessing, Augustine has counsel for us. His story offers to keep us from despair and to stir up our hearts to the love of God. And the clear implication is that the testimony of any Christian — anyone moving from the life of Adam to the life of Christ — can offer similar gifts.
Stanley Hauerwas, in his memoir Hannah’s Child, speaks of the challenge of giving a testimony truthfully: “How do you write a testimony, a witness, to testify to God’s presence in your life that does not make more of you than your life has been? How do you testify to God in a manner that does not tempt you to say more about God than you know?” Augustine is fully alert to these questions. He knows that he cannot know himself fully. “I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am” (10.8.15), he writes; “Man is a vast deep” (4.14.22), he says. Elsewhere, he speaks of “the abyss of human consciousness” which is manifest to God alone: “Before you, Lord, whatever I am is manifest,” he writes (10.2.2). Augustine’s recognition of the opacity of the self to the self makes him aware of the human propensity to self-deception. He recognizes that he himself might be self-deceived, when he says: “That is how I see myself, but perhaps I am deceived. For there are those deplorable blind spots where the capacity that lies in me is concealed from me” (10.32.48).
How then does Augustine think he can tell his story truthfully? By the gift of God. He writes, “You hear nothing true from my lips which you have not first told me” (10.2.2). And again: “To hear you speaking about oneself is to know oneself” (10.3.3). The Lord’s speech precedes and grounds his speech, his life story.
This, in the end, is what makes Augustine’s Confessions a model for Christian testimony, namely, his recognition that he is not the most important character in his life. God is. Augustine knows the truth of what St. Paul writes: “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). Therefore, he can write sentences like this one: “There is one hope, one ground of confidence, one reliable promise — your mercy.” (10.32.48) And these: “My good points are instilled by you and are your gifts. My bad points are my faults and your judgments on them. […] You never abandon what you have begun. Make perfect my imperfections.” (10.4.5)
Augustine sees that the shape of his life depends on the action of God. His testimony just is the story of God — of God at work in a particular human life, configuring the story of that life to the life of Jesus. The Confessions are not, in the end, about Augustine, but about the Lord, who is great and greatly to be praised. Such is the proper form of any Christian testimony. A confession of what God has begun to do in my life and a prayer that God might complete that work: “You never abandon what you have begun. Make perfect my imperfections.”
The power and the promise of sharing my testimony consists in this hope. As Alan Jacobs puts it, “Any Christian…can bear the marks of a narrative, a life story, that is like that of Jesus.”
I wonder, what difference would it make in your life — in the life of your church — if you learned to tell this story, if you gave your testimony?