We may not be good at arguing intellectually for our faith. But every Christian has a story to tell of God at work in their lives. And that is convincing in a unique way.
I recently visited a church plant that has experienced lots of struggles in its four years of existence. It has had trouble finding meeting places. (So far, it has held Sunday services in five different locations.) It has had trouble creating a sizeable core group. For some reason, as soon as people join the group, and momentum starts to build, other people are called out of town, and the Sunday morning numbers dwindle. There are never enough funds, or enough people to do the work. But . . . in spite of all these challenges, one thing was evident on that Sunday morning—life! This church plant reveals the power of God at work in people’s lives.
So what happened? Three people had prepared a portion of their life story in order to share with the congregation the touch of God upon their lives. One person had walked with the Lord for many years, someone else had recently immigrated to Canada, and another had been a Jesus follower for only four months. Yet all three shared how they are part of the same story of transformation.
Personal stories provoke a powerful response
They talked about meeting Jesus in a real tangible way and of experiencing the Spirit in suffering. They told how God is changing their values, their dreams and their reactions. They talked about the struggle of giving God control, and the joy and peace they experienced when they did. They simply told their stories. In response, the congregation wept and laughed and clapped. And then they fell silent at the truth revealed—that God is on mission to reach and to love people. Why? Simply because God wants to do so. God delights to give us life!
It reminded me of the power of words of witness. People may try to invalidate our beliefs, but they cannot refute our experience of the living God. Some may try to shoot down our belief in God through arguments from science, or by questioning God’s goodness in the face of evil. They may try to shake our faith in the Bible through arguments from history.
We can choose to respond with counter arguments on the cognitive level. But we can also respond out of our personal knowledge of Jesus Christ because others cannot refute or simply dismiss our testimony. The experience we have with the living God revealed to us in Jesus by the Holy Spirit is something that they cannot downplay with intellectual arguments or scientific explanations. This is especially true when they see us change from anxious clutching needy people, or overly self-assured and confident people, to those who have found grace and hope in Jesus Christ. We change, and we bear witness to that change. When we speak of this encounter, our challengers are left speechless. How can they refute the change in us? How can they refute our testimony?
People see the changes in us
Of course, there are times we are hesitant to open our mouths and speak. We are afraid of how others might respond. The young woman who shared her testimony of recently coming to faith had only just started to tell people about her new relationship with Jesus. She had just sent out some Facebook comments sharing the changes she was experiencing and was shocked that people were responding favourably. Why? Because they had already noticed the transformation taking place in her life. She was bearing witness to the change that God had initiated—but God was also bearing witness in her life by developing that transformation. This is a wonderful reminder that both in mission, and in testimony, the role of God is primary.
Even in the shaping of our witness, God is at work. We tend to feel a great deal of pressure to get our testimony “right.” Fortunately, when we speak and bear witness to our experience of God, we are not speaking on our own. The Spirit helps us speak truthfully about our experiences and—more importantly—the Spirit of God bears witness by making the changes in our lives obvious.
Lesslie Newbigin comments on this in his discussion of John 15. On the night before his death, Jesus tells his struggling disciples that the Spirit will testify and that they, too, are to testify (verses 26 and 27). Newbigin writes:
It is important to note what is not said. It is not said that the Spirit will help the disciple to bear witness. That would make the action of the disciples primary and that of the Spirit auxiliary. What is said is that the Spirit will bear witness and that—secondarily—the disciples are witnesses.[i]
When we spend time with Jesus and give the Spirit of God freedom to make changes in us, God does so! God delights in us and is thrilled to grant us life—new life that emerges out of death, new life that bubbles up out of our struggles, new life that can overflow into the lives of others.
Not our witness but God’s
The changes in our lives then serve as God’s witness that God is active, and alive, and doing something in us and around us. When we interact with friends, relatives and neighbours, they see that our values, our reactions are changing. This is true for those of us who have walked with Jesus for a long time, as well as those who are recent converts. We continue to be changed, to see things differently, and to understand grace more deeply.
If we allow others to see these changes, then we won’t need to struggle to come up with arguments to convince others that God exists and is at work. God’s Spirit will bear witness on our behalf. We can echo God’s witness by confirming that these changes are not the result of our dedicated hard work and discipline. They are there because Jesus by his Spirit is at work within us.
According to the world’s standards, this little church plant does not appear to be successful. But does that matter? God’s Spirit is bearing testimony that God is at work, because when lives are transformed it is always a miracle of God’s grace. God is bringing forth life in our midst—let us celebrate that—and bear witness to it!
Marilyn Draper is a Baptist church planter, and a Ph.D. student at McMaster Divinity College. She is also an Adjunct Faculty Member at Wycliffe College.
[i] Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1987), 206.