The Conditional Power of Testimony

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Let’s play a mental game with a pair of scenarios.

Imagine that I were to tell you about an amazing and sudden change in my life. Perhaps I were to describe how I went from fearful to confident. From a tentative and intimidated relationship with an angry God, to a solid assurance of my place in the Kingdom and an unshakable belief that the God Who names Themself “Love” is truly for me, determined to win my soul forever. That I used to be bound up by sin and shame, but today I walk free from condemnation. That I used to struggle with telling people about my God, because I wasn’t really sure what I believed, but today I finally feel like I have a Gospel of Jesus that is truly worth sharing freely. How for the first time in my life I have quiet and solid confidence about my eternal destiny. How in a very short time, all these changes came about in my life because of an unexpected encounter with the Living God.

Powerful testimony, right? Maybe it sounds like something that would inspire you, that would make you want to follow me and learn more, even if you’re already a believer, because you could see something powerful that you hope would be reproduced in your own life?

Okay, so that was part one of my mental game.

For part two, imagine that I continued that story by telling you that the specific changes I was describing include walking away from traditional institutional Christian religion, abandoning my evangelical roots, coming to believe in universal reconciliation instead of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, rejecting utter depravity and predestination, rejecting the idea of an inerrant Bible, and accepting the idea that there are few aspects of the Bible or ideas about God that we can hold as utterly perfect and knowable.

Now what would your response be? If you’re like most people I know, it would suddenly shift from “wow, that’s amazing, I wish that were true for me too” to “wow, that’s scary, I’m pretty sure you’re going to hell and I’m very glad it’s not me.” If so, I’m not surprised.

What caused the shift?

Well, this is what I mean by the phrase “the conditional power of testimony.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that for nearly everyone I grew up with, their response would have abruptly swung from longing to experience a similar story, to horror for my future. The testimony didn’t change, but the response sure did, given a different context.

What’s necessary to cause that shift in response? I can think of a few things:

  • Dogma that rejects honest testimony, in favor what we were taught to believe.
  • A willingness to reframe our understanding of a set of facts, to maintain that dogma.
  • A strong desire for staying in good graces with our chosen tribe.
  • A conviction that any apparently favorable outcome of a different dogma is transient and will result in eventual and inevitable destruction.

In other words, I have the sense that people are willing to reject a testimony that comes from an experience they consider invalid – no matter how compelling the results of the experience might otherwise be.

I use the word “dogma” a lot lately. It might help to be clear about that word. The Oxford Dictionary defines “dogma” as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Once you cross from “I believe” to “absolutely true no matter what I or anyone believes,” you’re in the realm of dogma instead of doctrine. The problem with dogma is the inflexibility, the assumption that it’s incontrovertible. But we’re human and fallible, and so are our authorities; holding onto a dogma asserts that there is no chance we’re wrong or they’re wrong. Dogmas are popular because they remove any requirement for us to examine them any further. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” No curiosity is allowed or needed. Case closed.

But the simple fact is that a lot of people around the world – even a lot of faithful Christians – disagree with literally everything I hold dear about my faith. Even if I’m convinced they’re all in error, they exist, and their different views exist, and they live faithful God-fearing lives in those differing views. If I fail to let that very fact confront my certainty, my dogma, then I’m missing out on the chance to learn from them – and from the Holy Spirit.

I’m quite sure of this one thing, not “sure” in a dogmatic sense, but “sure” in a practical sense: that we humans can never KNOW everything about God with absolute certainty, and furthermore, the closest we will ever get is when we put our ideas together with humility and a willingness to accept some mystery about the seeming contradictions. As such, when someone disagrees with me, I have a choice between dogmatically throwing away their contrasting views, or humbly learning from them instead.

With this background, I’d like to explore the testimony of change that takes place in someone’s understanding of the divine.

Increasingly, I’m running across people who are in a sharply different theological place than they were just a few years ago.

In years past, I would have agreed with those who respond “well, they’ve backslidden, and if they don’t change they’ll end up in hell for rejecting the gospel.”

But now I see how that’s a sloppy and dismissive and careless answer.

In years past, I would have quietly ghosted them, believing it was not in my best interests to associate with them any longer, as it would risk my own certainty and faith and salvation.

But now I see how that’s a harmful response for both them and me.

It truly intrigues me how little curiosity there is about people who change their mind after spending decades firmly in one position. When we see a solid, faithful believer repent, especially someone we deeply respected, why is such little interest in understanding what caused that change? Zero curiosity is exhibited, when it SHOULD be a compelling testimony that makes us sit up and wonder if maybe they learned something vitally important.

Unfortunately, I know the answer to my own question: it’s too dangerous to ask or consider why someone repents. Because it might change our mind too, and that would require us to risk the wrath of our tribe; to most people, their tribe is of higher value than the possibility of learning a deeper Truth.

But once I observed this, about three years ago, it opened up a whole new vista for me: there were many more ways I could repent before God, and allow God to change my mind about things, than simply saying “I’m sorry for my sin.” Allowing God to actually change my mind sounds dangerous and scary, and it truly is. It’s much, much safer to believe I know the truth, and I’m simply not following it well enough. But isn’t changing our mind the very essence of our religion? Aren’t we called by scripture to repent, constantly? Jesus and John the Baptist and many others frequently preached repentance, and it wasn’t as much “stop sinning” as “change your thinking.” We have just corrupted the sense of “repent” since those days, very much stripping repentance of its true value: to change our thinking so that our behavior also changes.

I’ve said this many times, and it bears repeating: it’s a scary thing to give God your “yes” to change your mind about literally anything, because God WILL take you up on that offer, as many times as you allow, as deeply as you allow. But it’s also the best thing you can possibly do. Because posturing yourself as a repentant human is the one guaranteed way to become more Christlike, and by far the most effective. Any hint of resistance to repentance will cripple God’s opportunity to adjust your thinking and thus your behavior.

So if you have known someone to be a faithful believer in your eyes, and suddenly their new understanding offends you: instead of running away, lean in to their story, approaching them with true curiosity, and see if God has something for you too.

By the way, in case it’s not obvious, both of those “hypothetical” parts of my thought game are utterly true. All those amazing changes in my faith actually happened, and it’s precisely because of those changes in my beliefs and personal convictions, and I really do attribute it to God changing my mind. Or, more accurately, it all snowballed together, with some changes in belief following other changes in relationship, as God expanded my mind to spiritual things I had never considered before. At any rate, if you want more detail, feel free to reach out with the comment form here, and I’ll be happy to explain further.

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