How to Tell Your Story of God's Grace
With Advent upon us, our thoughts anticipate the many gatherings that will punctuate the upcoming weeks, recognizing opportunities for gospel witness among friends and family. But what can we possibly say in such situations? Randy Newman in his recent article "Don't Just Share Your Testimony" offers a helpful answer by explaining the apologetic nature of these encounters. I would like to approach the issue a little differently by reflecting on how your personal testimony captures attention and leads friends to consider Christ.
Stories have sticking power. When Greeks of old studied Homer's Odyssey, the narrative shaped their ideals, intuitions, and eventually their behavior. The sequence of action, dialogue, thoughts, description, and suspense unfold in such a way as to pique interest. This is true when we read the Chronicles of Narnia with our children or when we listen to a colleague retell her story of sprinting through the JFK Airport terminal to catch a plane just moments before the door was shut. Stories communicate.
Sharing our redemptive story requires a variety of approaches, one of which---an especially valuable one---is the "conversion testimony." The following example, which I shared last month when a friend asked me, "Why did you become a Christian?" illustrates the two major movements of a gospel testimony: the futility of life outside of Christ contrasted by the inexplicable joy of salvation.
All Is Vanity
At age 19, a case of meningitis landed me in the hospital for five weeks. The time of my convalescence raised profound questions about life's meaning. Why was I alive? Is there really a God, and if so, does he care to be involved in my life? With each day, questions grew and eventually settled into a resolution to find answers.
The first step of my quest was to pursue transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After a few months of making unusual noises in a lotus position, I understood why the Beatles became disenchanted with Mr. Yogi's method. From there I attended seminars through the Learning Annex, studying under world-class gurus like M. Scott Peck and Deepak Chopra.
Working at the time with New York Telephone in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, I was surrounded by a broad range of religions and philosophies. The Village became my classroom. For instance, when I wanted to learn from someone in the nearby Buddhist Center, I arranged for a personal meeting. My method for doing this was dubious, even though at the time it made sense. After locating the center's phone terminal, I disconnected their cross-connection wires, reported the trouble, took the repair, and rang the Buddhist Center doorbell to be received by a grateful host. Once inside, I found the person to interview, sat beside a wall jack in her office, pretended I was on hold with the central switchboard, and asked questions. As I recall, I think the Buddhist lady even made me a cup of coffee.
My search for life's purpose was heading nowhere fast.
My movement toward Christ began just after my commute to work one morning. After reaching my Manhattan office, my grandfather phoned. In a serious tone he spoke a brief message: "It's your Dad; come home." Somehow I knew not to ask questions. It turned out to be a severe heart attack. The waterline of fear and anxiety quickly rose above our heads.
During this time, a friend, knowing of our crisis, invited me to her evangelical worship service. Having never before stepped foot in a Protestant church, I decided to go. After 40 minutes of choruses that seemed familiar to everyone but me, the senior pastor finally entered the pulpit and explained:
"Humanity attempts to produce its own fruit. We run around exploring this and that religion, this and that philosophy, and by the end of the day, when we lay our heads down upon our pillows, our souls are still empty.
In what are you resting? In what does your life find meaning and purpose? What will be there for you the second after you take your last breath and depart in death? Consider the Good News! Jesus the Christ died for our sins, rose from the dead, reigns in eternal glory, and at this moment is calling you to repent and embrace him.
Everyone on earth faces the same fundamental choice. Will we continue to live independent of Christ, in restlessness of soul, eventually to be gathered like a useless branch into a pile to be burned? Or will we submit to his authority and abide in his peace? The former person dies in a never-ending state of alienation; the latter enjoys God's acceptance now and for eternity. What will it be?"
I don't know how to properly describe what came next. Anticipation surged through my veins and my mind swirled with questions. Then, suddenly, the eyes of my soul opened. They immediately blinked, again and again, as though they were awoken from sleep by a flash of light. The object of my vision appeared so new and bright that my initial response was to retreat.
As my inner eyes tried to adjust, I sensed an imposing presence. I didn't see the angelic host or hear them singing. Instead, I felt divine mercy closing in on me. After a moment, this mercy, now accompanied by grace, reached out to grasp my guilt and shame---previously reasons for hopelessness---and brought to mind three simple words: "It is finished."
In that moment I finally understood the meaning of Jesus' cross and resurrection. My search for hope had ended. To this day, I don't have a better way to describe it than with the words of Charles Wesley in his famous hymn "And Can It Be That I Should Gain":
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Maybe you feel like you could never share your conversion story. You think of Christmas dinner among family, with the prospect of articulating your faith, and you get sick to your stomach.
Let me encourage you. Simply explain the reality of your heart's emptiness before Christ---your vain pursuits at finding truth, the futility of running on a self-centered hamster's wheel. Then, after explaining how you came to the end of yourself, give them the good news. Tell them of God's mercy that set the cross of Christ between divine judgment and your soul to provide you with pardon and rest for all eternity. Tell them of how God bestowed upon you the brightness of his redemptive light and placed in you the fire of presence that cleanses and empowers. And tell them of your future hope, in which death has lost its sting and grave the victory, wherein life and death you are a child of God.