“I used to be sick, addicted, broke, depressive, divorced and suicidal. Then I found God, and everything has changed!”
It was familiar enough of a refrain, but one I hadn’t heard it in quite some time. I had returned to Atlanta, Georgia, for Christmas break and spent the holidays with a group of mostly evangelical friends. I also attended services in evangelical churches—a drastic change of scenes from the Episcopal services and fellowships I had been frequenting in Boston.
And one of the most poignant differences I noticed was in the culture of testimonies as it was practiced in these churches: Several conversations opened with the question, “So, how did you come to Christ?”
This question usually triggers among non-converts an uncomfortable silence broken by the phrase, “Well, I was born in a Christian family,” followed by an effort to locate a singular moment of conscious conversion some time during middle school, probably at the altar call of a church youth-group retreat.
The best of these are often lifted up during church services: Stories of redemption from alcoholism and drug addiction are frequent, as are those about mental illnesses and chronic sadness, and even some about premarital sexual partnerships and homosexuality. Sometimes, overcoming financial hardships are a part of the story, with a subtle echo of prosperity theology.
Don’t get me wrong. Many of these stories are great and should be lifted up. Living life in a loving relationship with God and others should be a transformative commitment that bears the fruits of the Spirit. We should share our testimonies with each other; they are a valuable opportunity for us to cultivate vulnerability about who we are, share joy about who we are becoming and practice accountability for who we want to be.
But I also want to hear from our pulpits more stories along these lines:
“I used to be sick, addicted, broke, depressive, divorced and suicidal. Then I met Jesus, and I’m still sick, addicted, broke, depressive, divorced and suicidal, but I’m beginning to love my neighbors more as myself, little by little, in spite of all my pains and the anxieties. And I’m learning more about what it means to more fully participate in God’s Kingdom of justice and peace all around me, despite all the brokenness and the mess.”
Because the kind of testimonies we make room for in our pulpits, and the kind of narratives we privilege in our pedagogy, inextricably shape our conception of what an exemplary journey of faith (and doubt) looks like. And we cannot afford to let our inclination to celebrate and market unqualified triumphs over complexities create the inevitable and disempowering dissonance between our own lives and a false and unattainable caricature.
Trying to frame our faith in the format of a before-and-after poster turns our church into a Procrustean Bed. Like the villain of Greek mythology who maimed his victims by stretching or chopping them to fit the size of his iron bedstead, we snip away the doubts, the pains and the complexities inherent in our human experience of growth, and stretch out our virtues of our present selves.
It keeps us from being honest about who we are and accountable for who we want to be. The expectation of conversionistic and instantaneous healing at every turn distorts the ways in which we strive to love and serve so many of our neighbors: people experiencing financial instability or going through divorce, those struggling with mental illnesses or who are simply sad, and most people whose journey of faith didn’t entail a moment of single, dramatic conversion.
We as a people of faith are experiencing a desperate need to rearticulate our paradigm for salvation: from conversion to discipleship, and from a binary to a journey that encompasses suffering as well as joy, doubt as well as faith. We need to learn to share and honor testimonies that befit a people whose faith is in a God who lived with us, suffered with us, doubted with us and died with us.