By Casey Tygrett
I remember walking through the double doors onto the well-worn rose carpet of our church’s foyer. There were smiling people wearing suits and ties, or at least dress shirts, and the smell of perfume was strong enough to cause numbness if you inhaled too deeply.
Two handle-free, faux-walnut doors swung open into a wood and white sanctuary. Inside, we sang familiar melodies with well-worn lyrics: “This is my story, this is my song.” “I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory.” Then we heard about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Jesus, who stepped into humanity and lifted men and women up and, for a brief moment, showed them the panorama of eternity stretching in either direction before replacing them in their world with a new story to tell.
Finally, we had testimony time, an open moment in each service where people in our ragtag assembly could talk of the mighty acts of God in the minute acts of man. Seasoned saints stood and told about a God who was just wild enough to move them with energy beyond their own. Single moms stood to deliver good news through lips that had become strangers to food in order that their littlest might have enough. It pains me to think that only now do I see these events for what they really were—thin places, as St. Columba said, where the membrane between earth and Heaven grew thin.
When I left home and went to Bible college, I was introduced to apologetics. Apologetics is typically defined as “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.” The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which means “defense,” and is used several times in the New Testament.
Apologetics for Christians is the study of how to defend the basics of the Christian faith to someone (or a group of “someones”) who challenges it. There have been incredible apologetics books written in the last decade or so, like Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, which are both thoughtful and helpful for people who want to know how to respond when the basic pieces of their faith are challenged.
But here’s the sad thing. I have seen apologetics replace grace and love. Part of the issue is our culture has lost the ability to debate; instead, we disintegrate to name-calling and mud-slinging. In our Facebook conversation culture, if we don’t click “like” fast enough on the latest doctrinal debate post, we find ourselves labeled “outside” the circle of faith.
The question is this: Can we defend things we believe and still love those who challenge them? Can we defend our faith without trying to damage our fellow human beings? How would that look? I believe the New Testament gives us a helpful insight into this issue.
Of the eight uses of the Greek word apologia in the New Testament, there is one that sounds a bit different than “debate.” It comes from a biblical character we’d all assume—given his personality—would be up for a good doctrinal fight. Here is what the “apostle of open-mouth-insert-foot” says:
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15, 16).
Peter uses apologia as “answer”—not in the sense of defending something, but as a response. Growing up in a testimony culture, I heard answers for the “hope” people had—they hoped because prayers had been answered; they hoped because evil had been tossed aside like a rag doll; they hoped because at the intersection of broken and beautiful, the latter had the right-of-way. Peter says, “Tell them why you hope. Tell them the story that is the foundation of your hope.”
Peter seems to think telling our story is a defense of our belief. I believe when he brings hope onto the table, he is blowing open the door to a new way of apologetics that is based on our story of the life that is true because of the foundational stuff we believe.
To me there are three compelling reasons for using testimony as an answer for our hope:
Testimony Is Doctrine with Flesh On
One of the best ways to test whether we hold a belief strongly is to see what difference it makes in our lives. I could talk for hours about how healthy eating habits are important to me, but if I go out and eat three triple cheeseburgers, my commitment to healthy living is called into question. A belief without action, without resonance in the comings and goings of every day, is just an idea.
Testimony takes pieces of doctrine—key beliefs about God, the church, salvation, etc.—and puts them into play in a human being’s life. What greater argument is there for an idea than the change it brings about within them?
John 9 tells an amazing story of Jesus healing a blind man. The divine nature of Jesus is seen as he removes the blindness that has been present in the man since he was a child.
Then the attacks begin: the religious leaders attack his story because the healing took place “illegally” on the Sabbath; the leaders even questioned his mother and father, who responded in fear, “He’s a big boy, ask him!”
The response is a testimony, true and pure: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25). He didn’t argue the case for Jesus as the divine Son of God sent to inaugurate the kingdom of Heaven through healing and restoration. He simply put skin on that point, I was blind. Now I see. Had he been pushed, he may have even said, “Would you like to see as well?”
Testimony Reignites Creativity
Not long ago a man from our church asked me a question. “Jesus was the truth,” he said. “I believe that, but I got a little confused reading the parables. Someone said he made all that stuff up—the characters, the places, all that—so did that stuff really happen or did he make it up?”
I loved the question because it gets to the heart of the tension in apologetics. How can Jesus be the truth if he made stuff up? As many of us would respond, the point of the parable was a two-layered story, one that taught the truth through fictional characters and places. Truth wrapped in the vehicle of fictional stories was still truth, right?
There is a short distance between what Jesus did with the parables and what we do with testimony. He took real-life circumstances and painted them on a large canvas so that when we heard them (see Luke 8:8) we would see the reality of God in the world. In other words, we would see a reason to believe.
The story of God’s activity in our lives operates in the same way. We then can use creativity to retell our stories—thinking deeply about the actual events and being able to relay them in a way that is powerful and poetic, even if we don’t think we’re the smartest people in the room. The point is to weave together the story of how God broke through and did something in the life of an everyday person.
Testimony Levels the Playing Field
The Italian poet Terence once said, “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.” In our split-screen news interview world, it is hard not to see people as defined by their argument instead of as a fellow creation made in the image of God. For many people, the pressure of defending the faith has made it hard to remember that those who challenge our faith have the same life circumstances and struggles we do.
The sad state of our sound-bite society leads us away from giving an answer for our hope on the basis of our shared humanity and toward wanting to win an argument. Testimony puts people on level ground—the person who challenges is one whom Jesus loved and died for, just like you and me. It also allows us to keep Peter’s words about “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) in mind, planting us in the warm soil of love.
I spoke recently with a woman in our congregation who had decided to be baptized and follow Jesus. She told me she woke up from a dream about her baptism to find the presence of God and the presence of evil fighting over her—literally over her head. Eventually, a calm came over her and a peaceful voice said, “You can turn off the light now.” She couldn’t. Regardless of the peace, her fear was too great. So a hand—the feeling or presence of a hand—came over hers and moved it to the switch and she felt perfect peace in shutting off the light.
Her testimony was an apology for faith and hope in a God who fights with evil in everyday places over those he desperately loves. Everyone needs to hear that: in the midst of great darkness, a battle for the light is raging. A testimony says, gently and respectfully, “There is hope. Here is a reason.”
One day my friend will stand up and tell this story, haltingly and slowly, and who knows what may happen? Yes, she’ll need to learn how to talk through the details of her faith. Yet who knows? Someone may actually decide it would be worth it to have the hope that comes in knowing the story of God fighting for someone just like them, without knowing all the details first.
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor with Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois. He is also a blogger, retreat leader, and adjunct professor at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.