I’ve been thinking a lot about testimony and testifying this week. In the life of the church, we try to do things well and in order, and certainly without drawing undue attention to ourselves. That said, however, there are moments when we are drawn into the spotlight and dragged into venues in which we are uncomfortable.
On Friday, I was subpoenaed, along with several of our members, to come to General Equity Court in Passaic County in regards to a bequest left by a former member of the Wood-Ridge church, a church our churches used to partner with before it was shut down in 2014. One of the former members of that church left 12.5% of her estate to the church or its successor. We were called to give testimony to our churches’ relationship with Wood-Ridge.
The larger story of how all this happened is a sad affair. Needless to say, our churches stepped into the vacuum left by that church’s closing and cared for its parishioners, particularly the home bound and elderly. Even in the midst of the sadness of a church closing, God provided an opportunity for our churches to bear fruitful witness to many who needed the comfort of the Gospel as they faced the end of their lives. All of us did our earnest best in court to give a good accounting, and the results are ultimately in God’s hands.
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished! I don’t know if you have ever sat in on a court proceeding that long, but let me tell you, it will test your endurance. Beyond the physical discomfort of the hard benches that make church pews feel like Lazy Boy recliners, there was the endless litany of papers submitted into evidence, as well as objection and counter objection; at times, the tension between the parties was electric. However, as I sat in court for over six hours of the proceedings, I began to reflect on what it means to testify, to give testimony.
More than this, I found that I began to develop a deep sense of pity and compassion for the judge. How long has he had to do things like this over the course of his career? Has he spent ten, twenty or thirty years sitting in rooms like that listening to this witness, this expert or another give their testimony and opinions about various matters? What is his life like as he makes his way home and considers all that he has heard? I imagined that when he has time to think and reflect on things for himself, his deliberations really come down to two questions. One, what does the law say? Two, who do I believe? Who can I trust? Whose testimony is reliable and sure?
It is in the second question that we find the theological rubber hits the road. Like that judge, we are all faced with constant questions about testimony, or more to the point, about in whom we will trust and in what we will believe. Humans are all too human, and for the most part, we make the issue harder than it should be because we tend to look out for our own interests. All of us have the ability to spin the story where we are the hero. Where do we turn to for truth? How can we know which testimony we are to believe?
It is to this set of questions that Scripture, I believe, bears direct and fruitful witness. The writer of 1 John says it this way:
9 If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. -1 John 5:9-13
There is an entire world filled to the brim with human testimony to almost everything under the sun, from what we should believe to what we ought to purchase. Truth be told, if left to our own power, we tend to listen to any voice other than God’s because that’s the state of our sinful hearts. We tend to believe what our eyes tell us, and our eyes that see and our ears that hear cannot quite grasp the life-encompassing truths of the Gospel because those truths cannot be submitted to the measure of our senses. The testimony that Jesus is Lord, that in Him we have eternal life, that in his life, death and resurrection, the power of sin and death has been defeated, that he has ascended to the Father and sits at God’s right hand as Lord over all is a hard witness to hold fast to amidst the changing truths and testimonies of our day.
No. Our heart yearns for a deeper, more truth-filled testimony than what happens to be in fashion or on sale at the local market. We long for, I believe, a testimony, a truth that is abiding, that grasps the entirety of who we are and leaves no room for us to doubt its truthfulness. In short, we long for an answer to our deepest question (in whom or in what can I trust?) for it is that question that reveals our thirst for a life giving word that overcomes the present darkness. We need a witness.
John tells us that we have this witness, and that it resides in our hearts. Without this witness, without this testimony, not only do we make God out to be a liar, we are devoid of life. Yet, here lies the crux of the matter. That witness, that testimony cannot be established in any other way than a personal relationship that speaks to our hearts. In short, the only witness that matters, the only testimony worthy of us staking our lives upon its claims must be born of love for it is in love alone that we are fully embraced — all that we are — and come to know the truth that God is with us always.
We need God’s gift of faith, God’s witness and testimony to us that despite ourselves, God has us in the palm of God’s hands. The only place God speaks this life altering word is to human hearts prepared to receive that word. No courtroom on the planet can establish the truth of God’s claim upon our lives, nor does it need to establish that claim. Life is found in the Son alone. As such, we will never find ourselves, find the life, the eternal life which we truly crave until we learn to embrace Him. Once embraced by his all encompassing love, we are changed and become living, breathing testimonies to God’s claim over all things, even the sometimes desperate smallness of our own individual lives.