Because of growing up in the conservative branch of the Church, there are certain themes that I heard frequently. These themes generally provided the topic for many sermons, were used regularly as the focus of youth programs and often provided Christian writers with material. Being exposed to the themes so much had one very significant result: I (and perhaps others) ended up feeling extremely guilty whenever the theme came up. I don’t recall the continued exposure making me better at whatever the theme involved but I did feel guilty, which I sometimes think is one of the goals of the conservative approach to our faith anyway.
I may look at the issue of faith and guilt another day–but today, I want to spend some time on one of those guilt producing themes. As a church member, a member of the church youth program, a theology student and a pastor, I was often in situations where witnessing was the topic. As well as being given tips on witnessing and information on the latest fad in the witnessing process, we were also taken to task for not witnessing enough.
Sometimes, the guilt took the form of a story about someone who was brought to the faith by the witness of a very reluctant witness. At other times, the guilt came in a more direct package as we were berated for allowing our friends and family members to go to hell because we wouldn’t speak to them about their need for salvation.
I have to confess that none of this ever made me a more effective witness. It did produce significant guilt and a desire to teach other people how to witness, often using some of the same the same approaches that didn’t work for me. I think that my approach to encouraging witnessing managed to produce even more guilty believers but didn’t really increase the level of witnessing.
Perhaps in an effort to make myself feel less guilty, I have done a lot of reading, study and thinking about witnessing over the years and have developed a few ideas associated with this topic that have helped me understand witnessing a bit better. While these ideas have reduced my guilt some, they have also helped me become a bit better at witnessing.
One of the first insights I stumbled across is a mixed blessing–it relieves pressure while at the same time increasing pressure. This insight grew out of my thinking about Jesus’ words in Acts 1.8, where he says, ” But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (NIV)
Among the many ideas that come from this verse is the one found in the words “…you will be my witnesses….” The message that comes to me from these words is that we have no choice about being witnesses–we are witnesses to Jesus Christ by virtue of deciding to follow him. This is both a theological statement and a recognition of practical reality.
The practical reality is that once we identify with Jesus, people look at us as a follower of Jesus–and evaluate not just our expression of the faith but the faith itself on the basis of what they see us do and hear us say. Being a witness is not an option. It is not something we have to be told to do, not something we need urging to do, not something we need to feel guilty about not doing–being a witness is something we are by virtue of accepting the grace of God shown to us through Jesus Christ.
That realization takes off a lot of pressure–we don’t need to feel guilty that we haven’t witnessed enough or that we weren’t faithful in telling people about Jesus Christ or that someone will go to hell because we didn’t witness to them. We were witnesses in all those situations. Whether we were intentional witnesses or reluctant witnesses, we were witnesses and we gave witness to our faith in all those situations.
Now, as I mentioned, this helped me feel less guilty about my witnessing. But it brought with it another insight that created another set of feelings. You see, if I am always a witness, the question I need to be asking myself in no longer “Should I witness to so and so?” but “What kind of a witness am I?” or perhaps, “What message about God does my witness give?” These questions are much harder and go much deeper into my faith life and we will look at them next time.
May the peace of God be with you.