May 24, 2015

The Power of a Testimony

I’ve been struck this week by the power of a testimony, to deceive.
Once upon a time testimony meetings were held among people who knew one another and shared life together.  There was context for the testimony.  You knew the man who stood up and thanked God he hadn’t sinned in twenty years.  He was mentally unstable and not to be taken seriously.  He had believed a false doctrine and lived in self-delusion. 

And you knew the woman who came each week with a fresh testimony of God’s goodness, often a little parable from her garden.  She was your Bible teacher and the mother of your best friends.  She lived her faith.  She clearly loved the Lord.  Her testimony attested to the reality that her life displayed.

So you weren’t deterred from your faith by the crabby spinster’s glowing evaluation of her own sanctification.  It was clear to everyone that there was yet work to be done.  Years later you would meet her again and that gracious work would be evident without her needing to say so. The fruit of the Spirit was clear.

Such were the testimony meetings of my youth. It was understood that God was supposed to get the glory, even if  there was a certain temptation to look good in the telling. A testimony was expected to center around themes of sin and salvation.  And when there were extravagant claims, they could be seen for what they were.  We knew each other.

Times have changed. Testimony meetings have largely gone the way of Sunday night meetings and prayer meetings.  Obsolete.  But now we have YouTube. Testimonies abound. But they are strangely different.  The focus is no longer on God and what He has done for an undeserving sinner. More often the focus is me and what I've experienced and how good (or strange or bizarre) it felt and how much more I'm hoping for and…you should too!  There is little or no connection to Scriptural truth or precedent.  We are beyond that now and paving a new way for God to work outside the box of truth as revealed in Scripture.  Not surprisingly these ‘testimonies’ leave us more in awe of people than of God.  How spiritual they must be to have had such an experience!

But since these folks are strangers to us and often disconnected from personal accountability, outrageous and unsubstantiated claims can be made.  We can’t see the way they live or the impact they have on those closest to them.  But they make claims of great things--some have looked into God's face and seen his fiery eyes. They've felt waves of electric love ripple through them. God has spoken to them. They've been frozen by His presence, for days at a time. And by the time they are through giving their testimonies they have followers, promoters and believers hanging on their every word.  Next thing you know people from your church are signing up for missions trips in hopes of getting to the source and bringing back some of what they have!  OK I’m exaggerating, a little, but this stuff happens. It is the deceptive power of a testimony.

As a child I overlooked the testimonies that didn't seem to jive with reality. They were not compelling. Not so these YouTube kind.  People love the tangible. They crave the sensual.  They are drawn to the sensational.

The problem with testimonies  based solely on experiences is just that.  They are based on subjective perceptions of what has happened. But when we convey them, we convey them as fact.  We don’t recognize how our beliefs have shaped our expectations and our expectations in turn have shaped our perceptions. Secular researchers tell us our minds are fully capable of concocting false memories without our even realizing it.1  What are the implications for our testimonies?

We’ve all heard fishing tales which grow with the retelling until the real fish that got away has taken on mythical proportions.  This can happen with personal testimonies as well, once they are unhinged from the reference point of God’s Word.  Sometimes this is unintentional; we are impressionable beings. But often such inflated testimonies are intended to establish the credentials and authority of the teller for their own gain.  We have been warned about such things. 

“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. “Col. 2:18,19

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" II Tim.4:3

"Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness..." I Tim. 4:7

'just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth,' II Tim.3:8  [Jannes and Jambres were the magicians in Pharaoh’s court who imitated the signs and wonders Moses performed]

'there will be false teachers among you, secretly bringing in destructive heresies...many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words....' II Pet.2:1-3

But all too often, the testimony is so impressive and has such an aura of spiritual power about it  that we suspend judgment feeling it is out of our league to question or challenge such an experience.  It seems almost sacrilegious.  We’re cautioned not to quench the Spirit and not to judge another’s story.  Meanwhile all manner of fraudulent nonsense is carried on in Jesus’ name and attributed to the Holy Spirit.  And worse yet, the listeners are made to crave such experiences as the evidence of true spirituality.  And so they are led away from the simplicity of devotion to Christ, the reality of walking by the Spirit and the true meaning of growing in the  knowledge of God.

Instead they are made to crave the bizarre, the sensational, the miraculous, and the un-Biblical! 

“There are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Gal.1:8

This was happening to the Galatian church in Paul’s day.  It is happening in ours.  When a widely respected ministry leader says he is “unwilling to live with a Gospel without miracles” (meaning external signs and wonders, not mere internal transformation), look out!  He will spread a kind of gospel but it will not be God’s good news.  It will not free from sin and damnation.  It may provide signs and wonders and the thrill that accompanies them in this lifetime,  but it will not bring eternal salvation. And so he takes himself and his followers into the fog of deception, following doctrines of demons as they unwittingly embrace another gospel. 

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, I Tim. 4:1

Another lauded leader boasts freely of her bizarre encounters with the power and presence of God and by so doing earns the respect of many as a ‘very spiritual lady’.  Was this the sort of person Paul warned of when he said: “Let no one disqualify you… going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head…” (Col.2:18,19)

Nevertheless she is held in high esteem because of her dynamic testimony and  because she carries on her work among the poor in a far-off land and most of all because ‘there are miracles happening ’.  When did these become the measure of a work of God?  All of these things can be carried out apart from the Spirit of God and the Word of God.  But we don’t want to judge…  So, few question the power she has encountered.  Instead they pay to be part of her ministry and so get closer to the source. And unwittingly they buy into error and import it back to their local churches when they come home ‘all fired up’.   

A testimony is a powerful tool for deception when unhinged from the truth of God’s authoritative Word.  It is not judgmental to use Scriptural discernment in evaluating a testimony’s validity no matter how ‘spiritual’ it may sound.   If what we are hearing is not compatible with the Word of God and not honoring to the character of God as revealed in Scripture we are not obliged to believe that testimony.  If it glorifies man more than God we have reason to doubt it.

Human testimonies are fallible.  God’s  testimony of Himself  as revealed in His Word is not.

In a YouTube crazed world it is essential that we keep our heads and hearts moored in the written Word of God.  It is to be the bedrock of our faith, the measure of every experience (ours and others’), and the only sure proof of what is true and trustworthy.  The apostles who wrote the New Testament were eyewitnesses to the life of Christ.  They were given to the church to establish with authority the life, death and resurrection of Christ. These apostles wrote eyewitness accounts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  There are none like them, nor will there ever be.  Yet even they call us to regard the Scriptures as our most sure authority:

Here’s Peter:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,  knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. II Pet.1:16-21

Here is the testimony we can trust—God’s testimony of  His love for rebel mankind and of  the only way to know Him.  I spent a bit of time seeing what Matthew Henry had to comment on this passage.  I love it.  It exalts the Scriptures as precisely what we need in a YouTube generation.  Here are his useful pointers for those who would ‘give heed’ to the Scriptures:

1. They must account and use the scripture as a light which God hath sent into and set up in the world, to dispel that darkness which is upon the face of the whole earth. The word is a lamp to the feet of those who use it aright; this discovers the way wherein men ought to walk; this is the means whereby we come to know the way of life.

2. They must acknowledge their own darkness. This world is a place of error and ignorance, and every man in the world is naturally without that knowledge which is necessary in order to attain eternal life.

3. If ever men are made wise to salvation, it is by the shining of the word of God into their hearts. Natural notions of God are not sufficient for fallen man, who does at best actually know a great deal less, and yet does absolutely need to know a great deal more, of God than Adam did while he continued innocent.

4. When the light of the scripture is darted into the blind mind and dark understanding by the Holy Spirit of God, then the spiritual day dawns and the day-star arises in that soul. This enlightening of a dark benighted mind is like the day-break that improves and advances, spreads and diffuses itself through the whole soul, till it makes perfect day, Prov. 4:18. It is a growing knowledge; those who are this way enlightened never think they know enough, till they come to know as they are known. To give heed to this light must needs be the interest and duty of all; and all who do truth come to this light, while evil-doers keep at a distance from it. 
                                                                      --Matthew Henry

We dare not not believe everything we hear, nor everything we see and feel! If so we will be tossed about with every teaching,  (especially if it comes with a YouTube eyewitness account!)   Every testimony must be made to bow to the truth as revealed in God’s Word.  Testimonies may mislead.  Signs and wonders prove nothing. Even Satan can counterfeit them. His deceptions are powerful. (II Thess.1:9,10). 

“And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” II Cor.11:14-15 

 But the Word of God is a testimony we can count on, forever.


The righteousness of Thy testimonies is everlasting: give me understanding, and I shall live. Ps.119:144

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, ... If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; ...  For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.  Command and teach these things. ...  Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. ...  Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (I Tim.4:1-2,6-7,10-11,13,16).

Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. II Peter 3:17,18


1”The Power of False Memory” a NYTimes article. Click here.   


Michele Morin said...

This brings back all kinds of memories for me, and I do have to be careful of cynicism, even to this day, when it comes to testimonies. Another venue I recall is College chapel services. Ugh.
I have learned from this experience, however, to be very careful that my words line up with my LIVED reality when I share, because I live in community, and never want to be the cause of cynicism in another believer.
Your posts are always so thought-provoking. Thanks for writing.

Linda said...

Thank you Michele. In light of all this I am now trying to define what is my life's testimony of the grace of God. Thank you for your word of caution. Cynicism is so easy to fall into. We can't see hearts...