I recently tried to define story. I know there are probably thousands of succinct descriptions of “what is a story” already waiting to be quoted, but for the sake of my conversation at the time we were trying to agree upon a common vocabulary so we could then talk about the meaning of story. (The conversation stemmed from the two latest books from Jonathan Gottschall .)
We needed the simplest description before we could go further. Most conversations benefit from taking a minute to verify vocabulary. Especially in our house, we’ve been known to argue the same thing on both sides with different words.
I finally landed on, “A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.” I’m sure I heard it at a writer’s conference or from a craft book.
Testimony as story
To my understanding when a Later Day Saint shares their testimony, they testify of their beliefs. So their testimony can feel very strong at one point and not at another time. This is actually where I first learned to find a shared vocabulary with someone, talking about testimonies with LDS.
For a modern American Protestant (especially a youth group kid) your testimony is the story about when you submitted your life to God…or at least decided to call yourself a Christian. It doesn’t change. It’s a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end.
This is not the end
My daughter once told me that many youth group testimonies she’s heard had a similar flavor and went something like, “I was really bad, I did this, this and this. Then I asked Jesus into my heart and now I don’t do those things.” Shock or sympathy would be followed by be anticlimactic sighs.
I think the anticlimactic sentiment might have come from the Christian kids still doing this, that and the other thing…but also the “raised in a Christian home” kids who didn’t feel like they had a testimony if there was nothing spectacular to repent from.
I know some would say, that is a testimony! You were saved from the shame of premarital sex and drugs. As though Christ died for the sole purpose of good, sober, married sex. (And of course then guaranteed it to all believers.)
The thing is, your testimony isn’t a story until you’re dead.
What does have a beginning, a middle and an end are the chapters of your story.
And like the LDS testimony, your perspective on those sometimes change. Sometimes you think a chapter is closed and you share the victory, only to find out God is still marking up the pages. (That’s enough writing jargon for now.)
The first time I heard the gospel, I was 11. My dad sat me down and said sin kept you out of Heaven, but if you wanted God to forgive your sins, all you had to do was ask, and then you wouldn’t go to hell when you died. (He had recently found a tract.) He assured me I didn’t need to do it because he wanted me to, but I was like, “Duh! Who doesn’t want to go to Heaven? Why are we still talking? Tell me how!”
I had a sincere change in my heart and my actions. I felt prompted in my heart right away to give God my lying and not do it because I loved him. But then there was a messy three year stint in a Christian school which eroded my desire to be around God.
Of course God didn’t let go of me even when I systematically tried to commit typical teenage sins to separate myself from him. So the next chapter is when I decided I wanted to live for him. It was with my future husband. I gave a little more of my life, thoughts and actions over to God.
A few years and a few kids later, I learned about the Holy Spirit as a helper. I didn’t have to force myself into a better person. I had confident access to him instead of just singing three stanzas about the unknowable Holy Ghost. So I invited a little more change with a little more faith. Then more years, more trials…and more willing submission. It still comes in steps after more than 35 years.
There are some things I can share as a story. I used to have a more explosive temper and I remember the day I submitted it and asked God to change me. My oldest has more memory of me yelling like a banshee than the younger two do. I was with my prayer partners recently and we shared things God has done. They had happy endings, too.
Ongoing testimony and dismantling
Some of the chapters are when my beliefs were challenged and, yes, changed. I once told our home group leader my stance on an issue. (It felt like a salvation issue to me!) He told me to read a specific book in the Bible and we’d talk the next week. I completely changed my stance. But, it was a little scary to think that I couldn’t easily comprehend God or emphatically say that I knew everything about every doctrine and had it all figured out. It was scary to realize I had believed something wrong.
I am better off having learned to give more control to God, I am better off having been surprised to find out about the Holy Spirit. I am better off discovering I was wrong about something and couldn’t easily explain God.
I am better off that my testimony is not complete.
And you are too.