I love hearing peoples’ stories. Not fictional “once upon a time” stories (although, as an elementary school teacher, I do read a lot of these), but true stories about what life has been like, what people have been through, hard battles lost and won, how God came through—not the edited or modified versions—the real stuff, the real story. It doesn’t matter if we’re best friends or if I met you in the line-up at Starbucks, I’m interested in your story…and I’ll probably tell you mine.
When I was nineteen years old, I moved to Europe to work with an international missions organization called YWAM (Youth With A Mission). I have frequently referred to that time in my life as being a green house. The growth that would likely have occurred in me eventually happened exponentially faster in a faith-rich environment that allowed me to ask questions, wrestle through inconsistencies in my belief structures and ultimately, leave behind a faith based on my parents’ beliefs for something that was my own. I planted a flag during that time and said, I own this. This is mine. I choose Jesus.
One of the “skills” (for lack of a better word) that we were invited to hone during the training phase of the program was giving our testimony. At the time, it seemed to me that it meant telling complete strangers, unsolicited, why I was a Christian; trying to lure them into belief by telling them what God had done for me.
I hated this. It felt contrived and counter-productive. I didn’t appreciate it when people forced their ideas on me, all pre-fabricated, scripted and inauthentic, so, understandably, I was not keen to do this to others.
I have vivid a memory, simultaneously humiliating and hilarious, of standing in an empty city square in the middle of Copenhagen, giving my unbidden testimony to…no one. That’s right. NO. ONE. Testimonies were the agenda for the day, and it didn’t matter if people were there or not—it was my turn. So I stood there, all alone and feeling very foolish, telling the open air (in English!) how I had come to know Jesus. Many souls were saved that day. Okay, maybe none. Well, maybe a pigeon.
To this day, when I hear people talk of giving a testimony, I die a little inside. It actually makes me shudder. But the irony in all of this is that I am one of the voices saying over and over to others, “tell your story!”
I only recently equated that telling your story is, in fact, giving your testimony. Every time I write a new essay, I’m telling a story, and thus, giving my testimony. It’s interesting how one carries such negative connotations for me and the other rich meaning. Oh, semantics—you’ve fooled me again.
We all have stories to tell. And they don’t have to be upbeat and victorious, they just have to be true. Our honest stories can heal us and others.
When we tell our stories—miracles observed, hard things withstood, vices conquered, terrible losses grieved, mountains summited, lost things regained, hope rising strong—amazing things happen.
God loves it when we tell the stories of what he has done. He’s not vain, wanting us to proclaim his greatness. He’s not insecure, needing us to prop up his ego. He doesn’t ask us to re-hash all the great things he’s done so that he can re-live his glory days. He knows that when we remember his goodness, when we tell the stories of his rescue, when we celebrate what he has done for us and remember how he has walked with us, WE benefit. WE are filled with joy and peace and gratitude. WE are filled with courage, faith and hope.
As the “tellers,” we benefit every time we share our stories. Walking through the details of what happened, especially when we’re grieving a loss, can allow us to process, heal and grow though the re-telling of that story. Sometimes it takes circling around the same mountain many, many times for the sting to be removed or the lesson to be recognized. Or maybe it’s a story of rescue or redemption and the “teller” grows in faith and is encouraged, reminded again that God is always good.
Every year, I read a book to my fifth grade students called “Growing Up With A Bucket Full of Happiness:Three Rules for a Happier Life.” One of the sections discusses ways to fill your own bucket. It purports, in more kid-friendly language than this, that remembering a positive interaction, perhaps an act of kindness, whether you were the giver or the receiver, actually causes your brain to release the same chemicals that were released during the actual event or experience. When we tell the stories of hope, of rescue, of what God has done, we are filled again with all of the wonder.
Another reason to tell our stories is so the “listener” can be encouraged and hope-filled in the hearing of another person’s experience; especially as relates to their own experience. Hearing from someone who is further along in a similar journey—who can attest to God’s faithfulness—offers the listener a companion on the journey. Solidarity squashes the lie that we’re alone.
Telling our stories also allows us to connect more deeply with others. When we share honestly and transparently about something we’ve been through or we can risk being vulnerable from the real-time trenches, we grant one another access to the authentic person underneath the veneer.
About ten years ago, I ran into an old friend from high school at the airport in Toronto. I was arriving and he was leaving. As you do, we began with superficial pleasantries:
Me: “Hey! How have you been?”
Him: “Great! Yeah, things are great!”
Me: “I know, right? So great!”
Easy, uncomplicated, disengaged and entirely untrue! I decided to risk changing the dialogue and admitted:
Me: “Actually, I’m not that great—I’m on my way to an unexpected funeral and I’m completely shocked and devastated.”
Him: “Thank you for being honest, ’cause I’m not okay either—my dad is palliative and I’m on my way home to see him.”
I won’t soon forget that brief encounter, because it intensely highlighted the disparity between superficial and meaningful connection. Sharing what’s real allows us to connect deeply with people.
If you are seeking hope during a hard season, be generous with your gratitude, reminding yourself of what has already been overcome, how God has intervened and how he’s been faithful. If someone in your life needs solidarity and encouragement, risk vulnerability and tell them the truth of your experience. Share a little piece of your hope with them. If you lack meaningful connection, get out of the shallow end and be willing to dive a little deeper.
Yes, it can be risky, but most of the time, it’s absolutely worth it. So please, share your testimony…I mean, story!