I love hearing Christian testimonies because I’m fascinated by the many ways that God works in the lives of very different people.
I was a Christian for many years before ever fully describing to anyone how I came to Jesus. I was never asked to, and I never volunteered. But when we joined a new congregation a few years ago, as a part of my membership interview I found myself sitting in a room with two elders before church one Sunday morning. My testimony was part of the membership process.
Now, being a person who spent her first 30 years living apart from Christ, and having a somewhat unusual upbringing which led to some poor life choices, my testimony (I now know) takes a good 25 minutes, give or take, to tell properly. But that’s quite a speech, and church was starting soon, so I whittled it down considerably while still conveying the most important parts of God’s saving grace in my life. I made sure to mention how I stumbled across the books that first introduced me to Jesus as a young child, how and why I fell away from the faith for 20 years, and the book that brought me back—first to God, and then to Christ.
I was able to condense 30 years of my spiritual life down to about a ten-minute monologue (the gist of it is here). But as my lips were calmly saying all the things I needed to say, my brain, not at my bidding, was playing a movie in the background just for me: my entire testimony, my entire life, flashed before my eyes. And suddenly I was overcome with emotion—an overwhelming feeling of God’s goodness to me, his faithfulness, his patience … and I found myself finishing my testimony with a spontaneous and heartfelt statement: “I don’t understand why God chose me, why he saved me, of all people. Because I did nothing to deserve this. I had ignored him and avoided him for all those years and he still pursued me and brought me back.” And by then I was crying.
This statement and these tears weren’t at all my intention when I sat down with these two men I didn’t even know all that well. One of them handed me the tissue box and said gently, “It sounds like you came to Christ in a very emotional way, with your heart.” I found this an odd statement at the time, because I thought I’d made it clear to them that God brought me to himself, twice, through books, through reading, through my mind. But here I was, getting choked up over the goodness of God and how he saved a wretch like me. Why did he do it? I still couldn’t fathom it, and it had me in tears. It was an emotional moment, for sure—a moment belonging to the heart.
I left the interview with tissues in my hand and confusion in my head. I’d given lots of thought previously to my pivotal, life-altering encounters with Christ and how they came about. Two key encounters, the ones that made me a Christian, were “through my mind” rather than “through my heart.” This wasn’t surprising, since I’d been studious and bookish since early childhood. I’d needed to see the reasons for God and the reasons for Jesus—both in a metaphysical sense (why does the world not make sense without God, without Jesus?) and in a personal sense (why do I need Jesus in my life and what does that look like?). First, at age seven, I discovered a set of old Bible storybooks that took me from Genesis through Revelation at a level I could understand. Later, at age 30, I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which clearly and logically explained basic Christian doctrines and how these play out in the Christian life.
Yet while giving this testimony of my life and my conversion, I was overcome by what was going on in my heart. I’ll call it “deep gratitude.” Not the kind of gratitude you feel for a beautiful sunset or benign test results or a much-needed raise at work—although those are all good things. Deep gratitude arises from a profound sense of your own unworthiness, your own propensity to sin, your own utter unfitness for the holy presence of God—and what he has done for you to wipe that slate clean.
Before the day of that interview, I had already understood all of these things with my mind, and professed them with my lips for more than two decades. I believed that because of my sinful nature, I was without hope other than through Jesus’ saving blood, and my belief was genuine and complete. But I don’t think I had actually felt it, whole-heartedly, until that moment. In sharing my testimony that day, even the condensed version, my heart was pierced by an overwhelming sense of my own depravity (nothing I could fix by myself, nothing that anyone besides Jesus could fix for me), and what poured out was deep gratitude.
That moment, combined with the ongoing struggles in my life, brought new appreciation for Paul’s dilemma—sincerely believing with my mind, yet not able to follow through in practice:
“I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.” (Romans 7:22-25, NLT)
I had read those verses many times before. For years, I had nodded my head and thought I understood them completely. And I did—in my mind. But until I felt a deep gratitude for God’s mercy and patience with my ongoing sinful nature, I couldn’t experience the fullness of Paul’s anguish and thankfulness when he wrote those words.
Some of our encounters with Christ are dramatic, sudden, and emotional, while some are more quiet, protracted, and cerebral. One isn’t better than the other, of course. Each is simply evidence that God works with each of us where we are at the time, with what we bring to the table. In my case, I had essentially read my way to Jesus (there were no actual conversations with other Christians that I can remember), and this intellectual pursuit served me well for many years. But God wasn’t satisfied with just my mind. He also wanted my heart, and he was willing to bide his time for a very long while until I was able and willing to hand it over to him.
No matter how you meet up with Jesus, through your mind or through your heart, God isn’t going to be satisfied with just a part of you. Whether you naturally take a more intellectual approach to God or have a heart-rending conversion experience, you’ll have to eventually surrender both, as David did: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.” (Psalm 26: 2-3, ESV)
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay