UMEROUS POPULAR Christian speakers today receive the acclaim they do because they have what many call “powerful testimonies.” By powerful testimonies, people mean that the speakers share lively accounts of how sinful they used to be and how God is using them mightily now, following their conversion. God has brought them from the “guttermost” to the “uttermost,” they say. The speakers chronicle their colorful pasts in order to prove they are legitimate born-again Christians. The sentiment seems to be that you can’t truly appreciate how amazing God’s grace really is unless you’ve been scraped up from the bottom of the barrel.
The Whole Truth?
Often these speakers relate the details of their past with great excitement. They describe previous, harmful lifestyle habits, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. They suggest that they were the center of attention and the life of the party. They talk about the fights they won, but rarely the ones they lost. They boast of how many girlfriends or boyfriends they had, but withhold how many rejections they suffered.
This kind of preaching sometimes reminds me of commercials that show men and women with almost perfect physical features having a great time while drinking beer or other forms of alcohol. The commercials, however, don’t depict the hangovers, poor academic grades, broken hearts, loss of control of certain bodily functions, broken families, lost jobs, bad breath, guilt, overweight, cirrhosis, criminal records, and even deaths that frequently accompany the lifestyles portrayed. We would do well to remember that not everything that glitters is gold.
A Perilous Trend
What many call “powerful testimonies” are often deceptive diaries of carnality that pass for preaching. While believing they are having a spiritual experience, the “saints” listening to these accounts are actually savoring the juicy tidbits. They are entertained by storylines that soap opera writers would covet. The table talk in the afternoon following such sermons frequently focuses on the former lifestyle of the speaker to the neglect of the painful process of transformation the speaker had to endure. At least in part, this is a result of the emphasis the speaker sometimes places on how much fun the sinful lifestyle was. Sin seems to abound more than grace. Listeners are entertained rather than edified.
The Bible says that the time will come when many people won’t be able to “endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3).* Perhaps part of the reason for this is that some of us are being programmed to believe we’ve heard a message from on high, but the message actually is powerless to carry us farther or higher than our imagination. Paul wrote: “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5), and “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2).
The Peril of Procrastination
The greatest danger I see in the “powerful testimony” mania is that many people, especially the youth, think they have time to sow wild oats before coming to the Lord. Religion is sometimes perceived by the young as something for older people who already have had their fun and are preparing for death. Those who are young often lack a sense of their own mortality; this sense of immortality leads them to experiment with dangerous and harmful behaviors, because they believe plenty of time is still available to “get it right” later.
The subliminal message is: “You don’t have to hurry to repent, because the preacher took his time and had all the fun he wanted before turning to the Lord. Why should I worry about consequences for wrongdoing? I’ll do my own thing and then jump back into the church before getting into trouble, just like he did.”
Exceptions to the Rule
What we need to realize is that the preachers who have this type of personal testimony are often the exception to the rule. We must remember that consequences sometimes snatch the life of the transgressor in the midst of their sinfulness so quickly that there is no time for deathbed confessions. Lot’s wife, for example, looked the wrong way just one time (Gen. 19:26). Scores of youth were torn to pieces by a bear for mocking the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:23, 24). Ananias and Sapphira lied only once (that we know of), but God meted out immediate judgment and they “fell down and died” (see Acts 5:1-11, NIV).
Sometimes the Lord will chastise us for a period of time to awaken repentance, such as when he smote Miriam with leprosy (Num. 12). But even when repentance occurs, there is seldom any escape from the law of sowing and reaping—cause and effect. Sinful seeds sown will grow weeds in the garden of life. Let no one deceive themselves that transformation is easy or that all live happily ever after following repentance.
Sinful Seeds Spread Woeful Weeds
Samson’s hair grew back after he shared with Delilah that never cutting his hair was the secret of his strength and she had someone cut it off when he was sleeping. His sight, however, did not return after the Philistines gouged out his eyes (Judges 16:17-22). Moses was denied entrance into the Promised Land after becoming angry with the Israelites and striking the rock, contrary to God’s instructions (Num. 20:7-12). David’s promiscuity was not only imitated but multiplied by Absalom (2 Sam. 16:21, 22) and Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3). Murderous Manasseh repented and became a reformer late in life (2 Chron. 33:1-17), but his previous sinful behavior had already helped to mold his son Amon’s character. Unrepentant Amon ruled so wickedly that he could be endured by those around him for only two years before being assassinated (verses 21-24). The thief on the cross was forgiven of his sins, but he still suffered the earthly consequences for his actions (Luke 23:39-43). Christ forgave Saul for persecuting the church, but not all believers were quick to receive their former enemy (Acts 9:1-21).
Yes, there are the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the lost coin (verses 8, 9), and the lost son (verses 11-32). Yes, there are the accounts of God’s tremendous grace being demonstrated in the pardons of people such as David (2 Sam. 12:13), Aaron (Deut. 9:20), Manasseh (2 Chron. 33:13), and Peter (John 21:15-19). God not only forgave them after committing acts of murder, idolatry, and denial, but also allowed them to continue in their leadership positions or, in some cases, restored them to their former positions. But is going from the “guttermost” to the “uttermost” the most powerful or enviable testimony there is? Are there other testimonies that reveal just as fully the cleansing power of God’s grace?
I’ve often heard the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so what about the keeping power of God’s grace? Isn’t His ability to lead us not into temptation worth as much as delivering us from evil? I rejoice that Jesus will do everything possible to rescue the one lost sheep, but that doesn’t mean the 99 need to leave the fold to feel validated. As a prodigal, I have experienced His cleansing power; but what amazes me even more is the keeping power demonstrated in the lives of those who wisely listened to the Holy Spirit at early ages.
What about the testimony of Enoch? Hebrews 11:5 says: “He [Enoch] had this testimony, that he pleased God.” What a testimony! A life with no regrets—plus translation! What about John the Baptist? He was born for one purpose: that he might testify to the Light. He preferred to live a very simple and austere lifestyle rather than be distracted by the delicacies of this world. Was it worth it? Well, you don’t get much higher acclamation than Jesus commending John as the greatest of all prophets.
And what about Daniel? After careful investigation, Daniel’s enemies weren’t able to dig up any dirt on him except to say that he prayed too much. Now that’s a testimony! Is it just me, or do you also fear that praying would not be one of the top complaints your enemies leveled against you?
So how about all of us praying for and celebrating God’s keeping power? It’s just as mighty as His cleansing power!
*Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible texts are taken from the King James Version.