Writings by Cole Huffman

Is Your Testimony Your Identity?

It was recently suggested to me that one’s testimony is not one’s identity. Now I happen to believe a lot of us have come to think merely drawing a distinction is making a point. Preacher-types especially enjoy giving you a moment to admire the profundity of our clever this-not-that insights even though a lot of times we might be creating a platitude, drawing a false distinction, or both. That is there’s no real difference in what we’re contrasting, it just sounds as if there is.

Examples: Don’t let responsibility supersede responsiveness to God. Are these not conjoined? The words even share the same root. Or: No one is ever argued but loved into the kingdom of God. No one? Ever? This platitude seeks to make a contrast of the assumption that argument is always argumentative and love is always loveable, that argument always turns off and love always turns on. First Corinthians 13 doesn’t say love will never have an argument to make for itself. The chapter is in fact an argument for love! One more: God doesn’t demand your best effort, just your willingness to serve Him. Why go reductionist here? Probably because it sounds more inviting or gracious put this way. But as D. A. Carson wrote in his book Exegetical Fallacies, “in spiritual matters grace and demand are not necessarily mutually incompatible: everything depends on their relations, purposes, functions” (92).

Let’s return to the opening sentence, the idea that one’s testimony is not one’s identity. Does that always follow? It depends on the “relations, purposes, functions” between our faith story and our faith. For instance, let’s say on a flight I tell a seatmate who Jesus is and how believing in Him has changed me for the better. I handle his objections to religion deftly, and as we land the seatmate says I’ve given him a lot to think about. He doesn’t know me beyond our sharing the flight, only my story of belief that the Bible’s presentation of Jesus is true.

But let’s say a month later my seatmate on that flight is walking through the airport and sees my face appear on a TV screen. It’s a local news story reporting my arrest for some profanity of life my belief in Jesus is supposed to keep me from (Titus 2:11-14). Would the traveler be right to conclude from the news story I must not be a believer in Jesus anymore? No. My identity as a self-professed believer in Jesus stands based upon our earlier encounter. And yet with the arrest my testimony has taken a real hit.

Given that scenario, it does follow that one’s testimony is not one’s identity. A doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is informing how I’m carving the turkey here: that nothing in Christ separates me from His love, not even some spectacular headliner sin of mine (Rom. 8:39). Jesus paid for that too in securing my permanent identity in Him. Neutralizing my testimony then doesn’t equate to negating my identity. I think that’s a workable distinction.

As a literary example of testimony and identity enmeshed so as to lose one is to lose the other also, consider the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I recently helped my high school son work through the book’s storyline for a summer assignment from school. Dimmesdale illegitimately fathered Pearl, the child for which Hester Prynne suffers intense social scorn. Since he’s the celebrated young minister in their community, adored for his (assumed) piety and working hard for his congregation’s, Dimmesdale believes he can never come clean. He physically torments himself in anguish of soul over his dalliance with Hester.

What makes things so difficult for him is his testimony is his identity. In Chapter 16 (“A Forest Walk”) he practically wails to Hester, “What can a ruined soul like mine effect towards the redemption of other souls—or a polluted soul towards their purification?” Betsy Childs of Beeson Divinity School reads him perfectly: “Dimmesdale has convinced himself that he must offer to the people of New England an example, and this conviction has excluded from his agenda the possibility of offering them a redeemer.”

And that is the central problem when we conflate testimony and identity. We can’t bear the pressure of performance if not permitted in our own or others’ minds any slippage or flaw, any struggle or fall. That was the point the one who suggested keeping testimony and identity distinct was making to me. If my identity keeps time by my testimony then you are right to call the entirety of my belief into question if you find me synced with sin. But my testimony is how I was undeservedly redeemed by another, placed in Christ by His grace not my earning, and secured by Him despite the ongoing evidence that I am still a member in good standing of Homo sapiens.

And yet a testimony is not just that, is it? Testimony is not merely set once upon a time back when I was redeemed. It’s an ongoing story too, as ongoing as the personal transformation that redemption by Jesus effects and is affecting. In this respect, while there is a fundamental distinction between testimony and identity there is no fundamental competition: Whenever my testimony is out of sync with my identity that’s keeping bad time. It’s time for repentance.

Speaking of, if we could just get the person—probably a preacher—who came up with Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger to repent that. Please?

Posted by Cole Huffman at 12:32 PM
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