Focus on Spiritual Formation: The Practice of Bearing Witness
“You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” Isaiah 43:10
“…for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard” Acts 22:15
Bearing Witness…do you awaken to the sun’s rising, the alarm clock’s buzz or your phone’s chosen alarm ringtone with the first thought of “How will I bear witness to the Gospel today?” Maybe. Maybe not. There is breakfast to be made. A schedule to attend to. Drop-offs to be done. A commute to work. A work day ahead. And by the way, witnessing sounds a lot like “evangelism” and that’s something most of us do not intentionally put on our to-do list.
However, we are clearly charged by scripture to be witnesses to God’s love and the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. There are enumerable ways to bear witness to the gospel and we are not confined to any set pattern. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we are free to use our intelligence and imagination as we seek to convey to others the good news of the gospel.
Just like Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry, we too must prepare to bear witness. Speaking about what each of us has seen and heard, what has been experienced in our own lives, can only be shared from an honest and truthful place within ourselves. Indeed, personal witness begins with nurturing our inner lives. Witness requires that we know who we are at the deepest level, who we are as God’s beloved and the unique person that God created us to be. The spiritual practices of Daily Examen, Lectio Devina, Journaling, Prayer, Sabbath Keeping (descriptions of which can be found here in the Spiritual Practices section of the Trinity website) are but a few of the many spiritual practices that can nurture the inner life, allowing us to discover our gifts and passions.
But how do we find the words that convey our experiences of the Holy? How do we give voice to the manifestations of God’s love and power in our own lives? What gifts have we been given for God’s good purposes in the world?
Take a moment. Close your eyes and think of the five things you did as a child or youth that gave you pure joy. What are the things that you do, and in doing them, lose complete track of time? Where and when did you last have a great sense of joy? Of God’s grace? Of worth? Of making a positive difference? Where has God‘s love claimed you? Where have you seen God’s hand at work in the world? When was the last time you observed a “holy coincidence?”
It is in these discovered places that we are led to be more loving, more compassionate, more accepting persons and where we come to realize that through the living and experiences of our very lives, our ordinary, daily lives, we bear witness. The proclamation of Saint Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words” rings true and reminds us that there are many ways to witness.
Theologian and author Howard Thurman advised, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Knowing what gives us that sense of aliveness allows us to naturally go out and witness to the God we know through Jesus Christ, the one true God who is the source of all life.
Our Confession of 1967, crafted in response to the Civil Rights movement, states:
“To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as (God’s) reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares (the) labor of healing the enmities which separate men (and women) from God and from each other…” (Book of Confessions, The Confession of 1967).
Our Committee’s series of writings on Spiritual Practices are a collaborative effort. We hope they play a part in the spiritual development of Trinity members that will better equip all of us to “bear witness” to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The stronger each one of us is spiritually, the stronger our internal lights will shine so that others will see the love of God and Christ in us. And, the stronger each one of us is spiritually, the more we will be motivated and empowered to serve the needs of others in this world. This “inside-out” approach to bearing witness – preparing ourselves spiritually and then showing our love and our faith in God through service to others – is a long and established part Trinity’s character, its DNA. It is the heart of “bearing witness.”
However, in a spirit of humility, we should also acknowledge and respect the ways in which our more evangelical brothers and sisters bear witness to the selfsame gospel. Consider the possibility that we at Trinity are so inclined to follow St. Francis’ admonition quoted above – “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words” – that we are subject to an excessive reluctance to actually verbalize our faith to others. One of our committee members related a story we hope illustrates the point. During a week-long Caribbean cruise, our friend signed up for one of the daily excursions – this one involving a lengthy bus ride to a quaint village in the hinterlands of one of the bejeweled islands on the itinerary. While sitting and waiting for the bus to return to pick up her tour group, she was reading a paperback – she can’t recall the title – that had a religious subject. Seemingly out of nowhere, a local “native” woman approached her. The woman smiled a glowing smile and, pointing to her book, asked simply, “Are you a Christian?” Our friend, taken aback, was barely able to mumble “well… yes” before the woman, still smiling, went on her way, with these words: “I am a Christian too. Have a wonderful day and may God bless you.” This brief encounter with a stranger made an indelible impression on our friend and remains for her a vivid memory to this day. That humble woman’s demeanor of welcome and her willingness to verbalize her faith, in a simple, straightforward and humble way, has continued as a gift of great price to our friend. In those circumstances when words are called for, we should not be afraid to say them. Like the power of touch, the power of the spoken word should never be underestimated as we bear witness to God’s love for us and for all people.
From ancient times, the Hebrew prophets continually reminded God’s people of their responsibility to both walk the walk and talk the talk. We are enjoined “to do justice, and to love kindness (mercy) and to walk humbly with (our) God” (Micah 6:8). In the New Testament, Jesus draws on the prophets’ vision to inform his own calling to proclaim the reign of God. Jesus was not shy to speak the word to all who would listen. Throughout the centuries, men and women of faith have borne witness to the gospel by word and deed, often at tremendous risk to themselves.
At Trinity there are many opportunities to prepare ourselves for bearing witness, from worship, to small group involvement, to classes on spiritual formation in our education programs. When we become members at Trinity we publicly confess our faith in God and our commitment to follow Christ. The Speaking of Our Faith series each June as well as the faith statements prepared by each new member of the Trinity Session are examples of a direct form of witnessing from our deep personal experiences. Every human encounter at Trinity is an opportunity to bear witness as we are led by the Holy Spirit.
For Further Reading
- Let’s Talk about the “E” Word, Sermon by Pam Driesell
- Presbyterian Social Witness Policy Compilation Compiled by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy
- Celebration of Discipline, The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster
- Testimony, Talking Ourselves into Being Christian by Thomas G. Long