The following was written for and presented at a plenary panel on “Work, Worship, and Witness” at the tenth annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, May 2, 2019, Minneapolis.
Early on the morning of the resurrection, while it was still dark, the Gospel of John tells us that Mary Magdalene is weeping at the tomb. Unbeknownst to her, Jesus appears and asks “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary asks Jesus to tell her where he’s taken the body. Jesus responds simply, with one word, her name: “Mary.” In the instant clarity of recognition, she responds “My teacher!” Jesus then commissions her to tell his brothers and when she goes to them, all she says is “I have seen the Lord.”
We all know we are supposed to tell people about Jesus. We are to be his witnesses everywhere, sharing the gospel that people may be saved, preaching at all times and if necessary using words, Alpha, servant evangelism, friendship evangelism, door-to-door evangelism, street evangelism, power evangelism, or providing folks with a one-time or ongoing cable subscription to televangelism.
I have no doubt that God works in these ways to elicit faith, mind you. But my focus here is not technique or effectiveness, it is fidelity and spiritual formation.
You see being a witness, by definition, implies experience. In fact, it necessitates experience. As the first epistle of John says, this whole thing is about “That which we have heard, seen with our eyes, and touched with our hands.” Personal experience with the person of God, possible only through and in the person of the Holy Spirit, is what makes us witnesses. Subsequently communicating this experience only corroborates our identity as such and, as the epistle claims, is for the purposes of facilitating other people’s fellowship with God, which makes our joy complete.
A faithful Christian witness, therefore, is one who has experienced God. At its fullest, this experience, either momentarily or cumulatively, is a sacrament that reveals Jesus as at once wholly alive and loving. And because good news yearns to be shared and becomes better when it is, experience of God naturally implants desire and joyful hope that others may have their own experience too. Mary Magdalene – announcer to the announcers; Apostle to the Apostles – embodies this beautifully simple yet mysterious arrangement. She is a witness of witness.
The first memory I have of experiencing God was around the age of five, when I saw a pod of dolphins arching over the horizon of the Indian Ocean at sunset in the Seychelles. At that point, I didn’t know about the life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ, didn’t have a systematic theology, and my church membership was dubious. And yet the dolphins evoked the presence of someone real that I sensed but could not name. Spiritual experiences like this, indeed ones more obvious where I realized this someone was Jesus, made and keep me a Christian. It’s not just that Christianity makes good sense, it’s that the living God touched my heart, and I fell in love. Only personal experience does that and yields the kind of love that nourishes and sustains commitment and witness.
But no one asked about or showed me how to pay attention to my experience of God, nor did anyone correlate this attention with being a faithful witness in the world. If “witness” was discussed in my early Christian circles, the spiritual grammar emphasized the verb instead of the noun – witness was construed as an obligatory activity, as opposed to an experiential identity. It was something to do, not someone I was. Consequently, the questions became “What should I say?” and “How do I say it?” instead of “Who have I experienced?” The attendant emotions as a result were usually shame, fear of disobedience, and a vague performance anxiety. Desire, joyful hope, and love do not thrive in these conditions, which inevitably shriveled me from being a witness into being a proselytizer. That’s what happens when you undervalue or ignore experience.
There was a girl in my Christian school who was a self-proclaimed, post-Christian atheist. She dressed definitively as if there was no God, swore with a freedom and creativity that made us secretly envious, and talked in technicolour about her weekend escapades. Since I was preoccupied with the wrong questions, there was no mention of dolphins or any experience of God for that matter. I got down to business and resorted to giving her a tract, most likely about hell and damnation.
Similarly, my high school youth group planned a mission trip, and prepared an evangelistic drama. I was either selected or volunteered to play the part of a seductress. Obviously. So, with ostentatious make-up and excessive gyrating I tempted the poor male protagonist into sexual immorality. The poor guy was further tempted by a binge drinker and a gang member. In the end, totally bereft of life and identity, Jesus found him, died for him, and saved him. We all – Jesus included – played our parts perfectly. But we were quite literally hypocrites – donning personas and costumes that were disingenuous to our actual life with and experience of God.
Again, I’m not concerned here with evaluating tracts or dramas relative to evangelistic technique or effectiveness. My point is that this kind of evangelism was a tragedy of spiritual formation. It eroded the value of my own experience of God and its pertinence to being a witness, and estranged me from the very things that birthed and animated my faith in the first place. Furthermore, this all inclined me towards a certain spiritual inauthenticity where I thought I had to set aside my own experience of God and tell another story or become someone else in order to engage those who didn’t believe. I wasn’t familiar with the God I was communicating, so things came off mechanically, without vitality or exhilaration. And when a host of Christians act this way, it confirms the general suspicion that we as a people are prone to fakery and hypocrisy, which especially in this day and age, severely undermines our trustworthiness and therefore the gospel we proclaim.
Things began to change during summers in college, when I was part of Kowloon City Vineyard in Hong Kong. We used to do outreaches to Nepali drug addicts in a downtown park. There were no props involved. I remember the general awkwardness of trying to initiate conversation and the particular awkwardness of looking for an opportune moment in which to insert Jesus. Being a witness, especially when it comes to personal articulation, always involves vulnerability – for we are sharing something intimate and dear that we currently believe and love. Dismissal, rejection, even persecution are all possible outcomes.
Nonetheless, opportune moments came – often as people shared the overall landscape or particularities of their suffering. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Mary’s weeping preceded her recognition of Jesus, at a tomb. Anyway, without tracts or dramas, I had no script for anything. And somehow in this absence, my initial, basic belief in the power of experience was unearthed. I typically said something along the lines of “Jesus can help you with that, would you like to meet him?”
On some occasions, when people were receptive, their eyes fluttered in the lamplight and tears glided down their cheeks as we prayed for them to experience God. They’d describe sensations of peace and comfort. People came to faith and, as we were trained, I even saw a few minutes-old Christians be filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues as I laid hands on them. It was all overtures of joy.
What I realize now is that articulating my own experience of God wasn’t a prerequisite for people coming to faith. Rather, my experience of God produced a natural instinct that others could experience God too. And when I allowed this instinct to bloom into an articulated invitation, it was obvious that God longed to be experienced. There are many others ways, I’m sure, people could have come to faith. But inviting them into experience, regardless of the methodology, is what made them witnesses. What’s more, being with them furnished a new experience of God for me which, in turn, furnished my witness. I became more of a witness as I witnessed because I saw, heard, and felt God as the Father lavished divine childhood on socially estranged Nepali drug addicts in Hong Kong. Experience is revelation, and as Jesus became clearer and more beautiful to all of us, our faith, hope, and love increased, as did the grace to be and to want to be witnesses.
In all of this, it is my desire for us to hear what the Spirit is saying and as such, here are my four exhortations to churches:
- First, prioritize the experience of God. I don’t even mean strictly charismatic experience. I mean any experience singularly or cumulatively related to the presence, voice, and activity of God in people’s lives. Don’t get distracted with the many important things and do whatever is necessary to keep experience of God front and centre.
- Second, provide ways for people to pay attention to their experience of God and teach them how to articulate this experience by giving them opportunities to do so. Incidentally, spiritual direction and the Ignatian Examen are the best and most longstanding ways of paying attention that I know.
- Third, continually correlate people’s experience of God with them being faithful witnesses in the world. Any good experience of God naturally forms the fullness of heart from which authentic evangelistic desire, joyful hope, and articulation grow. What people experience is what they’re invited to pursue for and share with others, regardless of the particular form of evangelism it may take.
- Last, encourage people that the vulnerability inherent in being a witness is a doorway to further experience of God, and that people are actually formed more wholly into witnesses as they witness. In other words, witness and spiritual formation are happily inseparable.
May we, like Mary, see the Lord and tell others that they may see, that our joy may be complete. Amen.
5 thoughts on “Witness: From Thin to Thick”
Suhail, thank you so much for writing this and sharing. When you spoke at SVS, I was moved and inspired. I receive your exhortation. I hope we all can.
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Thank you, Beckie.
Amazing post. Beautifully written. Hugely insightful.
You’re the best, friend.
“my experience of God produced a natural instinct that others could experience God too.” Yes! And my experience of “witnessing” as proselytizing did the opposite. It made me a failure and was something to be avoided if at all possible.
thanks for this. and thanks to Matte Downey for sharing this on Outword. So good.