The Testimony Fallacy

Testimonies play a major role in evangelicalism today. They’re used to introduce a Gospel message in a non-confrontational way, to “bring to life” biblical truths, to express the genuineness of one’s Christian life, and to prove theological tenets. I think there can be problems with the overuse of testimonies in all of these areas, but today I want to focus especially on the last one: using your testimony to make a theological argument.

Personal testimonies are sometimes used as trump cards in debates. Maybe it’s an argument about whether churches should have altar calls. The debate goes back and forth until one person makes the clencher argument: “I was saved through an altar call. You can give reasons all day long for why altar calls aren’t good church practice, but my experience of the Holy Spirit there was real.” Or maybe the debate is over speaking in tongues. Again, here’s the winning blow: “I know a guy at my church who speaks in tongues. I’ve heard him. You can’t argue with my experience.”

Is that true? Can we really not argue with someone else’s experience? Somehow we’ve ended up in a postmodern era in which Scripture is open to interpretation, and one verse of God’s holy Word can have any number of different and even contradictory meanings. But my personal testimony? Never! It has a clear, singular meaning on which I am the final authority.

I believe this is a horrible fallacy with detrimental consequences. We don’t have a God’s-eye perspective on our experiences. We know that in other areas of our lives we’re constantly jumping to wrong conclusions, making unfounded assumptions, and misinterpreting data. What makes us think our testimonies are exempt from this?

One of my favorite scenes from C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy is that mountain walk where Shasta talks with Aslan about his life story. Shasta tells Aslan about all the suffering he has endured, bemoaning his difficulties and bad luck. But then Aslan unveils Shasta’s true story. He reinterprets all the incidents of “bad luck” to show how he, the great lion, was there all along, orchestrating each situation in a way Shasta had never realized. Shasta’s testimony needed to be corrected.

I imagine most of us need lots of revisions to the way we understand our own testimonies. In heaven we may laugh over how mistaken we were about what was really going on in certain episodes of our lives. But not everything will be a laughing matter. If we have used our misinterpreted personal testimonies to “prove” false doctrine, there will be grounds for weeping. 

Personal testimonies are usually non falsifiable, but that doesn’t mean they are true. If anything, it should make us more wary of their use in theological debates. Our experiences are too shaky a ground to rest our faith upon.

The good news is that we aren’t left with the slippery footing of our personal testimonies. We have something far more sure: the testimony of the apostles in Holy Scripture. We have, for example, the testimony of John, who writes at the end of his Gospel, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24, emphasis added). As Ephesians 2:19-20 teaches, “the household of God” is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” 

The Christian faith doesn’t depend on your testimony or mine. There is a greater testimony on which to lean: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5-6). Let us rest, not on our own testimonies, but on the testimony of Jesus.

Explaining My Husband in the Kindest Way

For Christmas this year, one of my brothers and one of Caleb’s brothers each received the game Secret Hitler. Given its popularity on both sides of the family, we have played a lot of rounds in the last month. The secrecy of the game has to do with which players are on which team. The bad guys know who the other bad guys are, but the good guys are left to guess who their teammates are. The result is that the smallest word or action (or lack thereof) sheds suspicion on a player, and often the good guys end up executing each other because of faulty guesses.

Playing Secret Hitler with Caleb’s family

After a couple of games in which Caleb and I tried to get the other killed only to discover in the end that we were on the same team, I started thinking about the similarities between this game and some of our earliest disagreements in marriage. During those first few months, we offended and took offense at things that really shouldn’t have been a big deal. Just as in Secret Hitler, a tiny mistake could lead me to suspect that we were on different teams. 

But, unlike in Secret Hitler, I couldn’t claim ignorance as an excuse. On May 15, 2020, we promised to love and cherish each other until death. We can have our little squabbles and step on each other’s toes at times, but in the end we are on the same team.

Exchanging rings

I think most of our earliest storms could have blown over if I had realized that Caleb, despite his mistakes, was loving me in the best way he knew. Unnecessary suspicion quickly corrodes any relationship, while assuming the best can go a long way in smoothing over discord. This is especially true when you’re learning how to live with another person’s habits and way of thinking. 

Ever since I read the Small Catechism’s words on the eighth commandment, it has been the last phrase that I have found the most striking. What does it mean not to give false testimony against our neighbor? “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” Explaining everything in the kindest way doesn’t come naturally to us (unless it’s our own words and deeds that we are explaining). I am quick to find fault and explain my husband’s behavior in a way that justifies my hurt feelings. But the eighth commandment calls me to check this sinful impulse and explain my neighbors, including my nearest neighbor, in the kindest way.

Before proceeding, I should probably mention that explaining everything in the kindest way does not mean concealing a spouse’s unrepentant sin. This commandment forbids telling lies about our neighbors, which includes lying to shield them from their sins’ just consequences. As Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” Sadly, there are times when a person needs to speak up about their spouse’s sin to ecclesiastical and civil authorities. 

In the majority of cases, however, it’s the other side of this commandment that we need to be reminded of. Speaking from my own experience, I know that most of the times when I have been bothered by something Caleb did or said, it wasn’t even a sin on his part. Something just came out wrong or rubbed me the wrong way. In these cases, it is a violation of the eighth commandment for me to respond by slandering him or hurting his reputation. Instead, I am commanded to explain it in the kindest way–to recognize the loving heart and kind intentions behind the word or deed that ruffled my feathers.

Thankfully, I am not left to wonder whether Caleb is on my team. Our marriage is not a game of guesswork and trickery. With God’s help, I can let go of my sinful suspicions and learn to explain my husband in the kindest way. 

What Crime and Punishment Showed Me about the Homosexuality Debate

One of the greatest strengths of fiction is its power to cultivate empathy. A good novel puts us into the character’s shoes. It stretches our perspective and imagination in a way that more argumentative works can’t. 

I recently had the pleasure of reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There were many things I enjoyed about the book, but one of its best features was the complex characters. Dostoevsky introduced me to several unique individuals. If I were to reduce each to a single action, I might introduce them to you as follows: a murderer, a prostitute, a drunkard, and a molester. 

Some of these characters were more relatable than others. They had different reasons for their various crimes, some of which seemed to come closer to justifying the deed. I’ll admit I didn’t like some of the characters. But as I got to know them better, I found that I couldn’t totally despise any of them. I felt sorry for them. I didn’t wish the worst for them. In some cases, there was even something to admire.

Take Sonya, for example. It was self-sacrificing love for her family that drove her to prostitution. She accepted the shame and disgrace of that occupation to provide for her step-siblings while her father spent his days drinking. She was full of grace and compassion. Who am I to condemn her?

My experience with these characters brought home two lessons. First, I need a greater dose of compassion for all sinners. If a sin seems particularly loathsome or abhorrent to me, it’s not necessarily because of my morality. It might just mean that I haven’t put myself in the shoes of someone who is tempted toward that sin. Second, right and wrong are not determined by a person’s composite goodness or likeableness. It would be ridiculous to reason that an action is moral simply because a person who commits that action has many respectable qualities. 

So what does all this have to do with the controversies in the church over same-sex marriage? There’s a common argument in favor of gay and lesbian relationships that goes something like this: “I used to believe that homosexuality was wrong. But then I met all these wonderful people in loving same-sex relationships. I realized that these relationships must not be condemned by a good God.” I think that Crime and Punishment provides an answer to this reasoning and offers protection against two different ditches. 

To avoid the first ditch, we need to recognize that this argument gets one thing right: There are many wonderful people who are attracted to the same sex. They’re kind, funny, smart, and loving. They have beautiful things to share with the world. 

It can be tempting to divide sin into two categories. There are the not-so-bad sins that I’m guilty of, and then there are the really bad sins that I can’t imagine wanting to commit. Things like gossip, gluttony, and vanity go in the first category, and things like murder go in the second category. But notice what is the standard of morality at this point: me. This is not only unbiblical; it’s illogical. What if, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, I did commit murder? Then I could move it into the first category, and the distinction becomes meaningless. 

We need to watch out for this unbiblical division in our discussion of sexual sins. Same-sex relations are not going to tempt the majority of Christians. Does this lack of relatability affect the stance we take in homosexuality debates? Are we quicker to make sympathetic excuses when we hear about someone’s heterosexual sin because we can imagine ourselves in their shoes more easily? If we answer in the affirmative, we may be unknowingly making ourselves the standard instead of God’s Word.

If the first pitfall is reasoning from “I don’t struggle with same-sex sins” to “therefore same-sex sins are especially egregious,” the second pitfall is reasoning from “someone I love and respect is in a same-sex relationship” to “therefore same-sex relationships are okay.” It’s interesting that both ditches depend on the same flawed logic: the idea that my sympathies determine right and wrong. 

This is where the genius of Crime and Punishment puts things in perspective. While reading, I discovered that it’s possible to have some sympathy for a murderer, a prostitute, a drunkard, and a molester. But no one (to my knowledge) would make the claim that murder isn’t a big deal when committed by a likeable person. Likewise, it is illogical to defend same-sex relationships on the basis of an individual’s good character.

I need to put myself in the shoes of my brothers and sisters who deal with same-sex attraction on a daily basis. I need to try to understand how the world looks from their perspective. And then, after I have realized that I am not above it, I need to recognize that homosexuality is still sinful, not because it violates my sensibilities but because it violates God’s law. My experience with Crime and Punishment taught me that I can sympathize with the greatest of sinners and that no amount of sympathy can justify sin.

Portrait of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov

Advent Tears: A Poem for the Holy Innocents

Massacre of the Innocents by Guido Reni (1611)

Advent has come and gone, and it’s the second Sunday after Christmas. But, at the same time, Advent can’t be over. We are still waiting for Christ to return in judgment and glory. On the heels of the Advent season, when the blue paraments have only just been packed away, the one-year lectionary bring us to a Gospel reading that screams our need for a second Advent.

Christ was born. The angels celebrated His arrival. Shepherds spread the good news. Magi made the long journey to come and worship the young King. And then, almost before the festivities had faded, Herod slaughtered the baby boys of Bethlehem. 

This massacre reminds us of our need for Christ to come again. The cries of the Holy Innocents interrupt our Christmas celebrations and cause us to remember that all has not yet been made new.

Two years ago, as I was reflecting on the penitential, expectant nature of the Advent season, I wrote this poem. I started by imagining what it would be like for Mary to travel to Egypt as the boys of Bethlehem were massacred, and then I extended the Advent theme to her perspective on other events in the life of Christ. May the story of these little boys cause us all to pray for our Lord’s return.

Advent Tears 

On the Road to Egypt

“Comfort ye,” the prophet said. 

So why have I from Bethlehem fled?

Why I alone while others weep

And cry to God His word to keep?

For Rachel’s cheeks will not be dry

While babes of hers are slain and die.

All comforters she will refuse;

How now can heralds speak good news?

Like unchecked streams her tears will flow

While I alone to Egypt go. 

Though all seemed well that holy night

When darkness fled at love’s pure light,

That song of joy is choked by grief–

By Rachel’s tears for lives so brief. 

From Ramah hear her wailing voice 

Rise up for all her little boys. 

O Child, I hold You to my breast 

And wonder that I am so blessed.

Why should I be the favored one

To now embrace God’s only Son?

But Gabriel said that You would reign.

So why are Bethlehem’s infants slain?

O Child, Almighty God and King,

When will You that kingdom bring?

The Crucifixion 

O King, now wearing crown of thorns,

I wept for joy when You were born. 

But now my tears like Rachel’s flow,

And all my heart’s weighed down with woe.

All my hopes nailed to that tree,

Dying there, my Lord, with Thee.

“Unending reign,” the angel said. 

How can this be? For You are dead.

After the Ascension 

Now once again with joy I weep.

O risen Lord, Your word You keep.

From empty tomb glad tidings ring

Of peace on earth from God our King.

You died and rose, and death is slain.

My Lord, eternally You reign.

Ascended to Your Father’s side,

You reign for us for whom You died. 

Yet still I hear dear Rachel’s cry. 

Lord, come again her tears to dry. 

Come comfort Rachel as she wails.

Come soon before our eyesight fails.

As watchmen long for morn to break, 

We long for Thee; our mourning take.

For Rachel, Lord, come soon, I pray.

Maranatha! Don’t delay.

For Sarah laughs, but Rachel weeps.

Come soon; Your Advent promise keep.

Motherhood and the Second Commandment

My eight-month-old daughter just learned to say my name. Her vocabulary includes a lot of sounds now. Most of them get strung together into a sweet, happy babble. But “Ma” or “Mom” is different. Unlike the other sounds, “Ma” is a call for help. Sometimes it even sounds like a demand.

The joy of hearing my baby call me by name has gotten me thinking about the second commandment. This commandment forbids taking the Name of the LORD in vain. In response to the catechism’s question, “What does this mean?” Luther writes, “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” The first part is pretty clear: there are certain ways that we must not use God’s Name; to do so would profane it. But Luther’s explanation also includes a positive component. God has given us His Name so that we can “call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

I don’t think we feel the shocking weight of this statement. The holy One, the Creator and King of the universe, the One who is infinite and self-sufficient tells us His Name. And He doesn’t do this primarily for us to praise His Name, though that is one of the reasons. First, He gives us His Name to call upon in trouble. 

Knowing someone’s name–having the ability to call that person–gives us great power. That’s why we think twice before sharing our contact info! I am witnessing this firsthand in my daughter’s newfound power to call me by name. Sometimes, when I hear her persistent little voice increasing in volume with each repetition of the word “Mom,” I may wonder why I thought it was such a good idea to teach her my name. But God, as a loving Father, never regrets teaching His little children how to say His Name. He taught us His Name because He wants us to call on Him. He desires to save us. In every trouble, He wants us to cry to Him for help.

God’s Name is more than an attribute or characteristic. It distinguishes Him from all the idols and generic gods that are the work of human hands. We have a God who has taught us His Name, and that means we can call on Him specifically. 

I taught my daughter to say “Mama” because I want to be the one that she cries to for help. And that, in part, is why God taught us His Name. So next time I hear my baby girl’s voice calling me, I want to remember how much my heavenly Father loves me. He has put His own Name on me in Baptism, and He teaches me to call Him by name in every trouble.