The Common Good

Faith Over Certainty: The Difference Between a 'Pilgrimage' and a 'Testimony'

I was filling out an application recently and was asked to write a short statement on my "personal faith pilgrimage." I grew up in the Christian world, and so have had to write out my testimony dozens of times. But this wasn't asking for my testimony, but for the story of my faith pilgrimage. On one hand it might be easy to assume that they are one and the same, but the difference in terminology between "faith pilgrimage" and "testimony" intrigued me and got me thinking about how even the way the question gets asked influences how our story gets told. I realized that not just my story itself, but how I tell my faith story has changed over the years.

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Out of sheer curiosity, I went through the archives on my computer and read through testimonies I had written in the past. These were my faith stories as I had written them to apply to Wheaton College Grad School, to work at a Baptist church, and to serve as a church-planter (and no, I will not be posting them here). Each of these focused on two main events in my life -- when at the age of three I prayed to ask Jesus to come into my heart and my decision at age 12 to "make my faith my own." Other themes -- feeling the need to tell others about Jesus and the roller-coaster emotions of feeling close to Jesus -- supported these two primary events. That decision of where I was going when I died and my choice to stay in the church were what I knew those reading my story wanted to hear -- they were what I believed to be the most important moments in my faith history.

But these days I find it uncomfortable to be asked to tell of the moment I became a Christian. I don't believe that some magical transaction occurred on Oct. 17, 1981 as I sat on my dad's lap and repeated a few words after him. Before that moment I had believed like any child in what I had been told about Jesus, saying that prayer was simply part of my formative journey as a believer. Similarly, I no longer talk about my faith in terms of certainty regarding where I will go when I die. I was recently told that a local church in its membership interviews asks the question "if you died tonight how certain are you of where you will go?" The response they are looking for to allow people to continue in the membership process is "100% certain I will go to heaven." Those that reply otherwise are unknowingly streamed into a Christianity 101 class instead of the membership class. My response to this (even ignoring the whole question of if we go to heaven or if as the Bible says are resurrected to the new earth) is to ask what is the role of faith if certainty is what is required. These terms of "moments of decision" and "certainty" are no longer part of my lexicon as I tell my faith story.

These days my testimony is less an argument written to prove to others that I have jumped through the right hoops it takes to be a Christian, and more of a travel narrative of my faith pilgrimage. My story has changed, my narrative style has changed, and even what I call it has changed. I know I have not arrived at anything, I value faith far more than certainty, and what I believe is no more important than how I live out that belief. My story encompasses those changes and embraces my questions and doubts as simply being an authentic part of my journey as opposed to evidence that could be used against me in determining if I am in or out. I am still on this journey, even as I tell of its twists and turns. What I learn along the way and terrain I am traversing at the moment as I follow Jesus matter just as much as any particular moment along the way. My story has become more of an epic adventure as opposed to a persuasive essay.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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