Sharing my Testimony

I posted a few weeks ago about being baptized in the Jordan River while we were in Israel. Since I've gone to church all my life and was baptized in my former church at an earlier age, I sometimes feel a need to share my testimony and the reason I decided to be baptized at this point in my life. I know that for a lot of people who don't in any way question their baptism, being baptized in the Jordan is still a cherished opportunity and privilege. It was for me as well. It was hard to believe we were standing in the same river where John baptized Jesus. But, as I have shared before, the location was secondary to the baptism itself.

I doubt there is anyone reading my blog who isn't familiar with my testimony. But one never knows.

I grew up in a church that taught me no one had salvation or eternal life through faith alone in the finished work of Christ. I was taught that Jesus came to live a perfect life on earth in order to show us that it could be done. And He died on the cross to give us an opportunity for salvation. But faith in Him was just the beginning. My sinless perfection was a requirement (not met for us through Christ but through our own efforts -- along with the assistance of the Holy Spirit).

I am trying to be fair in my explanation of what I was taught because I know that many still in that group would say they never taught that we could do this (reach perfection) within our own strength. We were taught that the difference between us and Jesus was that He was born with the Holy Spirit and we had to receive it. But once we did, we had the same power within us to live a perfect, sinless life that Jesus had. And it was always very clear to me, based on the teaching, that being accepted into heaven was about my performance and being a part of the "true" body of Christ (which did not include all believers). Christian churches outside of our affiliation were considered the religious world. I grew up believing I could not leave this group and still serve God. I remember many testimonies that were entirely centered on when a person found that group of people rather than when they found Christ. The group, its ministry and special truths were elevated to the status of essential. You couldn't leave to go to another church and be in God's will. That wasn't even considered a possibility.

I know some have moved away from this way of thinking, but it is still the corporate belief. I know this because of comments that are still made from pulpits and in private. I occasionally have conversations with others who were raised in this group and have left to serve God elsewhere. Even in different congregations, the stories are always very similar within this group affiliation. One story was shared with me very recently. Someone in another part of the country was told by a member of his former congregation, "I would rather see you lost in sin and out in the world than lost in another church, thinking you are serving God." This was how I was raised, believing I could not serve God or please God anywhere but in that one group of people. The group and its truths were essential to my salvation.

This is how people are kept in bondage and in fear of leaving cults. They convince you that they alone possess essential truths that cannot be found outside the group. You are taught that you cannot leave the group and be in right standing with God (once you have been taught their truths) and, not only that, you will never find friends outside of the group like the ones you have in the group. I once believed that anyone who left the group to attend any other church would have a longing to be back there for as long as they lived; including myself. I remember clearly being told that I could not find God or feel satisfied anywhere else after being a part of that group of people. I knew nothing of Christianity apart from these teachings for most of my life. Education was not encouraged. Close friendships outside the group were not encouraged. It was a closed environment. I realize now that I lived most of my life in a box.

It was a works-based theology. The cross was not the central focus or message. And it was an extremely legalistic environment where compliance was promoted, expected and rewarded. This resulted in a man-centered gospel, not a Christ-centered Gospel. But I couldn't see it fully for what it was until I was able to leave and get a different perspective. Anyone who does not share the experience of being raised in this kind of deception cannot understand. My own husband doesn't understand. He can't understand how anybody, especially a Christian, could possibly believe the things I once accepted as truth. It is as foreign to him and his Christian walk as it would be for an average American to contemplate a daily diet of bugs and worms.

Over a period of many years, God showed me things and let me hear certain statements that I could recognize (in spite of my conditioning) as false. Although I continued to stay, I always remembered those things and reflected on them. But when I say a period of years, I'm talking about a period of more than TEN years. When I would contemplate leaving, I feared God's displeasure and disappointment with me (which I could hardly bear the thought of). It was a long process. I did not leave lightly or quickly. And there were many times of anxiety after I did leave; questioning, doubting myself and whether or not God had truly led me out.

I landed in a Gospel-centered church. I began volunteering weekly in the church office. When I would have questions, I would write emails to my pastor seeking guidance and reassurance. On several occasions, I sat with him in a conference room or in his office and shared my background and my fears, how I still had a hard time believing I would go to heaven when I died. But I wanted to believe in God's promises. One day he told me that he believed he knew what would help my faith. I'll never forget his words. They were very direct and even a little troubling. He told me that he didn't think I would get free of my fears and anxieties until I not only repented for what I had believed and been involved in, but renounced what I had believed and been a part of -- because it wasn't the Gospel. He quoted this passage to me from Galatians 3:1-3

"O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?"

And that day my pastor explained to me, based on this scripture, that any other gospel or means to salvation other than Christ crucified was witchcraft. There are rewards and benefits for obedience and our obedience is the evidence of our faith. But our salvation and the gift of eternal life is through faith alone in Jesus Christ, His life, His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. There is nothing we can do to add to it or detract from it. If our salvation was merit based, it would be compensation - not the free gift of God through His unmerited favor and grace. In no way does this mean it doesn't matter how we live. But we cannot earn salvation or eternal life through our efforts.

He was very plain and direct. Up to that point, I had only heard my son refer to any other gospel message as witchcraft. And to be honest, I thought that was a little strong and harsh. I did not care for the use of that word. My pastor had no idea that my son had ever spoken those same words to me when he spoke them. And I did not feel that it was a coincidence. I felt like God was speaking to my heart. At the end of this counseling session, my pastor instructed me to go home and repent for what I had believed and then renounce what I had believed and been involved in. Then he said, "You might have trouble with this. It might cause anxiety and be difficult for you to do. If so, come back and see me and I will help you with it."

I went home and repented for not believing the Gospel. That wasn't hard. Renouncing what I had believed and been involved in was harder. I choked on the words. I still had fear in me. I could not deny all the ways God had confirmed my deliverance and blessed my life. I was absolutely certain by this point that God had delivered me from false doctrine. But renouncing your entire life and beliefs is not an easy thing to do. I was a little afraid. But based on the scripture he'd quoted me, I followed my pastor's instructions. I didn't do this just once. I prayed this repeatedly. And my pastor was right. I began to believe I HAD eternal life through faith in Christ. My deliverance was made more complete. I realized through this how important it was for me to renounce the false things I had believed, no matter how innocently or sincerely.

This is the reason why I felt so strongly that I needed to be baptized in water at this point in my life as a Christian. I have struggled for more than five years with the question of whether or not I needed to be baptized again or if it was unnecessary. In my former church, it was not uncommon for a person to be re-baptized after a period of discouragement. It was not uncommon for people who had been baptized in other churches (denominations) to feel they needed to be re-baptized after they had found this group of people that considered themselves the "true" church. I no longer believe that baptism is about what church you are baptized in. But it bothered me that when I was baptized previously, I did not believe the Gospel. I was bewitched by "another gospel." I had renounced that false gospel and repented for believing those things.

As we were on the bus, approaching the Jordan, the night of my baptism in Israel, our guide instructed all of us who were being baptized to let him know if this was our first baptism or a rededication. I called my pastor over and said, "You know my story. You know that I have renounced and repented for the false gospel I believed when I was first baptized. I don't care about a certificate. I just wanted to ask you, if you were me, would you consider this a rededication or my first Christian baptism?" At first he chuckled and said, "Shari, you never ask easy questions." Then he got serious and responded, "I'd have to say I would consider this your only baptism."

As I was being baptized in the Jordan, I was overwhelmed with the reality that I was buried and raised with Christ through His death and resurrection on my behalf. That reality was so powerful as I was plunged into the water. I was so thankful to know the truth and have this opportunity.

Danny and I have had so many conversations about this subject. Neither of us wanted to be baptized again because we were carrying forward our previous concept of going back to the water every time one needed "major" forgiveness. The Bible does not instruct us to go back to the water a second time. Repentance alone addresses our sinfulness after we have been baptized into Christ. And I didn't feel like I had to be baptized into my current church like I had witnessed people do in my past. But I couldn't help feeling that I hadn't been baptized into the true faith. Since being baptized in the Jordan River, I have been able to put this struggle to rest.

Today Danny, my son, was baptized in the church he attends. The pastor shared just the tiniest bit of his story as he was about to be baptized. There was such grace in the words he chose. But Danny has been teaching and coaching in Christian schools for years, so there was a need for something to be said (in my opinion) as to why he was being baptized now. With such discretion, the pastor explained Danny's journey to the Gospel and faith in the finished work of Christ. Danny cried. I cried. I saw tears in the eyes of his friends and other family members.

I had no idea that my brother was also being baptized today until after I'd come home and saw my niece's comments on Facebook. She was so proud that her dad had gotten baptized and she couldn't keep it to herself. My heart was overwhelmed with gratitude for God's faithfulness to my family and myself. I guess that probably explains why I am writing all of this today. My blog is an open journal of my thoughts and reflections. My hope is always that something I share will touch or resonate with even one other person. I don't know who is reading or what God's purpose may be in someone reading what I write, but I know He works through people and He works in mysterious ways. I want to be a vessel for His purposes and His glory.

For several years now, as I have shared my testimony, I have been frequently asked why I don't write a book. I love to write. I would love to have the opportunity and privilege to share my testimony on a larger scale if I could glorify God in doing so. But it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would be interested in reading about my personal journey and testimony -- even though so many other people seem to find it fascinating. My usual response is, "I just don't even know where I would start." The last and most recent time someone said I should write a book, I responded, "Every time I think about writing a book, I wonder why anyone would be interested in reading my story." And she said, "There's your first sentence."

I don't know if God would want me to write a book or if anyone would want to read it. And I wouldn't want to do it if God wasn't in it. But if God helped me to write it and opened the right doors for it to be published, it would be a great honor for me to write and speak about God's deliverance in my life. I realize I have a unique story in many ways, and yet a testimony that might help someone else to find the Gospel, God's grace and deliverance. I'm going to pray about this and consider it more seriously than I have up to this point. If you would consider praying with me and for me about this, I would really appreciate it. I feel very inadequate even contemplating such an undertaking. But if God is in it, I know He can show me how to begin and what he wants me to say. If He doesn't, I am content just continuing to write here on my humble little blog.


Anonymous said…
Shari, as I read your entry, I found myself nodding and agreeing with your depiction of your journey. You have indeed come through a great deal and now are free to serve in the manner in which God calls you. If there is someone who will benefit from your journey and your struggles, God will lead you to write that book. Listen carefully to Him. I've found that He never steers us wrong. Hugs, my friend.
Anonymous said…
Shari, as I read your entry, I found myself nodding and agreeing with your depiction of your journey. You have indeed come through a great deal and now are free to serve in the manner in which God calls you. If there is someone who will benefit from your journey and your struggles, God will lead you to write that book. Listen carefully to Him. I've found that He never steers us wrong. Hugs, my friend.
Shari said…
Thanks, Alice. I'm glad you added your name so I could know who left this comment! Pray for me! I have had so many people tell me that they feel I should consider some kind of ministry involving sharing my testimony. I don't feel adequate and I have never had a desire to pursue anything like that. I would only consider it if God made it very clear that He was leading me in that direction.

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