Attention and controversy has swirled of late around the conversion narrative told by a prominent candidate in the current U.S. presidential campaign. Without wishing to analyze either the specifics or authenticity of this narrative, it might do us well to consider to what extent drama can be overrated in the process of spiritual transformation as enjoined by God’s Word.
One recent news story, focusing on the aforementioned candidate’s testimony in light of the popular genre of conversion stories among evangelical Christians, noted how such testimonies tend to exaggerate the depths from which people claim to have been rescued.
The “before” pictures, in particular, tend to darken. The snares of sin sharpen, the descent into depravity deepens.
Often enough, eye-roll-worthy embellishments are accepted, even expected. What’s a little stretch when you’re winning souls to Christ, or escaping bad karma? But sometimes converts’ zeal can get the better of them.
The article later observes:
The most remarkable conversion stories are often the “stickiest,” to use Malcolm Gladwell’s popular phrase: easy to understand but surprising and [a] bit counterintuitive. The persecutor of Christians, like St. Paul, who became one of the faith’s most ardent apostles. The Oxford atheist, like C.S. Lewis, who turned Christian apologist. The raging boy, like Carson, who matures into an elder statesman.
Perhaps the author of this report hasn’t had the chance to witness, up close and personally, the many dramatic and well-documented conversion experiences so familiar to devout members of Christian and other religious communities. But one thing is certain: exaggeration has no place in any Christian conversion story. Testimonies for Christ can never be mingled with the bearing of false witness. Lying of any sort is sin in God’s book: “all liars” will have their part in the lake of fire, according to Holy Scripture (Rev. 21:8). Whenever embellishment of any kind occurs in the recounting of conversion narratives, irrespective of the motive involved, the Lord is dishonored. Christians cannot rightly blame the secular media for pouncing on such falsehoods when these are discovered.
However, the fact that so many such stories are both radically powerful and fully truthful is beside the point so far as this essay is concerned.
Conversion Without Drama
During my formative years as a born-and-bred Adventist, I grew concerned at times at the inordinate attention paid to persons who told dramatic stories of rescue from conspicuously destructive sins (e.g. drug addiction, sexual promiscuity) and subsequent journey to Christ. Not because I found their stories unbelievable, but because I wondered how many of my youthful peers could relate to such experiences. I have often feared that many children of the church, hearing such testimonies, tend to find their own spiritual pilgrimage boring by comparison. Some may even get the idea that unless they too sample the world’s allurements in a major way, perhaps they won’t know for themselves what true conversion is.
A friend of mine, who served for a time as a conference youth director, often tells young people of his own, comparatively sedate conversion experience. He speaks of his upbringing as a pastor’s son, how early on he dedicated his life to ministry and the service of Christ, how he and his wife remained pure before marriage, and how they happily joined together in devotion to God and one another. He urges the young not to think they have to experience the world before they can appreciate an intimate walk with the Lord. Frankly, the church—the youth in particular—need more testimonies like that.
The following Ellen White statement offers a sober, much-neglected warning in this regard:
The disposition to flatter and exalt those who have been rescued from the lowest depths sometimes proves their ruin. The practice of inviting men and women to relate in public the experience of their life of sin is full of danger to both speaker and hearers. To dwell upon scenes of evil is corrupting to mind and soul. And the prominence given to the rescued ones is harmful to them. Many are led to feel that their sinful life has given them a certain distinction. A love of notoriety and a spirit of self-trust are encouraged that prove fatal to the soul (Ministry of Healing 178).
The French statesman Robespierre, infidel though he was, understood this principle when arguing for the execution of the former King Louis XVI, stating at one point: “A people cannot found liberty while it respects the memory of its chains.” Not the best of analogies, perhaps, but the memory of one’s spiritual chains isn’t easily disrespected when it becomes a source of notoriety, multiple invitations to the lecture circuit, or even material profit.
I have long suspected that the vast majority who stand outside the jasper wall at the end of the millennium will not be armed robbers, child molesters, embezzlers, murderers, slave traders, substance abusers, or violent terrorists, but rather, indulgers of largely fashionable shortcomings buttressed with old-fashioned pride. It is fair to say that comparatively few publicized redemption narratives focus on recovery from transgressions of the latter, “mainstream” variety. It’s the dramatic stories that get the most coverage. Which accounts, perhaps, for the penchant on the part of some to exaggerate such drama.
Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman
Early in the Gospel of John we find two conversion narratives—that of Nicodemus the Pharisee and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. So far as their heart-commitment to Christ was concerned, both made a radical change. But more than likely, the more radical outward change was made by the Samaritan woman, whose life included the flaunting of open sin (John 4:18) and whose public turning from that life impacted her friends and neighbors in a most conspicuous manner (verses 28-30). If Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman were alive today, were it not the former’s wealth and high position, we can be sure the latter’s conversion story would attract by far the bigger audience.
We seem to forget at times that it takes but one sin, conspicuous or otherwise, to bar any one of us from eternal fellowship with God, His holy angels, and the redeemed of every age (James 2:10-12). Conversion stories need not possess glamor to have meaning; in fact, many more can likely relate to the less glamorous testimonies. Deliverance from Laodicean lukewarmness may lack the drama of a heroin addict’s conversion story, but it is no less precious in the sight of God, and one to which countless more can personally relate. It is like those who think they have to go overseas to a far-flung mission field in order to truly demonstrate love for God and devotion to His work, when standing without compromise for Bible truth in one’s local congregation or on the local Adventist campus may require greater courage and perseverance, without the glamor and positive publicity often attending service of the former kind.
Dramatic or otherwise, every conversion is a divine miracle, just as the persevering, painstaking loss of weight or reversal of diabetes is every bit as miraculous as Jesus’ healing of blind Bartimaeus. Stretching the truth in the telling of such stories is both sinful and unnecessary. But perhaps the church should give greater prominence in its public witness to the less dramatic conversion testimonies, so that both Christians and unbelievers can better recognize that deliverance from sin of any sort—whether apparently mundane or evidently monstrous—is ample cause for rejoicing on earth as well as in heaven.