I miss the word I.
Some have sworn off saying “I” because we’ve abused it. Instead of listening, we’ve spoken for others as if our personal experience is universal. The word I can be shamed and scrutinized: Who are you to center yourself? and What makes your personal anecdotes relevant or reliable? In other circles, Christians overreacted to the extreme of a hyper-individualistic faith by leaning toward a hyper-collectivized vision of religious belief.
Yet the reality is that healthy faith communities are made up of a diverse array of individuals who each have unique, distinct, and personal experiences of God. And perhaps what people crave most today is the language we often keep to ourselves—our stories of direct encounter with God.
Eugene Peterson says that the “language of personal intimacy and relationship” is “our primary language,” which we “use to express and develop our human condition.” Thus “we must become proficient” in “the speech of love and response and intimacy.”
While the language of information and motivation “are no less important in the life of faith,” he says, they become “thin and gaunt” if not embedded in personal language. Informative talk can be “reduced to list making,” while motivational talk can be “reduced to crass manipulations”—both of which keep us from actual shared life with God and one another.
While it might seem selfless to avoid using I, there’s a surprising kind of ego in never sharing our own experience. To withhold our own stories is to withhold intimacy and opportunities for deeper interpersonal connection. In fact, sharing our individual testimonies can be a selfless act in service of our communities and the world.
To avoid saying “I believe” is to forget that our beliefs are shaped in community. To never say “I need” is to underestimate the generosity of others. While “I” language can become self-centered, to avoid it entirely can become a different kind of self-centeredness.
As a writer and pastor, I’m most uncomfortable obeying God when he asks me to risk saying “I.” And, at the same time, the most transcendent moments I’ve experienced have been possible because someone else took that risk.
So, I’m a convert to first person—uncomfortable but converted. And I’m encouraged to discover we’re part of a rich tradition that honors a first-person faith.
I’ve been moved by Augustine’s courage to speak “I” to God with tender intimacy: “Say to my soul, ‘I myself am your rescue.’ Say it in such a way that I hear it.” And when I wonder, Is it okay to long for God to speak to my soul? I am reminded of Augustine’s petition. By the end of his Confessions, I am thinking no longer of Augustine but of his God.
I’m drawn in by Teresa of Avila, who boldly wrote, “I had a vision which I will share with you now.” While I’ve never had a vision like hers, her story rings true with the God I know. And when I wonder if God really engages us, I recall Teresa’s visions and choose to trust the mysterious prompts from the Source outside my own imagination.
I can see myself in Thomas Merton’s autobiography: “I was in my room. It was night. The light was on. … And now I think for the first time in my whole life I really began to pray—praying not with my lips … but praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being.” For a faith hero like Merton to invite me into his room and prayers assures me that the same God is present with me in my own room and prayers.
Although their contexts are nothing like mine, I find my hunger for God in their hunger, my wrestling in theirs. I need to watch the lives of others, to hear their fears, and to be invited behind the scenes of their perseverance in the faith. In fact, it’s often easier to believe in the God who’s at work in someone else’s story.
Because these and other first-person testimonies have strengthened my faith, it’s with obedience and hospitality that I choose to not keep my stories to myself.
Withholding my testimony may seem humble, but perhaps it’s a sign that I think my story belongs only to me. Maybe it denies the reality that I owe all I am and all I have to God—and that every lesson I learn is not for my sake alone. And so, it’s the sense of connection to God and to others that presses me to share my own small self in this way. For when individuals choose to share their lives with one another, they truly become a community.
In the New Testament, Paul is my hero because he is unashamed to speak of his faith in the first person. As an apostle, Paul had the authority to speak for God—and yet he so often spoke out of his own humanity: I was in need; I have suffered; I press on; I want you to know.
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul uses I with passion: “I was given … I pleaded with the Lord. … I delight … I love … I fear” (2 Cor. 12). He also confesses both “I am weak” and “I am strong.” And while he says “I know” in many of his letters, he’s also not afraid to say “I do not know” (2 Cor. 12:2–3). “I hope” is one of Paul’s most common assertions—but even more often, he says “I want.”
Paul’s intention is not to talk about himself for the sake of it but to embody the truth of God. He trusts that even in this one, ordinary life, something of God can reveal itself. This is no less than a healthy Christology—that as God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, he invites us to allow him to become human in us.
Such an invitation is exhilarating, terrifying, and way too close for comfort. We would rather climb up into sycamore trees to get a glimpse at God from a safe distance (Luke 19:4). But Jesus calls us down to look in our eyes and say, I’m coming to your house today.
As much as we think we want to meet God in person, it’s much easier to talk about God than to talk directly to a personal God who wants to be welcomed into our homes. But when we take the risk to let God draw near to us, we can share our encounters with the world. And when we testify—saying “I” from a life lived with God—it points not to us but to him.
Scripture tells us that Christians overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Rev. 12:11). Perhaps the blood of the Lamb is powerful precisely because it was so personal—that is, in the person of Christ. And maybe that’s what makes our testimonies so potent: Their origin in a human heart empowers them to connect with another heart.
A testimony is not merely “‘telling your story’ or ‘using personal illustrations,’” homiletics professor Anna Carter Florence says, but “both a narration of events and a confession of belief: we tell what we have seen and heard, and we confess what we believe about it.”
This kind of personal speech is vital not only for our mutual edification but also for our witness to the world. In a post-everything age, it’s meaningful to offer our small stories of Someone outside us taking us by surprise. The unique voice we owe to the world is one that grows out of our engagement with a transcendent God who shows up in our human lives.
Theologian Andrew Root describes what happens when a pastor shares another family’s story of encountering God with his congregation: “There was a paradox here, because it wasn’t about them, but it had everything to do with them. It was about the God who moved directly in their lives. It was about their witness now coming to the entire congregation (and from the congregation to the world) of an encounter with the God who is God.”
The people and places where faith is flourishing today are not necessarily those with the most persuasive arguments, the most articulate theology, the biggest churches, or the best ministry strategies.
Rather, daily spiritual renewal is happening wherever humans are willing to take the risk to open their lives to God and to one another. The revival of our personal faith and renewal of our communities may be waiting for us to stop working so hard for big, public things, to attend to the small ways God works in our ordinary lives and declare them to this world starved for the mysteries of God.
Mandy Smith is pastor of St Lucia Uniting Church in Brisbane, Australia, and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry, Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture, and a forthcoming book due to be released by NavPress, Fall 2024.