Your Messed-Up Story
Live such a good life that people will wonder what makes you different, and they’ll want what you have: Jesus.
Variants of this message have been reiterated to me throughout my lifetime in the church. It’s a critical component of evangelism, echoing verses like, “Live such good lives among the pagans that . . . they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12, NIV) and, “For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!” (Ephesians 5:8).
Yet in my experience I’ve found that this essential truth can oh-so-easily morph into a counterfeit message: Seem so perfect—so ideal, so sinless, so got-it-all-together—that people will wonder how you’re so flawless and will want what you have: Jesus.
Your real story
That kind of mindset? It’s dangerous. It pressures us to hide away our faults and failures, to hold back negative emotions or struggles, and to present a version of Christianity that’s simply not the bona fide gospel. Yet in reality, a façade of perfection is actually off-putting for most people who are well acquainted with their own struggles and can’t relate to a super-human, got-it-all-together life.
As I wrote in my Bible study Shine Your Light, when it comes to sharing our testimony with others,
Our goal isn’t to show people how good we are—it is to reveal how good Jesus is. And this means inviting people into our real story—our story that includes struggles and sin, faults and failings, but also the joy of redemption, forgiveness, and grace! Rather than aiming to be fake, perfect-life people, instead we live as satisfied, still-a-bit-broken sinners who proclaim Jesus’ transformative grace. . . . You most accurately proclaim the gospel when you’re real and authentic with others, willing to share hurts, questions, and struggles along with assurances, victories, and joys.
Beyond "before and after"
“Almost seven years ago, I was in my deepest cycle of bulimia, even though I was a student ministry intern and a biblical studies and ministry major at a Bible college,” describes Anne Wilson, who today is on staff at a church. “Although I’m now fully recovered from bulimia, I still deal with body dysmorphic thoughts and an intense struggle with body image.
“It would be easy if God just waved a big magic wand and got rid of this,” continues Anne, “but for me, it hasn’t worked out like that. I thought this would be a ‘before and after’ story, like ‘I struggled with body image, met Jesus, but now am totally secure and my identity is in him alone.’ But instead, this ongoing struggle has kept me coming back to Jesus—asking him to continually write a bigger story with my life.”
While coming to faith in Jesus certainly changes our lives for the better, they don’t become instantly perfect. Troubles, heartaches, and failures persist. We still struggle; indeed, “We all make many mistakes” (James 3:2). Sharing not just our “before and after” stories but also our “in the middle of it” realities points others not toward ourselves but instead toward the Cross—toward the redemption and grace that both saved us and keeps on saving us.
We find a poignant example of such a testimony in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy:
This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15–16)
Your struggle—your own ongoing failing or temptation or deep hurt—can also serve as a powerful example of God’s great patience with sinners when you choose to speak honestly about it with others.
“We need to be real about the fact that we don’t have it all together, and this starts from the inside out,” says author and justice-advocate Amber Robinson. “It’s not so much about managing what we say, which is exhausting, but rather of us working on our inner life. Just like in the natural world in which growth comes from decomposed organic matter, our struggles, pains, and imperfections are what grows the good stuff. You can’t have one without the other.”
This mindset of acknowledging and facing the struggles and failures that can be part of the Christian life is built up within us through our own intimate walks with God—through practices like confession, self-examination, accountability, and Scripture meditation. First and foremost, we’re real before God. We invite him to search us and know us (Psalm 139:23), and through him we better come to know ourselves. We’re able to value our imperfections because they goad us on toward greater reliance upon God.
It is then that we’re able to be more real and open with others about the “messy” aspects of our lives—and, in doing so, we offer something richer and more substantive than any pretense of perfection can: a genuine gospel for the context of life as we actually experience it. We embody, through our honesty, a faith that has staying power even in life’s toughest moments.
“I believe that evangelism comes down to communication and trust. They often open the door for the Holy Spirit to do his work,” says musician and worship leader Sarah Scharbrough McLaughlin. “Sharing my seasons of life—both mountaintop and valley experiences—helps to tear down walls between me and others and offer a vulnerability that allows connection to happen.”
Sarah compares this type of purposeful vulnerability to something she’s observed in her kids: “When my children play on a playground and meet new kids, they immediately share where they ‘earned’ a particular scab or bruise. Once they’ve shared their rough spots, they’re best friends on the playground!
“Similarly,” she says, “I think this type of transparency leads to the appropriate amount of intimacy needed in order to talk about spiritual things.”
Be discerning and courageous
While it’s important to be open about struggles, our vulnerability must be tempered with caution. Just as others aren’t benefited by you presenting a flawless façade, they similarly aren’t blessed by hearing a barrage of your problems. What and how to share specifically may vary widely depending on who you are speaking to. What’s critical is leaning upon the aid of the Holy Spirit, discerning God’s guidance, and responding in obedience.
There are often legitimate reasons not to share difficulties or struggles. For example, if another’s privacy would be compromised or a relationship harmed, if sharing your difficulty might actually be a stumbling block that impedes faith and discipleship, it’s best to keep it to yourself. If you sense that the relationship or setting isn’t safe—if perhaps another might gossip about you or hold what you’ve shared against you—then wisdom and discernment in what and how much you share are especially critical.
But alongside these legitimate reasons to be cautious comes a whole host of illegitimate ones that try to lure you back toward the perfect-façade version of evangelism. It may be pride holding you back, or fear of being vulnerable, or even a hidden sense of shame. When you’re led by God to be more open about hard parts in your life, take heart like God urged Joshua: “Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Blessed by your mess
“After I had my son, I dealt with some postpartum depression off and on for several months,” describes Anne. “Almost a year later, I was sitting down at a wedding rehearsal, chatting with another mom that I went to high school with (who isn’t a Christian). She briefly mentioned her struggles in motherhood, and I told her about my own bout with postpartum depression.
“She was floored,” Anne continues. “She couldn’t believe someone ‘with so much faith’ also struggled with depression like her. She felt relieved, actually, hearing about my similar experience.”
When we drop the veneer of never-let-‘em-see-you-sweat faith and instead courageously and honestly speak about our journey with Christ—even the tough bits—we build a real connection. We issue a compelling invitation into grace.