Her story was tearful and heartfelt, and her struggle was real. However, I happened to know that some of the women in the group had some serious sins with far-reaching consequences in their pasts. Her story was akin to sitting down next to a person whose drunk driving accident had killed a bus full of children and saying you know how they feel because you once backed into a parked car and scratched the fender.
There's a lot of emphasis on sharing your stories with others. The reasoning is that people won't dismiss a personal testimony as easily. I think there is some value in that, because it helps people see that they're not alone. And how else can you explain "the hope that you have" without sharing your story? But if we let ourselves get too wrapped in our story, it can become more about us and less about God. To a person who is wrestling with some big issues, we can inadvertently make them feel worse.
The other danger is when sharing turns into a game of "top that testimony." I think that sometimes people feel that they can't be an effective minister to others unless they've got a closet-full of ugly sins to share. That's very dangerous ground to tread. I also think that our sinful nature enjoys hearing the gory details, and we certainly don't need to feed that monster.
I was told a few weeks ago by a non-Christian that I was sheltered and naive. I didn't take it personally, and for what it's worth, I don't think that I'm either one (I attended a secular college, work with the public, and teach children's Sunday School. I have drawn the same conclusion from each experience--we're all sinners). He didn't say that in response to anything particular I had said, but just as a general conclusion. Based on past conversations, I think he's determined that I'm a "good" person, but that it's only because I've been protected from the "real world." The irony is this person also goes to a lot of trouble to try to convince me that he's really not that bad of a guy. If he really thinks I'm sheltered and naive, I don't know why he would want my good opinion.
I guess that's why I've grown weary of being told of the best way to witness. It doesn't matter what approach we take, we're going to muck it up. It's the Holy Spirit that saves, not our "lofty speech or wisdom." (1 Corinthians 2:1) Salvation is a miracle, just as much for the person saved as a small child who never strayed as it is for the hardened criminal. It's still the power of God working in a life. It's still the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
I think we're better off just listening to Paul:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
Author's note: a version of this post originally appeared on my personal blog in March 2008.