You have to be fast on your feet in airports these days. There is a quick shuffle in loading up those gray bins on the security conveyer belt. Passengers yank out their belts like they are drawing a sword. Wallets, keys and cellphones go flying as people try to avoid the wrath of the next passenger. 

When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) technician spotted something suspicious in my suitcase recently, he called for instant backup. Two colleagues swooped in and were all over my luggage. One would have thought there was a cache of dope inside or an assault rifle. All they found was a brand new can of shaving cream. I had forgotten the 3-ounce rule when deciding to carry my bag on board. They pitched the perfectly good can in the garbage. I knew that America was safe from terror again.

There was more to the incident. The TSA worker who pulled me aside asked if I had anything else to declare. This wasn’t the customs line of an international flight, mind you. I was flying domestic. He fixed his eyes on me as if I was covering up contraband. Once he learned that I had nothing else in my possession half as exciting as shaving cream, he waved me on.

“Have you anything to declare?” That’s a line over which TSA personnel and customs officials have no monopoly. It should be a regular part of our Christian self-examination. Imagine getting up in the morning, staring at your mug in the mirror, contemplating how you are going to astound the world with God’s grace oozing out of your pores like perfume that won’t quit. “Have I anything meaningful to declare or offer our hurting world on this fine day?” That’s a question all of us should be asking. It also probes deeply into the heart of “bearing witness.” 

The word witness is both a noun and a verb in the New Testament. It is something we are and something we do. In each case, it has a very personal dimension. Think of a witness in a courtroom. One does not stand before the court and take an oath to speak as dispassionately as possible about some objective realities. No, a witness weighs in with personal perspective and firsthand encounter. The same is true in Christianity. Whereas evangelism is someone telling the story of who Jesus is for the world, witnessing is someone revealing her particular part in that important story. 

Jesus tells a crazy and naked man, freshly healed of unclean spirits, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Jesus is not asking the deranged man to describe the general goodness of God. He is appealing for him to disclose explicitly what God has done on his behalf.

The reason many people shudder at the idea of bearing witness and sharing their inner faith commitments is not that they don’t believe in those commitments. It’s that they lack all kinds of confidence in articulating their experience of God. Sometimes we don’t have words to match our way of life. Other times we miss out on a way of life that evidences sufficient godliness. 

In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken has a poignant line reminding us to be mindful of what we declare to the world through our words and deeds: “The best argument for Christianity is Christians — their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the best argument against Christianity is also Christians — when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug … then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”

Our vocation is not to worry about everyone else’s souls. It is rather to live the Christian life in such a compelling way that others will be unable to resist exploring a way of life where they evidence Christ dwelling deep within. 

There is a reason that Jesus’ final words before going up into that cloud were so strong: “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (emphasis mine). In a world where God is often a hobby and Christianity can get treated as an embarrassment, dependable and winsome witnesses are crucial.

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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