What does it mean to be a witness? That’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
In my church and my Christian school growing up, it was emphasized – and rightly so – that God’s calling for Christians during our time on Earth is to be His witnesses. Telling others about God so that they too can be saved is the critical mission of our lives as His redeemed children. The message I heard was that people’s eternal futures hang in the balance, so being a witness is both high-stakes and not just something one can opt out of.
As I dug further into what it meant to be a witness, the pressure only increased. The definitions of a witness in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary include, “attestation of a fact or event: testimony,” “one who has personal knowledge of something,” and “something serving as evidence or proof.” So, to be a witness, I need to be able to explain the truth of Christ to others, to be living proof of His love in word and deed.
Not only that, but the English word “witness” is a literal translation of the Greek word “martyr.” Like, the martyrs from the early Church whose faith was so great that they traveled around the world and suffered terrible deaths to spread God’s Word. At that point in high school, even making small talk with someone I didn’t know felt like an unsolvable puzzle, so fulfilling what it meant to be a witness seemed like an impossible standard.
When I left my Christian high school for a secular, very liberal college, I was determined to somehow fulfill this high-stakes assignment. However, my introverted, perfectionist self was doubly terrified, of failure and of having to talk to people I hadn’t known for years about something as personal as my faith. I felt like I had no roadmap on how to enact the calling of being a witness in my daily life. After all, shipwrecks, snakebites, and angry mobs like Paul faced on his missionary journeys were not going to be the challenges I was facing at my university.
In my first year of college, I saw my Christian friends take a variety of approaches to living out their faith. Some basically only socialized with those of their same faith group. Some had friends of all backgrounds but only spoke about their faith with people of the same faith. I knew of others who were pretty outspoken and confrontational about their faith in most conversations with non-believers, which again led to them only socializing within their faith group.
In observing those examples, none of them felt quite right for me. Those who socialized with only those of their same faith seemed really isolated, and in my conversations with them, I could tell they really weren’t developing the ability to engage with people who held viewpoints different from their own. I totally understood people who had friends of all beliefs but only talked about faith with fellow Christians. After all, I have friends from different areas of my life, and I wouldn’t try to have an in-depth conversation about musical theater with friends from my basketball team who I knew didn’t share that interest. But at the same time, my faith shapes my perspective in all aspects of my life, which makes it really difficult to leave it out of conversations without feeling deceitful.
I knew that the people who aggressively brought up and argued about their faith with non-believing students ended up fairly socially isolated. Only people who were of their same faith were willing to try and befriend them. I know they saw themselves as martyrs being persecuted for their faith, which only further convinced them of their own righteousness. But honestly, I found them so unpleasant to be around. Their constant arguing and refusal to hear out an evenly slightly different perspective from their own made them seem like preachers of their own opinion instead of conveyors of God’s truth.
Instead of any of these options, I tried to forge my own way. I adapted to my new environment by listening and tailoring my responses to the individual I was speaking with. I never lied, but I definitely moderated my opinions and changed what I emphasized depending on my conversation partner.
For a while, I felt guilty, because I was sure this approach was disingenuous and coming from a purely selfish desire to be liked. After all, the 2016 presidential election and all of the deep societal divisions that it intensified happened only six weeks into my first semester of college. I was trying to learn to navigate a brand new environment and build relationships from scratch during a very turbulent time.
My response of listening and being extremely careful with my words felt like a cop-out in favor of self-preservation.
A Change in Perspective
However, over time I realized that this wasn’t necessarily a bad approach to being a witness. In 1 Corinthians 9:20, 22, Paul says, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law… To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
What Paul is describing is not trying to convert people to your faith, by arguing them into submission. Instead, he’s talking about meeting people where they’re at. In the end, God meets people where they’re at, and He is the one doing the real work.
The more I focused on listening to others deeply and then responding, the more I realized that what I was doing didn’t sound that far off from Paul’s description.
I also began to understand that being a witness isn’t just talking to people you barely know about your faith. It can also mean building relationships with people until you reach a point where you’re both comfortable discussing personal matters – like faith, which is a very personal subject for most people. I mean, my faith is deeply intertwined with my most private thoughts, feelings, and inner struggles. Sharing that with others is an act of vulnerability, as it gives them the opportunity to attack the things about which you are most sensitive. But at the same time, being vulnerable with others makes them feel comfortable being vulnerable with you. It takes time to get to that place, but once you’re there, conversations that matter to both of you can take place.
I truly believe that listening to people, trying to understand their points of view, and developing friendships over time is one of the purest ways of reflecting and sharing God’s love.
This approach has really opened doors for me. Through college, internships, and grad school, I’ve had many long discussions about faith with friends from a variety of backgrounds.
I know those conversations happened because my friends knew me. They knew I’d listen to them, that I wouldn’t try to push my views on them or preach at them, and that I’d try to answer their questions in an accessible way. They felt comfortable coming to me because of all the conversations we’d had before – because of the relationship we’d built.
In the end, I’ve learned that there’s more than one way to be a witness. It doesn’t have to be aggressive or super intentional or happen right away. It can be the little interactions you have that build into something bigger over time. It can be trying to care for the people God puts in your path and understand their point of view.
Most of all, being a witness doesn’t have to be about speaking. It can more often be about listening – and trusting God to take the lead from there.