Writer's Block

When I told someone recently that I studied Creative Writing in college, he responded, “Oh man, I can’t write at all.” That’s what I typically get when I talk to people about writing, especially in our ministry, which is weird when you think about it. If any ministry promotes writing, as a means of personal growth and even in discipleship, it’s UBF. Testimonies — they’re what we do.

I used to think a testimony was what it says it is: to testify about the work of God in my life. That made a testimony a pretty stressful thing. On a weekly basis, I tried to find what God was saying in a passage, apply it to my life, make a decision based on application and then, because it’s a “testimony,” testify to the fruit of that application. Doing that every week, I found, was stressful, counterproductive and just impossible.

A pastor in our ministry recently told me “I’m lucky if I can testify to two or three things God has done in my life in a year.” A testimony may be something we can write and share on occasion, but it’s simply impossible to do it every week.

So maybe “testimony” in our ministry is a misnomer. Maybe what we’re writing on a week-by-week basis is more of a reflection. A reflection not like a personal ranting or journaling. A reflection like a mirror.

I tend to avoid mirrors, especially full body mirrors or well-lit vanities. I don’t like to see what I truly look like — every hair and mole and crooked tooth and excessive flab. I don’t like mirrors because they force me to be honest.

If God’s word is meant to show us who we are and who he is, then maybe we can think of Bible study as looking into a mirror and our personal writing about it as a reflection. We definitely look at the Bible, the mirror, carefully. We study it inductively and metaphorically, looking for what God is saying. In that process of looking we begin to see God, we begin to see ourselves, our reflections, who God wants us to be.

It may have relieved some misconceived self-expectations, but using the word “reflection” doesn’t change the fact that writing about who God is and who I am is a struggle. A rose is still a rose.

If I’ve learned anything about writing, it’s that it’s not about grammar or correctness or sounding good. Successful writing is honest. And I’ve learned the same goes for writing a reflection. Writing about who God is and struggling to hear what he’s saying to me weekly is painful, but it’s proven necessary. I lie to myself too often, tend to even ignore God’s presence, ignore what’s in my heart, and could go on for a while not thinking anything is wrong. It’s as they say, “the truth hurts.”

But maybe, by struggling with what God is saying, struggling with the truth of who I am, I can begin to see, when turning to look at my reflection, more of God and less of me.


  1. Thanks Abe, I needed this. I sometimes question the validity of writing anything about myself at all. I just love writing about the excellency of Christ and what a particular passage tells me about the gospel of Jesus. However, the Psalms and interjections of Paul tell me a different story. Honest personal reflection is necessary. Thanks for making that clear!

  2. Joe Schafer

    Abe, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one. When it comes to writing testimonies (or whatever we want to call them), the hardest part is not just being honest. The hardest part is knowing what “being honest” actually looks like. It’s hard to reveal something that’s real and true about myself if I don’t know my true self.

    Let me give a concrete example. This past week, we had group Bible study on 1 Samuel chapter 17: David and Goliath. When we have studied this passage in the past, we have emphasized young David’s fighting spirit, his boldness, his faith in the living God, his outrage over the fact that God’s name was being dishonored by the Philistines, etc. All of which are true and useful to discuss. But this time, the focus of our Bible study was David’s astonishing level of emotional maturity. Although he was still a young man, he knew his own self — his own strengths and limitations, his background and experiences tending his father’s sheep, his skill with a sling, etc. — and using that self knowledge, he understood that God was calling him to do something outrageous and unheard of. His elders kept telling him to be quiet. His older brother accused him of being wicked and conceited. King Saul was intrigued by David’s spirit, and Saul gave David his own armor and sword to help him look and act like a “proper” soldier. David tried them on, but soon David realized they mismatched his body and skill set. David said, “I am not used to them,” took them off, went down to the stream and selected five smooth stones. David’s trying on the armor and sword is a powerful metaphor. As we go about our lives, we are often tempted and pressured to put on other people’s armor. This pressure comes from society, from the expectations of family members and other people close to us, from our own desires for honor and popularity, and from well-intentioned people who, out of ignorance, try to mold us into an image that suits them but does not suit us. Resisting this pressure can be incredibly difficult, especially for a young person. Young David successfully resisted these pressures and was greatly used by God, not simply because he knew God, but because he knew himself.

    But I digress. To study this passage, our Bible study groups met twice. In the first meeting, we did a standard UBF-style group study: reading the passage carefully, noticing the details, answering questions about the characters and events, etc. which were all very necessary and helpful. In the second meeting, we devoted the entire time to understanding and discussing how the passage personally applied to us. The questions that we used began with this instruction: “Make your answers about yourself, not about the characters in the passage.”

    For example, one of the questions was:

    “Describe an experience in your own life where you either (a) overcame pressure and remained true to yourself, or (b) gave into pressure and became something that you were not. Did your relationship with God play a role?”

    And another question was:

    “What forces or pressures from people and circumstances cause you to shrink back in fear, or to ‘wear armor’ that does not fit?”

    Needless to say, our members found the second meeting *very* challenging. After many years of inductive Bible study, we found it easy to answer questions about the characters and events in the passage. But it was incredibly difficult to talk about ourselves and share these feelings and experiences in a group setting. Not because we were shy. Not because we were trying to hide something. But simply because we did not know ourselves very well.

    The fact is that, for many of us, our true selves are hidden because we have spent so much of our lives trying to be someone else. In our pursuit of acceptance, honor and love, we have tried to force ourselves into lifestyles that do not match our character, backgrounds, resources or circumstances. We live vicariously off of other people’s spiritual experiences rather than directly interacting with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather than doing the things that God has truly prepared us for and is calling us to do right now, we live in a world of make-believe, imagining that we are one day going to become someone else.

    Knowing ourselves is very difficult because the heart is deceitful. But Jesus is the true light who illuminates and shines. The Spirit of God searches our innermost places. The word of God is the mirror that reflects our true nature back to us.

    If our Bible study is not helping us to become honest with ourselves and understand who we truly are, then we are not handling the word of God correctly.

    • Joe thanks for this wonderful example. I have a question once again :). Could we find some other clear examples with the same point about importance of knowing and remaining true to yourself? I think it could be found in 2Timothy 4:16 “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
      And how we could find the line where we should remain ourselves and where we should deny ourselves in order to be one with others? But may be this question is not really correct from the Bible perspective. If the Church is the body of Christ – we could (should!?) find our unequal place in it. and in the same time to play our own unequal role, remaining ourselves, and to be one in body with others…

    • Joe Schafer

      Hi David,
      Here are just a couple of examples of individuals in the Bible who resisted pressure to put on someone else’s armor and remain true to themselves, and in doing so pleased God.

      A great example is Job. When tragedy fell upon him, his friends tried to convince him that it was because he had sinned against God. They pressured him to testify about that sin and repent. But when Job searched his heart to understand what he had experienced and felt, he could not agree with his friends’ spiritual-sounding diagnoses and advice. He remained true to himself, and in doing so he did not sin against God.

      Another example is the man born blind in John chapter 9. After Jesus healed him, the religious leaders pressured him to denounce Jesus. They used strong Biblical arguments and relied on the solid, conservative understanding of the law common in the Jewish community at that time. But the formerly blind man did not give in to their pressure. He held fast to his own experience of what God had actually done in his life. He remained true to himself, even though it cost him dearly, and through that experience he learned that Jesus was the Christ.

      There are plenty of other examples in the Bible, and I’m sure that you and other people can find them.

      When God truly calls a person to defy the common wisdom and differentiate himself from his family and community, he will experience opposition and rejection. People will mischaracterize his motives and call him ungodly. But you raise an interesting question: How do we know when God is leading us to deny ourselves, to submit to others and follow the conventional wisdom? And how do we know when God is calling us to do something different? There is no easy answer. In order to do this, we need to have a robust personal relationship with God and an awareness of how he is working in our lives. And we need to understand ourselves better than we currently do. We need to know how to search our hearts in light of God’s word so that his Spirit illumiates our true motives. Knowing oneself is not wrong; it is essential.

    • +1

  3. Thanks, Abe, Ben, Joe. Sometimes we think that Bible study helps us to live right, or believe right, which it does. But Bible study should ultimately help us know who we truly are, by knowing who God truly is through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, the point of Bible study is really not right behavior or belief, but a right relationship, which comes only through grace alone, and through faith alone. If the relationship is right, then right belief and right behavior will follow. But one’s relationship with God and others can easily be sub-optimal (as probably many have experienced), even if we live right and believe right.

    Writing testimony is a tool that can help us crystallize our love relationship with God. But like any method carried out by fallen man, it can easily degenerate to habitual ritual, legalism, a sense of duty, writing before people, feeling guilty if I don’t write, thinking/feeling I earn browny points (with God and my shepherd) if I write, assessing and judging others based on what they write or whether they write, etc. Thus writing testimony, though potentially good, can easily become a form of “pharisaism,” don’t you think?

    • Maria Peace

      Hi Abe, I just read your article and found it to be quite interesting and true. One psychologist commented that an unreflected life is a wasted life. We need to take time to reflect on what God has done in and through us. Otherwise we miss a lot of lessons God wants us to learn. Joe, I really like your comment on knowing ourselves and how to do Bible discussions. In our church plant we are shorting our messages to only two pages because we also translate it in Ukrainian. But we decided to do more of a Bible discussion afterwards. Its been an exciting adventure beginning a new ministry. We really have to know ourselves, and our flock and see what works best to reach our people.