“Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” You’ve probably heard this quote, maybe even used it. It’s widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but never verified, and certainly taken out of context.
If St. Francis indeed made the statement, he must have thought it frequently necessary to use words. He trained large numbers of young men to go with him to preach on the street corners in 12th century Italy.
That quote has become a convenient escape clause for us. A cop-out.
Yes, it’s true that our lives need to match the faith we profess. We need to live with integrity, meaning that we are the same at home AND at work, on Sundays at church AND on Mondays on the interstate. Our public and private selves merge; we become undivided people.
We share the good news both by being tangibly involved in peoples’ lives AND by speaking truth.
No words are ever wasted in the Bible. The little ones carry a lot of weight.
Word AND deed.
Truth AND love.
Neither are any words inadvertently omitted. Notice the absence of the little word "or." We were never given the option of choosing whether to travel the route of speaking the truth of the gospel OR showing the love of the gospel.
And where are we to do this? Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, AND the remotest part of the earth.
We begin with one small stone, in our town, our Jerusalem. Like ripples that spread out from there, we go on to Judea and Samaria (our country), with the impact radiating out to the world.
“We have enough needs right in our own backyard. What’s the big deal about reaching the world?” Have you heard this sentiment? I have.
Our perspective is skewed. Jesus promised us power to be his witnesses, to testify to his life, everywhere. How would the gospel ever have reached you in your land if earlier saints had ignored this? Maybe the church has been remiss in recent history with an emphasis on preaching to strangers while ignoring the needs of our neighbors. But is that any reason to let the pendulum swing to the exact opposite extreme?
How can we communicate news – good news – apart from words? If you are kind to people, serve hungry people soup, or even go to a foreign country and help build houses, how will they intuitively guess the reason you are so nice?
Many of us attend church our entire lives and still get confused about the finer points of theology. Yes, the gospel is simple, but the depths and complexities of it take a lifetime to plumb. Do we really expect others to figure it all out on their own?
Words are critical. But they must be backed up by action or else they’re empty hypocrisy. And not just one isolated incident, but consistent and authentic action. Anyone can be nice for one hour.
When my friend, Greg, went to Bosnia for a year, he expected the Bosnian people to see there was something different about him because he modeled Christ’s love. Instead, he found people – with no knowledge of Jesus – to be some of the most gracious and generous he’d ever met. His landlord even had a great marriage – apart from knowing Judeo-Christian values.
Greg concluded that kindness wasn’t enough. “The gospel must be shared with words,” he told me.
Good deeds are not enough. Greg had words that brought life. Do you?