If Necessary, Use Words
I have often quoted this saying: “Preach the gospel unceasingly; if necessary, use words,” attributed to Saint Francis of Assissi, although it not in any of his writings. He apparently did say, “…love one another, as the Lord says: ‘This is My commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.’ And let them show their love by the works they do for each other, according as the Apostle says: ‘Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.’” I have been, for many years now, fond of an old camp/worship song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” which is based on the same words in John 13:34,35. My first sermon as a teenager came from I Corinthians 13, the first 3 verses of which plainly state that loveless ministry is worthless, which should be no surprise for anyone who knows that the Great Commandment is to love God and love one’s neighbors.
American culture puts considerable emphasis on words. In an era of numerous forms of media and communication as instantaneous as a Tweet or Facebook post, even as the number and length of words is decreasing, we are still immersed in words, words that are often empty, shallow, superficial, or even hypocritical. In such an environment, the phrase, “if necessary, use words” has a very necessary application. Something prior, greater, and more powerful must reinforce out words. To put it another way, it is our actions that make our words worth hearing.
As a tutor for refugees and internationals, my ability to communication verbally is stretched to the limit. My manner—my patience, kindness, gentleness, and thoughtfulness—will communicate my love for them, long before we have adequate words in common to use. Furthermore, we must break through the cultural and religious barriers, too, where words have often been misused, leaving behind strong negative perceptions. I wish I could say it had been nothing more than well-intended clumsiness that left such guardedness, but far too many of us have been grossly inconsiderate and abysmally calloused. Even within the culture, many ignore that communication depends on relationships, that relationships depend on credibility and trust, and that credibility must be proven while trust must be earned. We recognize a joke about the used car salesman that can’t be trusted, but we fail to recognize when our approach and attitude are as bad or worse! “Would you buy a car from this guy?” Of course, we say, “No! I can’t trust him.” “Would you be led to make a life-changing, perhaps family-altering decision by this person?” Too often, the answer would be the same. Why is that?
I suspect the correct answer is our lack of love. I won’t dispute that evangelism, even the shabbiest, more superficial sort, may be motivated by love, but effective evangelism is love! This distortion of the Biblical model is a message-driven, salesman-like approach that the majority of Christians find intimidating anyway, and it is this approach that is often lacking in love. It produces would-be evangelists who are full of themselves, the sort of people who demand to be heard but never bother to listen. Where is the love in that?
It really is time for believers to make some serious changes. Our “cultural’ Christianity is interfering with truly spiritual Christianity, one that loves neighbors and hungers for them to be rescued for eternity. We must seek to become more like Jesus was, who accepted people with love regardless of their faults and failures—sin, that is—and with wisdom made loving connections to them. Very few people will reject genuine love—caring, compassion, and consideration. Most will figure out where the love comes from, or if not, they will ask. Our job is not to judge them. Our job is not to “clean them up first.” Our job is not to attack or criticize their present beliefs. Our job is not to argue. It’s not our job to convict anyone; that is the Holy Spirit’s job. It’s not our job to change anyone, except maybe to allow our own transformation to take place.
In this process, we must not forget who and what we are. We are not nice people who are entitled to look down upon those we regard as greater sinners than ourselves. Without getting into the question of laws and culture, we dare not turn our concerns generally into scorn, condescension, or even hatred. What about that drunk we see on the street? Love him. He needs Jesus. What about the woman with 3 kids and no father around? Love her. She needs Jesus. That gay waiter at the coffee shop? Love him. That raging liberal who posts antagonistic nastiness on your Facebook page? Love him. What about the girl at the grocery with piercings, tattoos, and too much make-up. Love her. How about the mother who abandoned you or the father that molested you? Obviously, they especially need Jesus; to the extent possible, love them. Remember the two men crucified with Jesus? Both were dying for capital crimes; thieves or rebels, they were probably also killers. Yet one of them trusted Jesus, who assured him of heaven1.
Salvation is not for good people but for the needy. Besides, there are no good people, according to Romans 3: “There is no one righteous, not even one…there is no one who does good, not even one.” It is critical, as we view ourselves, to remember this, and, as we view others, to remember their need. Sometimes, it is hard. I chose not to become a drunk, so I may easily scorn the mess that a drunk has become. I’ve made sure that I had no children, being single; it’s easy then to resent unmarried parents who expect taxpayer support. I tend to obey the law, and I expect lawbreakers to be punished accordingly. I’m not wealthy but was taught to share, so why shouldn’t the wealthy be made to share. This list is nearly limitless; we have so many feelings of self-righteousness and superiority, if only just a little. None of them make us any less sinners in need of salvation, and none of them justify approaching others with condescension. That’s not love, and only love will really give people a taste of heaven, a taste that may lead them to want more.
Our American prosperity, material wealth, and growing technological lifestyles foster selfishness and complacency. Some of our leaders seem bent on destroying our way of life, and I’m not pleased with that; however, I cannot argue that we might not be better off to lose some of what we have. If we come to worship a “heaven on earth,” then we will tend to neglect the true heaven that awaits us who believe. If we trust in the prosperity we enjoy, if worse, we come to think that this is a sign of spiritual maturity, then we risk God taking it away. If we come to regard wealth as merely our own possession and ignore the principles of generosity and hospitality, then we may discover that wealth is our god and not a blessing at all. When I was a young pastor, I was distressed to hear church volunteers talk as if they had earned retirement from service, so deeply instilled have the ideas of vacation and retirement sunk into our thinking. They are not spiritual principles! If anything, we should consider using some or even a lot of the free time to serve God and do works of compassion. “Entitled to my R&R?” Seriously?
I’ve been around for a few years, and I have lots of troubling examples. What should we think of a congregation that moves out of a declining neighborhood? What does God think when we abandon a place and its people who clearly need the compassion of God’s people and the grace and mercy of the Savior? How many of our churches have become Laodicean churches? What about television ministries that raise millions in Jesus’ name but don’t sound much like Jesus? How could they? Who would continue to contribute so generously to message like he taught? And what about all the false promises they repeat? Does God really give back more than we give? Is giving the key to growing wealthy? I can’t believe that people actually teach that? I can’t believe people actually believe and try that?
I fear that Christian folks and institutions that think this way have lost their direction. The Church is not a business for profit or a club for believers; it was not intended to become a self-serving body. It certainly wasn’t meant to regard a distressed neighborhood as a threat or elaborate facilities as an objective. God wants us out in those neighborhoods, showing the tender mercies of our Savior and being credible witnesses to the grace of God in our lives. Helping the poor is not the business of government; the needs of the poor are more profound than their need for money. The church should be taking care of disabled people and orphaned children, filled with the love of Jesus in doing so. How different our communities would be if every congregation was looking after some of the needy in their neighborhoods; how much more easily might we share the good news of a savior as people who really live it!
For the most part, however, my words here aren’t for institutions or groups. They are addressed to individual believers who recognize that we have a responsibility to reach out to our neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and friends. We cannot do this with any degree of success if those people dislike or object to us. Do they see nothing but our judgments and disapproval? Do come across as unfriendly or even strange? Do we make a show of being culturally separate where it isn’t necessary (Being separate is for the purpose of holiness, but merely standing apart doesn’t create holiness!)? Do we hide our Christianity behind a facade of materialism and selfishness, or is it even a facade? In other words, do we reveal in our associations with others anything that demonstrates that Jesus loves them through us? Without a genuinely loving demeanor, an attitude of true compassion, and an authentically likable (i.e. kind, patient, thoughtful, considerate, caring) personality, we will have only words to use to reach them, words that will hardly compensate for our lack of true love.
1I most assuredly understand the reluctance of victims to forgive those who’ve harmed them. I’m reminded of Darth Vader who, despite his horrible crimes, still harbored the sweet boy Anakin who hungered for rescue from his sin. Blest is the one who has suffered yet has learned, “There but for the grace of God go I.”