IF NECESSARY, USE WORDS
living, loving, and (sometimes) speaking
“Preach the gospel at all times.
If necessary, use words.”
–Saint Francis of Assisi
The above statement, often attributed to Saint Francis, highlights the priorities of a truly spiritual life, stating what ought to most concern us. While it obviously matters what we say with our mouths, and though truth must be spoken, even more relevant is the way we live.
I am amazed how often we get this backwards, treating our formulations and treatises as if they are the end-all of anything spiritual. Of course words are relevant. Jesus spoke words; indeed, he is the Word. Scripture itself involves words, words that lead to life. In fact I am at this moment sharing these thoughts through the use of words. Clearly, we cannot operate for very long without invoking language and seeking to apply it to our lives. But, and this is the point, words alone are never enough. Indeed, even the words we rightly embrace are words intended, in the final analysis, to transform us.
What Saint Francis is saying is that God is after not merely a series of well-crafted theological formulas or a proper articulation of the good news. Though these matter, the purpose of the truth we have acquired, the intent of the gospel, is to actually find its way into our hearts and lives, dramatically altering the way we live, love, and relate to others.
How are people drawn to faith? What benefits them the most? How does the truth actually change us, and what is this change that we are concerned to facilitate in the lives of others? What is paramount is that we love God and our neighbor, bear fruit, and become increasingly like Jesus himself.
It is obviously important that we and others accurately perceive Jesus, and clarifying this involves some measure of word-usage. But when we are in heaven, the core of our existence will involve being—being what we were created to be, being for one another what we only imperfectly fulfilled while here, being image-bearers of divine love and truth.
So it is now. Words are significant, very significant, but nothing compares to a life changed, and nothing better alters another person’s outlook and attracts that person in a positive direction than a life that “preaches” all day long.
Our lives ought to exude compassion and care. The good news—the news that we are loved and accepted, that we are empowered to love, that we have purpose—should flow from our lives in such a way that no one can deny it. Now, being realistic, we can anticipate many a blunder and countless inconsistencies, at least I know I can. But, to the extent that we accept this challenge, this mission, we will be most effective when we pay attention to what Jesus and others have said (using words, of course): “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Here’s another one: “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17)—words plus deeds: there’s the balance.
Preach the gospel at all times. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, be it morning, afternoon, or evening, whether it’s raining or the sun is shining, let the good news, the news of faith, hope, and love, emanate from your life. And, when it’s needed, when the situation and setting warrant it, open your mouth too. Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.