21 Nov 2014 by Adeline Lum CM-
Many have quoted Francis of Assisi’s famous words, “Always remember to preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
For a long time, I have been perturbed with the question, “Shall we speak the gospel or shall we only show the gospel through actions of love?” For the latter, we ought to trust God in doing the rest according to His higher and mysterious ways.
And from my personal experiences, I can see the reasoning behind those words. Most, if not all, hate Christians who preach the gospel down their throats. Let’s face it. All of us dislike a sales pitch. We could smell it from a mile away, whether it is a telephone call from our bank agent or a multi-level-marketing dealer.
Simply put, none of us want to be treated like an evangelical project.
We all know how contradicting actions empty the power of our words. That’s why we agree to the phrase, “Action speaks louder than words.”
Quoted over the centuries in one form or another, we hear words from Benjamin Franklin who said, “Well done is better than well said” and Lord Herbert’s quote, “The shortest answer is doing.”
However, upon thinking about this quote, it could be a hyperbole. What Francis of Assisi intended was to make a terse point: actions must follow word; if not, we might as well stop talking if our actions say otherwise.
In fact, upon scrutiny of Francis of Assisi, the veracity of this quote is questionable. He was known to be a preacher who sometimes preached up to five villages a day.
And contrary to his meek and diplomatic image, an early biographer said of Francis Assisi:
“He denounced evil whenever he found it and made no effort to palliate it; from him a life of sin met with outspoken rebuke, not support. He spoke with equal candor to great and small.”
Instead of shying away from speaking the gospel, Assisi preached with boldness and without compromise to everyone. Hence, this quote does not seem to characterise the mild nature and manner he seemingly portrayed.
Furthermore, none of his earliest disciples wrote about this quote within the first 200 years after his death. It is unlikely that they would miss such a pithy quote.
Also, saying that sharing the Word if necessary appeared to undermine Jesus’ ministry on earth. Although Jesus did many miraculous deeds—healing the sick, feeding the thousands, and raising the dead—He actively spoke about the gospel, sometimes didactically and many times story-telling (but yes, not sales-pitching). Jesus did not only depend only on His actions to speak the gospel. But He spoke. In fact, the disciples followed Jesus’ footsteps and spoke about the gospel wherever they went.
However, on an ironic side note, despite having an increased number of people who can read today, our postmodern culture seems to strip off the meaning and the power of words. A word could mean anything, based on one’s subjective interpretation. Sedated with moving images and pictures since childhood, many young people appeared less interested to read and have little patience to complete long text. Although pictures paint a thousand words, what they didn’t realize is words actually paint a thousand pictures, with our unlimited imagination.
In fact, words are so important that they are the very fabric of our society’s civilization. Without words, we have no ability to store knowledge. And most importantly, we are unable to communicate, transfer, and expand our knowledge across individuals and generations. We would have no history, no science, no law, no architecture, no music, and everything that holds our society.
With that said, a point is clear: If words are vital for communication that underlines our human life, why do we think that we can share the gospel of Jesus Christ without speaking a word?
When God made Heaven and Earth, He spoke things into existence. (Gen 1) Psalm 33:9 says, ““For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.” Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
Even Jesus Christ is the Word that became the flesh on earth. John 1:1-2 said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” As we read further, John 1:14 said, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
A point to make here is that Word is an important part of God—He spoke things into existence—and Jesus was the Word with God. And interestingly, we can see that the Word of God is translated into some sort of physicality—one becoming the universe and the other becoming the flesh of man. The Bible also has countless stories of how God moved in action after people of faith verbally proclaimed their faith.
Words are powerful. Although statistics showed that 55 percent of our communication is non-verbal, 38 percent is in the tone, and only 7 percent is communicated by actual words, it is words that bring meaning, clarity, and completion to the message. Words connect the dots and allow us to make sense of things.
Perhaps, Francis Assisi’s quote could sound more like, “Always remember to preach the gospel and wisely use words.”
“If necessary” is omitted because sharing the gospel need to involve words at one point. If not, why are we translating Bibles into the native languages of the unreached people groups? Our humanitarian efforts should be enough to tell them about the gospel.
Also, we need to share the gospel ‘wisely.’ Like how Paul packaged his message to suit his different audience, we need to understand our hearer, and that means his or her—situation, feelings, background, train of thought, motivations, etc—before we share the gospel with him or her.
“To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:21-22)
Perhaps then, we can follow Jesus’ footsteps in sharing the gospel, which is pray, care, and share. Jesus woke up early to pray, He met the needs of people, and then, He shared the gospel. With a caring heart, it is unlikely our sharing comes off as a sales pitch. After all, people won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Hence, let us now preach the gospel and wisely use words. It is necessary.
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