“Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”
The above quote is generally attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although it seems difficult to find proof he ever actually said it. But it’s on the Internet now, so it’s now part of a canon of misquotes right alongside “Elementary, my dear Watson” and ”Play it again, Sam”.
At some level, I wish I knew who it was that actually grouped those words together as I can’t seem to get away from them. I see it pop up periodically on my Facebook timeline. I’ve seen celebrities cite it on Twitter. I hear it spoken, reverently, to groups of people who nod solemnly and (if we’re honest) a bit self-righteously.
I wish I didn’t.
Here’s the part where I give people the benefit of the doubt. I can get behind a lot of the mentality that I believe makes the quote so popular. The idea that we’re to love our neighbor. That we’re supposed to be selfless and giving. That we’re supposed to let our lives be shining beacons to the Fateher. That we’re supposed to live in such a way that the fruit we bear in our lives points others to the God we belong to.
These are all good things. Great things, even. Those are Biblical thoughts and ideas that I think need to be fully incorporated into our lives if we take our Christianity seriously.
But here’s the part where I express my doubts. I think these reasons have little to do with the popularity and prevalence of this expression and that the reason it’s so popular is because we think it gives us an easy out from actually having to do what Christ called us to do. What we should do is elevate our lives to a higher standard. What we often do instead is bank on the off-chance that others notice our lives and ask about them. And that certainly happens. It’s rare, but it occurs. Peter even encourages Christians to study up and “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). So yeah, live in a way that people want to ask you about the hope is in you. For sure. Do that. It’s a really big deal.
But that’s not enough. Once we decide to make the ones we’re supposed to be evangelizing to responsible for they’re own evangelization, we’ve missed the whole point. We can’t assume our behavior is enough and not be ready to give a defense. We can’t rattle off some quote and think we’ve done enough. We can’t put the burden of work on others to be the ones to notice us and want to talk about Jesus.
We have to use words. It is absolutely impossible to preach the gospel without them.
Look at the words of Paul to the church in Rome. He’s pleading with the Jews and Gentiles to quit fighting for prestige in the church and that all who call on God are equal in His eyes. Then he goes on to say this:
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
“How are they to hear without someone preaching?”
You cannot teach anyone the gospel without using words. You can be an example. You can show them what it means to hope and love and give. But you can’t teach the gospel. You can’t tell others about Jesus. You can’t tell them why it is you live how you live or hope how you hope. You can’t explain to them how to become a Christian. You can’t explain what it is you hope for or the love you’ve been shown and the sacrifice given for you.
Loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength means giving every bit of ourselves, including both how we act and what we say, to God. It’s not an excuse to take the easy way out and assume we’ve done enough. Teach and tell others about His love. Use your life, but just as importantly, use your words.
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
2 Timothy 4:2