Though there is little evidence that he actually said it, Saint Francis is traditionally credited with uttering the expression, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” Regardless of its spurious citation, the oft quoted expression suggests that there are two dimensions in which Christians live; the world of words and the world of deeds. Not only is this a false claim but it is dangerous with regard to the way that we as Christians see our lives within the world. Our language is remarkably important because language is the economy of imagination and gives us a way to express what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. To erect a neatly perforated dichotomy between what we proclaim and what we perform is to undermine the inextricably wholistic nature of our faith.
In the Genesis account of creation we see God’s creative power working through His “saying” something (“let there be light”) as well as His “doing” something (“the Lord formed the man out of the dust”). Communication and Action are both beautifully tied to creation here, and not only that but to the origins of our narrative. It could be said that in beginning God began to tell a story and paint a picture. So as we speak to the world, through both word and deed, it could be said that what we are doing is attempting to tell people that the story of their life can be restored, rewritten, and re-worked. This is the hope that Christ brought to the world, and the hope that He commissioned His followers to share after His departure.
I fear that in some realms of the Evangelical church there has been a dumbing down that has been soaking through the fabric of our communities. It almost seems as if many in the church are satisfied to either remain ignorant of anything that is theologically dense (saying that there isn’t really any practical use for that stuff) or to simply be satisfied with anything that is sort of encouraging or that makes them feel better for the moment (never mind how they “feel” in 3 hours or 3 days). As far as I understand the essence of our faith we can neither work enough to replace our confession nor speak enough to exempt us from walking out our words. I can’t help but wonder if there was a memo that I failed to get that went out to Western Christianity stating that a life lived in pursuit of Jesus wouldn’t really be all that hard.
Christianity cannot be adequately expressed in clever quotes like the one that is attributed to St Francis above. The life that Jesus presents to us in the Gospels is more perplexing than simplifying, more strenuous than laid back, and more intentional than accidental. It matters what words and ideas we connect with the Christian life just like it matters what actions and reactions we carry out. There can be no reducing of Christianity into some blissful simplicity, for at the lowest common denominator of authentic faith stands Jesus; the same Jesus who wasn’t going to the feast and then was, who wasn’t going to get involved and then made the best wine, who offered His followers something special and then highlighted the homeless, pillowless existence of His people. The words Jesus taught and spoke were just as important as the things He did; and both His words and deeds were hard to understand and can be even harder to emulate.
We ought not think that we can de-tangle the many fibers of discipleship and conveniently select some while brushing others to the side. We either walk away empty handed or we take the whole ball of mess and confusion and beauty and glory and pour our lives into it to the last drop. It is important that we wrestle with hard verses and complex theological topics while we give of our lives to the marginalized and offer our time to the community of faith. And though all of this is not easy, it’s good. And while it requires much of us, it gives back more.
So next time you go to preach the Gospel, use words, use deeds. In fact, I challenge you to leverage every resource known to humanity and see if you still wind up shrugging your shoulders because it all falls short of the mystery, glory, and worthiness of the message of hope that Jesus has brought.