It’s easy to think of the words we should not have said—the gossip or the insult or the impertinent remark. But what about the words we should have said, but didn’t? What about all the kind words we hold back, or the joy we keep secret, or the Gospel we do not share?
We have become strangely Victorian about language. A glut of political correctness and verbal moralizing stifles the public square and taboos about what to say and what not say bracket everyday conversation. As Christians, especially, we are only too familiar with the words we ought not to say, and whistle blowers are in no short supply. But it’s the words Christians ought to say that frighten us the most. Nothing is scarier than the Great Commission and all the things Jesus wants us to say to the world through us (Matthew 28:16-20).
Words are a fearful and terrible thing. It is here that the devil is fighting God, and the battlefield is the human heart. Hell loves a silent Christian. Will we break the silence?
The Unbearable Weight of Words
“Preach the Gospel at all times,” it is often said. “If necessary, use words.” Why is it that the people who throw this slogan around the most are also the least likely to preach the Gospel at all? At first glance, it sounds like noble sentiment. No one wants to be a hypocrite. Who will believe what you say if it doesn’t line up with what you do? But sometimes the sins we are the quickest to condemn are the ones we are the least likely to commit. How can we be hypocritical if today preaching the Gospel is the social taboo we are least likely to commit?
Whether or not there are still Christians who preach the Gospel with words—not in sanctuaries and private book clubs, but in coffee shops or at the office or in the checkout aisle—I leave to the data-crunching analysts and their graphed statistical compendia, though I will share one anecdote: I have not yet met a Christian guilty of preaching the good news of Jesus too much. Preaching with, like, words.
“But preaching on the street corner will only turn people away,” someone almost always says. “It might have worked in the past, but these days no one wants to hear a sermon about their need for a Savior.” But preaching on the street corner has always turned people away and no one has ever wanted to hear a sermon about their need for a Savior. Yet preaching on street corners has worked ever since Jesus found the most public places to talk very loudly about repentance and Baptism. The crowds left in droves, thousands laughing and leaving, yet Jesus refused to water down his message or to find a less startling or more welcoming way to share the good news that the Kingdom of God was at hand. How many of us are guilty of this same crime? When it comes to preaching on street corners—or on social media, or at school, or at the dog park—I for one am deplorably innocent.
More often than not, our problem is not that we say one thing but do another, but that we do not say anything at all. For many of us, the phrase should be turned around. Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, do something.
This is, at least, what Jesus would do. He went from village to village preaching the Kingdom of God with words. Preaching was what he came for (Mark 1:38; Luke 4:43). When necessary, he performed miracles. And when the people demanded a sign, no sign would be given…just more words. And when he did act his actions were unintelligible to them, even to his closest disciples. It was not until after his glorious Resurrection that Our Lord “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). And he explained his actions—from his Incarnation to his Crucifixion to his Resurrection—with words.
How offensive are the feet of him who tells the world about Jesus, who publishes the story of sin and salvation, who proclaims good news to a world that will only hear it as bad, who says something as politically incorrect as “God reigns.” But the demons take a nap when a Christian is so seeker friendly he won’t speak. St. John the Baptist, St. Paul and St. Peter, and Jesus Christ himself knew it: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Is. 52:7).
Before worrying about perils of not practicing what we preach, we might first worry about if we’re preaching at all. Before we consider the danger of becoming hypocrites, we might want to reconsider how much energy and sophisticated argument continues to go into rationalizing saying so few words and what that says about us.
Let Your Words Shine Brightly
When it comes to the Gospel, is silence golden? For Jesus Christ, there is no dichotomy between speech and action. Our Lord’s actions speak as loud as his words. What about us? How can our actions speak as loud as our words if we are too timid, too afraid to risk our reputation, to say anything about Jesus at all? It’s true: we have often said those things which we ought not to have said. But have we also left unsaid those things which we ought to have said? When it comes to the Gospel, what if to speak is to take action?
Social justice and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are not the same thing. If you heal the sick, provide shelter for the homeless, comfort the widow, adopt the fatherless, protect the weak, but do not tell them about Jesus Christ you do not love them. Where will people be if they have everything this world can give but do not have Christ? What amount of money or health or social justice could ever make up for even one hour in the loving arms of our Savior? For a baptized child of God, to be able to speak is to possess a life-giving, city-building power. Brick by brick, layer upon layer, the right word at the right time can do more than give the blind sight and set the captives free: it can help to build the Kingdom of Heaven.
The God who spoke the world into existence has chosen words to be one of his most effective tools for saving the world. The Word became flesh and tented among us so that he might talk to us, even us who were deceived by the serpent’s words and have come to distrust words: “‘The time has come,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” Our Lord then sent his missionaries out into the world “to proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:2). Following his Savior’s example, St. Paul “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and unhindered!” (Acts 28:31)
No one wants to be all talk and no walk. But the ones who are the most concerned about hypocrisy when someone dares to stick their heads above the parapet and actually preach are often also the least likely to ever preach themselves. When it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus with a hurting world, we ought not be all talk and no walk. Of course. But we ought not to be all walk and no talk either. “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). In other words, go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Language is God’s bright idea. Words are one of his favorite ways to bring his healing, to share his love, and to reveal his glory. So why would we hide these words, what St. Peter calls “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68), under a basket?
Where is the voice shouting in the wilderness (Mark 1:3)? Where is the man standing and arguing publicly on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31)? Where are the disciples who get kicked out of villages (Luke 9:5)? Where are those who have been scattered to preach the word wherever they go (Acts 8:4)? Where are the beautiful feet that bring good news (Is. 52:7)?
“How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” St. Paul asks. “And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14). Lord, forgive us for all we have not said. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.