Dear Words People: Don’t You Dare Discount What You Are Doing

(I adapted this from what I wrote for a radio industry site. Originally, I called it Dear Radio People: Don’t You Dare Discount What You are Doing but thought this could apply to you, if you’re a follower of Jesus in any role as a teacher, counselor, writer, parent… whatever.)

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Francis of Assisi

That’s a profound quote, the one I just used up there. Maybe you’ve heard it before. I certainly have. It’s powerful! It’s catchy!

Funfact: It’s also something St. Francis never said. Seriously.

Somebody totally made it up. What’s more, Francis loved using words. Sometimes, he’d preach in five villages in one day.

You know what? Words get a bad rap.

Like Ed Stetzer wrote about this “quote” from Francis: It’s like saying, “Feed the hungry at all times. When necessary, use food.”

Truth is, we need words. They’re powerful, and like anything powerful –-say, electricity—they can be powerfully good. They can light up a lonely night.

Or they can be powerfully bad, and leave us shocked, lifeless, and charred.

I’ve long put myself down, because words are all I have. I can’t fix things. (I once put the oil in my car, but it didn’t shut off the oil warning light. The problem? Apparently, I put the oil in the transmission fluid thing.)

I can’t hunt. I can barely see straight. I’m not a fisherman or fireman or a maker of fine cabinetry. I’m not a doctor.

“All I have is words,” I’d tell people, apologetically. “Me? I talk on the radio.”

I promise not to say that anymore. Words are precious things. Our jobs are not somehow less “Christian” than those who wordlessly do things. It’s a false dichotomy, and a destructive one.

Whenever something really matters… we use words.

Imagine epidemiologists spreading the news about COVID-19 and deciding that they need do it without words. “We’ll just set an example by washing our hands a lot and wearing masks and keeping six feet apart! People will see our sterling example and just, you know, know!”

Nope. If it’s important, you bet we’ll use words.

Jesus is the Word, by the way. “The Word of God” is a consistent presence through the Old Testament and New.

When God wanted to make the universe, guess what he did? He spoke.

And after he said—out loud, apparently—that he’d make plants and animals and humans, He spoke more words. He said these things were all good. He had to say it. It needed said.

Maybe you think you can live a life so good, so pure, so Jesus-like, that people won’t need you to use words. But you probably can’t.

No, you definitely can’t. “The living deed is never adequate without the support which the spoken word can provide. This is because no life is ever good enough,” the awesomely named Elton Trueblood wrote. “The person who says naïvely, ‘I don’t need to preach; I just let my life speak,’ is insufferably self-righteous. What one among us is so good that he can let his life speak and leave it at that?”

Words are more powerful than sticks and stones. They can and do hurt us.

But they’re more powerful than scalpels, too. They can and do heal us.

Do not underrate what you are doing. Do not write off what you do as a purveyor of “mere words” if the words you are speaking are directed at breathing Jesus’ life into people.

Do not sit down to prepare your show and think, “Aw, geez, I gotta fill a show today.” No. You get to fill hearts with peace and much-needed courage today, if you so choose.

Do not discount what you are doing.

Do not devalue what God is allowing you to do, and even gave you to do. Just like he gave Adam the high task of Gardener, He’s giving you a high task.

He breathed life into Adam, and then Adam got a creator-type job: He organized and ordered and formed and shaped and fashioned beauty. And He’s tasking you with organizing and ordering and forming and shaping and fashioning beauty out your very breath to breathe life into others.

Look, you don’t have to overthink this; you just have to do your other-centered, Jesus-exalting thing. Use words about Jesus, the man who told us to “proclaim the Kingdom.” Yes, out loud. People are looking for him, you know?

Do that thing.

And make no mistake: It’s a beautiful thing.

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September 28, 2020 12:24 pm

I love this, Brant! I was always bothered by that quote because, while we can live a “wordless” life that makes people intrigued, at some point we need to follow up with words to explain why we do what we do! I am glad to know that St. Francis never said that. I will stop struggling to try to understand it! 😀

Judy McFall
September 28, 2020 1:30 pm

I don’t interpret this quote to mean or imply anything negative about using words. I think they are the MOST expressive in communication! I take the quote to mean that there’s other times when words can’t be expressed, but our “Light” can be expressed by giving, yielding to someone in traffic, smiling at a stranger, and nodding at a co-worker who seems to be on the “outs” with rest of office, etc….. p.s. Brant, I agree with your enthusiastic motivation to use words! : )

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