If necessary, use words

first published in the December 2000 edition of the Columbia County (New York) Homeschooling Newsletter

Perhaps you’ve heard the oft-quoted saying of Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” This is repeated as a profound statement of the impact that our lives should have on those around us. And until recently I accepted it without question.

Now, however, I have a problem with one little implication in it: the implication that words really shouldn’t be necessary. It started when, in our group Bible study, an unsaved friend said to us, “Your family is the most powerful preaching tool you have.” I was about to thoughtfully concur, when another friend cried, “No! The Word of God is the most powerful preaching tool we have.”

And of course I immediately agreed. After all, doesn’t the Bible itself say “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Though the power of a Christian life shouldn’t be discounted, it’s the Word of God, as used by the Holy Spirit, that is cited over and over again as the source of power to change lives for His glory.

Look back through the generations of the past hundred years. In the early twentieth century, people for the most part lived by Christian principles, because they had a Christian foundation, but many of them failed to teach the Foundation (perhaps following another old saying, “Christianity is more caught than taught”). The next generation, for the most part, thought the morals were good, but really couldn’t have communicated the Foundation to their children if they had wanted to. The next generation? They upended the whole thing, in your face, crying out, “Why are your restrictions any better than free love?” Their parents couldn’t answer, because their own parents hadn’t taught them.

We must actively teach the Word of God to our children. We must teach it while we’re sitting down and rising up, and walking by the way. We must teach it while we’re at the breakfast table and at the supper table and on our family walks and driving in the car. We must teach it during the very important scheduled times and during the unscheduled teachable moments when we’re prompted by a lesson from nature or a naughty child in the store or a thoughtful question about Jesus from a three-year-old. We can’t let these years slip by and think that church, the Bible lesson book, and our example will be enough.

If necessary, use words? Without a doubt. The Word of God is given to us in words, and the Word of God, as long as we are on this earth, will always be necessary in order for us to truly preach the gospel. May I give it the place it deserves in my own life and encourage my children in the same way, so that we, through them, can pass these truths—in words—to future generations.

2 thoughts on “If necessary, use words

  1. “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” This is repeated as a profound statement of the impact that our lives should have on those around us.

    I think this is almost right. Actions are the gospel people see first, words should follow and will explain and give reason for the actions. Sometimes words themselves are actions, as in speaking out for those who need it. But the words aren’t always going to be Bible verses. The gospel is more than just a means to salvation and that’s the end of it. If you feel constrained to “share the gospel” by your words and quoted Bible verses and not waste time on deeds of mercy and help those who are in need to the extent that you are able; then you are only the tinkling brass saying take two verses and call me in the morning, instead of being like Jesus who kept getting in the middle of peoples lives–doing stuff.

    You personally, I know, are blending the actions and the words and I appreciate that more than I can express here. There are times where the closest someone wants to get to Jesus is a sideways look through people who love Him and express it by their actions and words.

  2. Shelly, thank you for these encouraging words, written a full 15 years after I wrote the original article (in the days when “blogging” was still a mysterious concept to me). I pray that for all of us, our words and our lives will always match.

I welcome your thoughts