“Use your words”: Revisiting St. Francis of Assisi

I’ve been chewing on this topic for a long time. I’ve written this blog post in my head a hundred times. So I guess now would be the appropriate time to write it using my keyboard. Its message hits home in a big way for me. Prayerfully, perhaps it will challenge others as well.

St. Francis of Assisi is often credited with the quote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” I’ve heard it cited dozens of times. Maybe you have as well.

As I did more research, I discovered that it may not in fact be an actual quote of St. Francis. Whether it is or isn’t is not my main point with this blog. The fallout of its application is more what I will attempt to address.

I first heard this quoted about 10 years ago, at a college age Bible study I was attending. A gal I have a lot of respect for included it in an audible prayer. “As St. Francis of Assisi said, let us ‘preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.’” My introverted heart exulted with great joy upon hearing it. For whatever reason, the non-critical thinking part of me immediately elevated its wisdom to near Gospel-level truth.

“You mean it counts as preaching the Gospel even when I am not actually witnessing to people?” I thought to myself. As a reserved, introverted person who rarely engages at length with people that I do not know well, this principle seemed like a relief. It signaled to me that my frequent conviction resulting from scarcely uttering the hope of the Gospel was, perhaps, misplaced. What if all my all my good works and service to others was equivalent to preaching the Gospel? How amazing would that be?

It seemed to lift a heavy weight off my shoulders. You see, it is much easier for me to give up a Saturday helping an elderly person with housework, or do a community improvement project, than to share with someone the Gospel.

I’ve noticed that philosophy becoming more prevalent in many churches since then as well. I’ve heard of many churches whose members regularly do organized service projects in the community and for others within it as a core part of their church mission. That is truly wonderful. There is no end of work that can be done in any given community, through which great things can come and God can be glorified. I can hardly discount that fact.

The thing that eventually began to be unsettling to me about this philosophy, though, is that I allowed it to let me off the hook for sharing the Gospel. That kind of thinking allows me to perform an act of service for someone and walk away with a feeling of intense satisfaction for a job well done. Without mentioning the name of Jesus. It lets me think that I have done all God asks of me by sacrificing my time, talent or resources for a good cause. Without sharing with that person(s) my motivation for what I’ve done.

I’m not in any way trying to make a case that good works are not worthwhile, or that we as followers of Christ should not strive for them, even tirelessly. That is a biblically indefensible position.

My point (again, directed first at myself and my shortcomings) is that acts of service should accompany the proclamation of the Gospel, not replace it. If I am serving others with all my free time, and not sharing with them the hope they can find in Christ, I believe I have fallen short of God’s commandment to share the Gospel.

Here are a few Bible verses I’ve thought about in light of this:

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” – 2 Timothy 4:2.

“..if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 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!”

“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation…’” – Mark 16:15

“And He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” – Acts 10:42

This is just a small sampling of the many verses that command the believer in Christ to preach to those who don’t yet know him as Savior.

My challenge, as a human who struggles daily with pride, an over-inflated need to be liked, and fear of conflict and rejection, is to set those things aside, through the power of the Holy Spirit and continue on in love and good works, while being faithful to share how God has created in me a desire for those works (Philippians 2:13) that first began with calling on Christ as my Savior.

That is the main meat of what has been on my mind and heart. As I’ve written this, other related points have come to mind, as well as perhaps some objections to this that some might have. I’m going to save those for a future post.

p.s. I put “use your words” in quotes in the title, because that is a phrase that I’ve heard a lot, usually uttered to small children by their parents, when children opt to “act out” their feelings rather than share them verbally. True confession: for some reason that phrase or the tone in which I’ve heard it used, has always rubbed me the wrong way. Not sure why, but I thought it was amusing to put it in a different context.


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