“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”
These words are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and they point to an important truth. Witness isn’t just about what we say. It’s also about how we live. Our very lives, ripe with the fruit of the Spirit, should speak volumes about the truth of the gospel. Yet, we need to be wary of taking this sentiment too far.
Romans 10:14-15 tells us something important about the gospel. It goes like this:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Notice how much of this passage, which focuses on people accepting the gospel, centers around communication. If people are to believe, Paul says, they must hear the message. When it comes to witness, there comes a point where we must use words.
This is an important insight in a day when the temptation is to live good lives while never getting around to actually telling the people around us about Jesus. We are reticent to speak because we are not sure how we will be received. Surely, living a good life is enough!
When we are tempted to buy into this line of thought, we need to remember when Jesus sent his apostles to the villages of Israel. In Luke 9:1-2, we hear this testimony:
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Notice that Jesus equips the apostles for good works. By his authority, they have power to cast out demons and heal sickness! But Jesus’ purpose in sending the apostles was bigger than these good works, important though they were. First and foremost, the apostles were to proclaim the kingdom of God. The healings and exorcisms were always meant to accompany the message – giving it validity – rather than replacing it.
When it comes to witness, words and works must go hand in hand. Words without works amount to hypocrisy, which undermines the message. Works without words amount to cruelty, because we never actually get around to telling people about Jesus. As Paul said, “How can the believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” How, indeed?
May our words and works team to show forth the beauty of the gospel. May we be the ones who are sent to proclaim. May our feet be beautiful because we have brought good news.