Quiet Christianity – Moving beyond words

Staying with my Lenten themes of stripping back and giving up old ways in order to move on, this is about giving up our reliance on words – on verbal expressions of faith and rational explanations for belief. If you like, it’s about taking a fast not from food but from speech.

In my experience, evangelical and charismatic Christians are big on evangelism, which tends to involve words. You’re meant to talk about Jesus a lot, tell people, invite them, warn them. You need to explain to them about Christ and the gospel and heaven and hell. If you love Jesus, they say, you’ll want to shout about him. It often seems to be a predominantly wordy, noisy, confident, overt and extrovert way of communicating faith.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, but some of us just don’t fit with this model – mainly because our personalities are quiet, reticent, introverted. We don’t shout about the things we value and love; we appreciate them quietly and often by ourselves. Even if we’re really excited about something, or in love with someone, you may not realise just from talking to us. So trying to tell everyone we know about why we love Jesus feels false and forced, and is often counter-productive.

When words are not enough

There’s another aspect to this that’s not just to do with whether you’re introvert or extrovert. It’s to do with whether it’s always necessary or helpful to spell things out in words, or whether sometimes it can be equally good – or even better – to leave things unsaid. Not all communication needs to be spoken, and it certainly doesn’t need to be shouted in block capitals.

I love the quotation attributed to St Francis: “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary”.

Too often in our culture we feel that we have to state everything about faith directly and overtly, using words and logical explanations. But in many ways the deepest and most important things can’t be said or explained, and don’t need to be. Things like love, mercy, beauty, goodness and forgiveness can’t be adequately or meaningfully expressed in words. Rather they have to be shown in action and attitude, in the context of relationship. And if they are truly shown, then words are often superfluous.

I’m not saying we don’t ever need words; we do. I’m also not saying that we don’t need the Bible’s written truths. But so much of the truth Scripture contains is not propositional doctrinal statements, but story, example, parable or poetry. It’s not truth to be grasped intellectually so much as to be seen, tasted, felt, experienced, imbibed. Above all it points us to a transformative encounter with the risen and living Christ – something which can only ever be experienced, not expressed in words.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing a 1300-word blog post to point out the limitation of words. Perhaps if words were more effective, I wouldn’t need to use so many…

Words misspeak

The other problem with words is that they sometimes misspeak; they don’t always convey the meaning we intend, and sometimes have quite the opposite effect. Words have multiple meanings and connotations, and different people can understand and interpret the same words very differently.

Religious words and phrases in particular can be easily misunderstood. Some are just off-putting in-house jargon, or badges of exclusive club membership. Others carry unfortunate associations and misconceptions, like ‘sin’, ‘salvation’, ‘church’, and even ‘Jesus’. In trying to show or explain our faith to people, words are often our enemies not our friends; they hamper communication rather than enhancing it.

And of course however eloquent or careful we are in our word choices, human language can never adequately express the beauty and wonder and mystery of God, or the richness of his love and grace. Words alone are never enough.

We don’t always need to spell everything out. We don’t always need to talk overtly about Jesus, or to make all our conversations or songs or art be about specifically ‘Christian’ things. There’s a sense in which God is present in everything we are and do and say and sing and create; and a sense in which he is present in everyone and everything around us (though not always in the same way). Sometimes we may need to use Bible verses and Christian language to underscore this reality, but not always.

Silent witness

For a long time I felt guilty about my apparent inability to ‘share the gospel’ effectively with friends, or to turn any conversation into an opportunity to tell people about their need for Jesus. Now I’m largely content to concentrate on becoming the kind of person I believe Christ wants me to be, which is far harder but also far more meaningful than any clever arguments I can put forth.

Rational argument can sometimes be a useful tool, say for clearing up the odd misconception, but its usefulness is fairly limited. Few people can be truly led into a genuine and lasting faith in Christ by means of argument or words alone. Mere logic can’t make you love or trust someone.

I used to worry because I didn’t feel I really understood the gospel intellectually in a way that I could convincingly formulate in words; all my attempts felt hollow. Now I feel no such guilt or worry. I don’t understand the gospel intellectually, and I don’t have a watertight or correct doctrinal explanation of the atonement; nor do I think one is needed.

Fundamental mystery

What I do have is a genuine faith in Christ that is at the very centre of who I am. I don’t need to understand or explain it any more than I need to explain how my brain works or why I love my wife. I’m a ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense that faith is fundamental to who I am; it’s the axiomatic reality on which all else is predicated. I can’t explain the essence of reality, but I can live in it and out of it.

There are fundamental mysteries at the very heart and centre of the Christian faith. God is a mystery; the Trinity can’t be satisfactorily explained by logic. The incarnation of Christ is a mystery, as are the atonement and resurrection, and faith itself, and eternity, and redemption. These are not mere frustrating mysteries that withhold truth from us; they are creative and life-bringing mysteries on which we can feed endlessly without ever exhausting their resources or reaching their limits.

When we try to reduce these mysteries to codified formulas that we can learn and explain, we lose their essence and their life. We can feed forever on Christ, but we cannot derive lasting nourishment from doctrine about him.

Dialogue not diatribe

As evangelicals, we often tend to think that we alone have the right answers and need to correct everyone else; that we alone have the full and only truth that others need to be told. I no longer feel this way. I do believe that Christ is the Truth and the truth is in him and of him, but it’s not an exclusive or propositional truth that I have to somehow get others to believe. Rather it’s a reality that can be present and active in people’s lives without their necessarily being consciously aware of it.

There’s so much more to Christ than Christendom or Christianity in its visible – or verbal – form. There’s so much more to Christ than church services and hymns and missions and slogans and prayers and theologies and moral codes and liturgies and all the other ways in which we try to sum him up and serve him. The whole of life and nature and the world is God’s. There’s something of Christ in very nearly everything and everyone; something of good which can be redeemed in all of it.

So rather than trying to convince people that they’re wrong, I can listen to them properly, take a genuine interest in how they see the world, and even learn new insights from them – whether they’re Christian or not. I can enter into meaningful and open-ended dialogue with them on equal footing, rather than seeing myself as the superior guardian of a dominating truth that they must ultimately accept.

And rather than trying to make a confident and convincing case for my beliefs as though I were advertising a spiritual product, I can admit that I don’t understand and have many doubts. All I really have to offer is whatever of Christ has so far been made real in me. And if there is nothing real there, then no amount of words will convince anyone.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Charismatic, Church calendar, Contemplative, Emerging, Evangelicalism, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Quiet Christianity – Moving beyond words

  1. Pingback: Quiet Christianity – Moving beyond words | The Evangelical Liberal – Charismatic Feeds

  2. Julian says:

    Have a look at Rowan Williams’ thoughts about ‘breathing space’ in his short reflections written post 9/11 called “Writing in the Dust” where he draws on Jesus’ response to the woamn in John 8, as an antidote to a quick rush to words and action……

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  3. doncher1 says:

    Again, I’m commenting on an old one (because I didn’t really understand the one you posted yesterday – bit over my head – and, also, because I’m off work ill at the moment and have no energy to do anything except browse other people’s blogs!!).

    Anyway, I love this post! I’ve often felt guilty for not ‘telling people about Jesus’. In the early days especially, lots of people kept telling me that, because it was all new to me, I’d be so excited about Jesus, I’d not be able to stop myself ‘sharing the gospel’, which often made me wonder (still does actually, quite a lot) what was wrong with me and whether I hadn’t really ‘got’ what everyone else had.

    I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’. I’ve known I’m an introvert for a long time, but I related so much to this description of introverts ‘…… they listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions’. I have a good friend who is a Christian. We were friends for a lot of years before I even considered Christianity. She didn’t often speak about her faith, unless I asked, which I sometimes did, Whenever we talked about it, it was always as you describe, ‘a meaningful and open-ended dialogue in which she listened as much as (or more than) she talked’. Looking back now, I think that my friend’s approach was one of the big things that drew me in, though it was subtle, and eventually, I needed another (much more bold and ‘talky’) Christian friend to push me in. So I’m sure both approaches are needed, but I just don’t think I’m likely to be the person ‘pushing people in’.

    The one time someone at work asked me a very direct question about my new-found belief in God, I was caught completely off-guard and, afterwards, was really ashamed of my answer. I went over and over in my head afterwards how I should have explained properly about Jesus and his death and resurrection, when actually I said none of this, I just said something short that was true for me (and a bit too personal, really, but hey-ho). Like you say, I feel like I still don’t ‘get’ the gospel (no matter how hard I try), so I can’t explain it to anyone else. Also, when I heard about a man who always made a point on every taxi journey of telling the taxi driver about Jesus, so that they’d ‘heard the gospel’, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they really had heard the gospel in any meaningful way (but that’s probably just me being mean, because it’s not something I would do!).

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    • Yes – it’s really okay to be an introvert! For years I felt bad about not ‘sharing the gospel’ or ‘leading someone to Christ’, but I’ve begun to realise that that just isn’t how I’m wired. I used to think it was just because I was ‘ashamed of the gospel’, and maybe there is a tiny bit of that, but I think it’s more just that I don’t find the usual ways of evangelising natural or helpful – I feel like I’m trying to be someone else or do something that’s alien and false to me. But that doesn’t mean we’re not ‘proper Christians’ or that others don’t see something of Christ in our lives. At least, that’s what I hope! 🙂

      I may have to read the Susan Cain book – sounds excellent.

      PS sorry about yesterday’s rather abstract and abstruse post! I sometimes maybe get a bit too carried away with theology. A short summary would be “God’s way beyond our ability to understand or adequately describe, but it’s okay because we can still know him personally and that’s what really matters”.

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  4. doncher1 says:

    Thanks for the short summary of yesterday’s post. My comment wasn’t a reflection on your post being confusing, just an awareness that I’m not clever enough to understand it 🙂

    And, yes, I’d recommend Susan Cain’s book, although I haven’t finished it yet.

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    • From what I’ve seen, I really don’t think there’s any issue with your cleverness 🙂

      I think that with a lot of more abstract ideas (in theology or any other discipline), much of it comes down to how good the writer is at communicating to a non-specialist audience. I might need to work on that… though having said that I’m not actually a specialist myself, just a dabbler – bit of a fraud really 😉

      Anyway, vive les Introverts!

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