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…
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.
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.
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.