“Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
This little dictum is attributed to Francis Bernadone, later known as St. Francis. And if you are like most, your first response is a rational one.
“All very nice, Francis – but who will hear the message if there are no words?”
Psalm 19 leads off like this,
“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
And the firmament declares his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge.
There are no words – their voice is not heard –
Yet their sound has gone out through all the earth…”
Hmm. A paradox. It is possible to be “heard,” according to this Psalm, without using words. But this is poetry; surely we aren’t meant to take it seriously?
Have you ever known something, but not been able to express it? A lot of poets play around with this apophatic way. Two of my favorites are found in Bruce Cockburn and in U2. Cockburn sings,
“Those who know don’t have the words to tell,
Those with the words don’t know too well…”
Which is to say, the more words we put to something is not evidence that we KNOW something. We can make a rational argument for God and for faith, and many do, without actually having entered into the experience. And sometimes those who can barely articulate a doctrine know it by experience. I’ve seen this true many times, in particular with folk who are mentally challenged. Their faith can be profound – I feel put to shame – yet their intellectual knowledge of God in Scripture is very limited. They haven’t even read Karl Barth (!)
Or as Bono sings it,
The more you see the less you know,
The less you find out as you go,
I knew much more then, than I do now…
“City of Blinding Lights”
And that experience I also share. While in my fifties the body of my knowledge has expanded, perhaps doubled, since my forties, I often feel that I know less than ever. The sensation is climbing a mountain in the fog. One has a sense of mastery of a small space; but mastery is the sensation. But as one nears the peak and the fog grows thinner, the vista expands. Suddenly one feels very small – and the unexplored territory dominates the horizon. And I thought I knew this place!
But back to the title “preaching without words.” Still a paradox right? Or is it? We confess that our faith is by revelation. Apart from the work of the Spirit in a heart, words remain merely words – dead letters. We may “convince” by an argument that Jesus is alive. We may testify to the experience of the Spirit, and our testimony might be convincing. A person might even “pray the prayer” in response. Does this mean that regeneration is automatic? Or must the Spirit show up? No one is saved unless the Spirit comes as a seal on the heart.
A few years ago we had a young lady in our home and we were speaking of faith. She confessed belief; yet there was lingering doubt. We could almost sense the veil of blindness hovering over her mind. Our words were not breaking through. So we asked if we could pray.
As we did so, asking for witness of the Spirit and for him to make Himself known, we could see her visibly relax. (It’s handy to pray with eyes open in this kind of situation, while the one you pray for has her eyes closed). And as we continued to pray, it was as if we could see a light begin to shine from her face. We finished praying, and sat for a while, as did she, with her eyes closed. Finally we asked, “What is happening? Has God been speaking to you?”
It was not our words that made the difference. Our words created a hunger and an openness and a desire to share our experience. But it was God who did the work. In those quiet moments of prayer, the Reality who upholds the Universe came into that small rooom, and made Himself known.
* * *
It’s funny that I hesitate to share this story. I fear being labeled “charismatic” and then written off. But worse would be for us to forget that “apart from Me you can do nothing.” The Spirit, as Francis Chan puts it, “the forgotten God,” goes before us in the world, and walks alongside us. More – he makes his home in us, and it is through Him alone that we make the connection to the Father of Life.
We live in a noisy, wordy world. Yet sometimes the Word makes himself known only when we are able to embrace the silence.
As Dallas Willard tells it, there are two broad categories for spiritual practices: disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinene. We are fairly capable with disciplines of engagement, not so good with disciplines of abstinence. The practice of contemplation, the practice of silence, the practice of fasting – these are difficult ones for us who know a sense of mastery with words. But perhaps those disciplines are the very ones that can give our words meaning, by creating a larger space in our hearts where the Word can make himself heard.