I ran across a really interesting quote years ago that I have used in a lot of sermons and talks and classrooms. Unfortunately, although the quote has stayed with me pretty much intact, my information retrieval system has lost the name of the person who first made the comment. I sort of remember it coming from someone like Francis of Assisi but don’t quote me on that.
The comment is about witnessing and says, “Witness always–use words when necessary.” I like the comment because it contains so much truth about the witnessing process. It acknowledges the need to recognize the fact that we are always on duty as witnesses–people watch and see our faith in action. As I have mentioned, we have no choice about whether we are witnesses or not. We are witnesses by virtue of the faith we claim in Jesus Christ.
But the comment goes deeper. I think it also serves as a directive to us–whatever we are doing, we do it as witnesses. And this is where we often run into a problem. Many of you, like me, have probably been taught that witnessing is a verbal activity that we engage in only when we are specifically talking to someone about their faith (or lack thereof). I, at least, have been taught this from a very early stage in my faith development–that witnessing is a conscious verbal activity in which I seek to speak the right words that will somehow convince the person receiving the words to come to faith.
But one of the real problems that verbal witnessing needs to deal with is that often, the words we speak are undercut and destroyed by our actions before we even begin to speak. As well, there are many times when our words have been undercut by the actions of other believers who we may or may not even know. As a pastor, I have had countless conversations with people who are very clear that their lack of interest in the Christian faith comes directly from the actions of “Rev So and So” or “that deacon” or “that Sunday School teacher” or some other Christian whose actions caused them or someone they know serious harm.
If we see witnessing as just using our words, we are probably going to continue to be very ineffective at helping people discover the wonder of what God is offering to them. As our quotation indicated, there is a definite time and place for words in the witnessing process–but it is a time and a place that needs to be prepared by the witness of believers as they live their lives in the awareness of the love of God.
Rather than seeing verbal witnessing as an essential requirement for all believers and something we have a right to do no matter what the other person thinks, we need to see our speaking about faith as being a privilege we gain through the living of our faith. We need to show our faith before we can tell our faith. Actually, the situation is stronger than that–we need to remember that we are always showing our faith and that showing determines whether we gain the right to tell people about our faith.
In truth, when we forget about the showing of our faith, we are likely doomed to being ineffective tellers of the faith because we will not take into account the effect our lives are having on people around us. That means we will waste a lot of words and time trying to talk to people who have already used what they have seen in the lives of believers, including us, to make a decision about their response to faith. Our words will fall on paths or rocky places or among thorns (Matthew 4.3-7). While it is comforting to think that people don’t listen to our words because of their internal struggle with God, more often than not that their lack of interest in our verbal witness is the result of a very poor lived witness, either on our part or the part of some other believer or group of believers.
“Witness always, use words when necessary” serves to remind us that the words we use are not the be all and end all of our witness. Our witness begins when we openly acknowledge our faith in God through Jesus Christ. Our lived witness determines both our right to speak about our faith and how effect our spoken witness will be likely be.
May the peace of God be with you.