One of my favorite characters from history is St. Francis. He and I share the same birthday, the same Lord, and the same desire to live missionally in all aspects of our lives. Granted, he did it way better than I am.
One of the sayings attributed to him is the oft-quoted dictum: “Preach the gospel daily. Use words if necessary.”
Having read the collected works of St. Francis, I know that he never wrote these words. And I’m grateful.
One of the things that typified St. Francis and those who attached themselves to him (who eventually became the Franciscan order of monks) was their devotion to the proclamation of the gospel to all of creation. In fact, one legend tells of Francis preaching a sermon to a flock of birds. Now, the story is probably apocryphal, but it does point to his love of all creation (he is famous for referring to “brother sun” and “sister moon”) and his use of words even when proclaiming the gospel to creatures who can’t understand human language.
So, we wouldn’t expect Francis to demean the use of words in proclaiming the gospel. And yet, the mis-attributed quote does point to his view of the gospel extending beyond proclamation.
Francis and his friars were known for their rejection of wealth and their embrace of poverty and the poor. Francis had been raised in a wealthy home and had been a bit of a dandy as a young man.
When he came to faith, Francis rejected his noble status and wealth, walking away from it naked. Literally.
There are many who say that money doesn’t mean anything to them while guarding their bank accounts and making sure they get what they believe is due them. In this case, Francis showed that actions speak louder than words.
When reading the collected words of St. Francis, one is struck by his emphasis on the salvation of souls. He reflects a lot on hell and the need for souls to be saved. In fact, the environmentalism that is often attributed to him takes a far back seat to this missionary zeal.
This makes sense with his worldview. To clothe the naked without introducing them to Jesus would simply be to dress up corpses. Yes, clothing the naked is something Jesus has called us to (Matt. 25:31-46), but it is an incomplete gospel.
At the same time, Francis would agree that speaking the truth of Jesus without clothing the naked person being spoken to would also be an incomplete gospel (James 2:14-25).
As James wrote, “Faith without works is dead.”
At the same time, what Paul wrote in Romans 10:14-15 is also true:
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!”
There is no faith to call on God without belief; no belief without hearing; no hearing without someone preaching; no preaching without that person being sent.
In his defense against the evil one, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:1-3 —
Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
The passage is interesting for how it holds together both the words of God and the deeds of God on behalf of his people.
God speaks and God feeds. The two are inseparable. The whole gospel is for the whole person.
And so, the saying by Presbyterian scholar Ligon Duncan in the image accompanying this post is quite literally true of the way God deals with us and the way we are to deal with a world hungry for God and hungry for the next meal: “Saying, ‘Preach the Gospel daily, use words if necessary,’ is like saying, ‘Feed the hungry, use food if necessary.'”
There is no either/or here. God has called us to a both/and approach that mirrors his own.
None of us is so good that our good deeds will unmistakably point people to God. And no one who speaks truth should do so without deeds that verify it. Either mistake is a form of hypocrisy.
St. Francis was certainly imperfect. But I still look to his example of both speaking and embodying the gospel wholly.