Please, Give Them An Answer

Recently, I saw the following quote offered as one reason that its author, Richard Rohr, should be considered a “go-to guy” if you are interested in demonstrating the story of Christianity to the world around you:

Jesus is asked over 183 questions in the Gospels and only answers 3 of them. We are not meant to be answer givers.

~ Richard Rohr

I saw the quote on a public forum. Plenty of people were commenting about it’s wisdom and relevance. I chimed in and questioned the legitimacy of the quote. I asked for an explanation as to why anyone would consider the quote so wonderful … but nobody would give me an answer.

See what they did there?

I don’t know anything about Richard Rohr but I do know that, as a professing Christian, I find this idea to be indefensible drivel. Not only is it in complete opposition to what the Bible says in 1 Peter 3:15 (“always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”), but also to what the Apostles did when they went about implementing the Great Commission Jesus gave them in Matthew 28. Paul himself made it a point to “reason with them from the Scriptures” in every town he entered. He did it in front of the professional philosophers in Athens and in the backwater towns in Galatia. He got beaten up and left for dead because of it.

You don’t get beaten up unless you’re giving answers somebody doesn’t want to hear.

I don’t just think Richard Rohr’s quip is wrong; I think it’s dangerous. It’s a reflection of a trend that has become popular within the church at large, that sees getting along as superior to telling the truth. It’s the same kind of nonsense that many attribute to St. Francis of Assisi when they offer his famous saying, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.” You can see this little aphorism repeated everywhere and it sounds pretty cool. It is used by plenty of well-meaning Christians to emphasize that our actions speak louder than our words. It even seems to imply that talking the talk may be detrimental to the cause. “Keep your mouth shut,” the quip seems to tell us, “and just walk the walk.”
There is no arguing with that simple fact and on one level I completely agree. I have written elsewhere about the idea that “who we are speaks so loudly that no one hears what we say.” This is meant as a warning against the false pronouncements of a believer whose life denies everything the believer claims to represent. We can, in fact, diminish the message to insignificance by our own hypocrisy.

But does that mean the reverse is true? Can we proclaim the message simply through our actions?

Here’s the problem: the Good News (a.k.a. the Gospel) is a propositional declaration about our status as rebels and the way in which our rebelliousness against a perfect Creator can be forgiven by the sacrifice of a perfect Redeemer. It is about redemption. And it is “good news” because without it we are all doomed to eternal separation from our God. So here is my question:

How can we “preach” that message and explain its implications without using words?

We can’t.

There is no denying that our actions support our representation of the Gospel message. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a message that needs pronouncement.

I honestly don’t know the context of St. Francis’s quip but I find it hard to believe that a thinker like him meant it in the way contemporary Christians use it. A little research confirms this. For starters, we have the quote wrong! What Francis actually said was:

 Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words.

                      ~ St. Francis of Assissi

Notice that St. Francis himself did not render preaching of the gospel as a contingent option, nor did he separate it from the act of living it out. He didn’t say, “if,” (as the famous aphorism puts it) he said, “when.” He linked the preaching and the actions directly together. We are the ones who have attributed an improper context to his words.

It is also interesting that Francis of Assisi (birth name: Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone) devoted himself to the kind of life for which he is now known … after being convicted by a sermon he heard in 1209. His vow to a life of poverty; his connection to nature and the beauty of the creation; his empathy for others — all these were rooted in a sense of community and shared redemption that he learned from study and experience. In fact, St. Francis himself was known for the powerful sermons he delivered in his pursuit of that noble goal.

It is fashionable these days to label those who defend the gospel with logic, philosophy and confidence as displaying some level of arrogance in their attempt to do so. But let’s not over-spiritualize or look down our collective noses at the relevancy of proclaiming the truth. Preaching the gospel and living the gospel are not mutually exclusive projects. Our choice is not an “either/or” dilemma — it is a “both/and” duty.

So, when a follower of Christ tells us that we are not to be “answer givers,” one has to wonder how in the world they ever came to such a conclusion and thought it wise to say so. The reality is that the post-Christian world we live in demands that we demonstrate grace, but also that we deliver truth.

And that includes giving answers.

Preach the Gospel using words … and act it out as you do. The world is watching, but it’s listening too.

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