Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow

For some odd reason, a lumber supply store near my home likes to display the following quote on their lighted sign: “Well done is better than well said.” Perhaps the store imagines it’s in competition with the local library that is less than a mile away? More likely, the store owners are hoping to attract people who get things done by taking a shot at those who “just talk about” doing something. Doers frequent lumber stores more reliably than talkers. Doers get things done — with supplies from the lumber store.  

The “doer” attitude resonates with many. Consider the various adages in our vernacular that disparage the value of speaking while extolling the virtue of action: “Actions speak louder than words,” “Talk is cheap,” “It’s a lot easier to talk about it than to do it,” or even “Put your money where your mouth is.” The doers have a well-stocked arsenal of adages.   

What does the prevalence of such an armada of adages mean to those who think it’s important to speak up? This question points directly to those of us who speak on behalf of persecuted Christians, forcing the evaluation: What good is accomplished by speaking on behalf of persecuted Christians? Can anything get done by simply talking about injustices against Christians? Could greater results be achieved through action? In other words, wouldn’t “well done” be better than “well said”?  

From the beginning, Christians put great confidence in speaking and preaching truth. Christians derive their conviction to speak from no one less than Christ Himself. Christ’s very identity is communicated to humankind by way of the Word. Christ is the Word of God incarnate (the Logos). In a sense, he arrived on the earth as God’s final speech to humanity. The writer of Hebrews says it this way: “In these last days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Hebrews 1). Christ is God’s word spoken to a world that desperately needs to listen. 

Is God a God of the Word only? Of course not! Christ took on flesh. He grew in obedience. He suffered righteously (and unjustly). He offered himself as a sacrifice for others. He died. He rose again! He demanded obedience from all who wish to get out of this life alive. In short, he accomplished the Father’s will in word — and deed. God demands action as well as words. 

To say it in a slightly different manner, God’s Justice demands action. This concept is not difficult to understand. Our own justice system demands action: Our legal system doesn’t simply say “guilty”; it also demands that actions follow in the form of sentencing that might include restitution or incarceration. So, in Christian faithfulness, words and actions both play a part. Which part is greater? How might Christians resolve the tension between talking and doing? Between speech and action?  

Taking a cue from biblical accounts of creation, Christians believe that words can be actions. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The words of God performed the action of creating the world (Genesis 1, John 1). Christians, therefore, place a high value on speech. Speech is action. Christian tradition is replete with powerful proclamations against injustice, as though speeches were worthy of great effort and could produce great effects. For Christians, sometimes “well said” is actually better than “well done.” The tension between speech and action reveals the profound power of the Christian faith.  

Resolving the tension between speech and action does more than reveal the power of Christian speech. However, it also exposes the dreadful weakness of other worldviews. Many voices clamor to be heard. Some of these voices demand to be heard but will not (or cannot) listen, thus embracing manipulative tactics of power to stop the powerless from speaking. These tactics minimize both the value and need for words. Christians must not forsake words for oppressive actions. Instead, Christians speak truth and invite others into it. Christians speak out against those who shut down debate, deploy power, issue threats, and cause persecution.  

Belief in the power of speech — or of words — is not an explicitly Christian value. However, the Christian framework is unique in that it ascribes the creation power of words to God alone. When God is removed from the conversation, people try to claim the creative power of words for themselves. Nearly eight decades ago, French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared, “Words are loaded pistols.” Sartre’s declaration has morphed into an adage of its own, one that is popular in our cultural vocabulary. Yet, our usage of the phrase is not technically how Sartre himself used it. Like other existentialists of the mid-twentieth century, Sartre thought that individuals had the power to take aim at old ideas of the world and create constantly renewing reality through words.  

When Sartre stated that words are loaded pistols, he was quoting another French thinker, Brice Parain. Sartre and Parain agreed on some points but actually disagreed on the fundamental nature of words. Sartre believed words had a utilitarian function when they were written as prose and employed for a purpose. According to Sartre, the prose writer deployed words creatively — in complete freedom — to boldly assert reality. Parain, on the other hand, was more reserved. He never wandered completely away from the traditional conviction that words possess meaning anchored somewhere transcendent in language beyond the limited human understanding.  

In other words, Parain never surrendered words to their utilitarian function. He remained some distance from Sartre. For Sartre, words were signs to be utilized by the writer or speaker to enact or enforce a political ideal (he was, for a long time, a Communist). For Sartre, words force a reality crisis in the moment, cutting against (or deconstructing?) the past while compelling future change. Words are loaded in the sense — almost a God-like sense — of new creation of a revolutionary new reality. 

Parain’s abiding sense of transcendence provides a better conception of words being loaded pistols. For Parain, words must have true and abiding meaning. Words are not merely calls to action. They convey meaning, and if they don’t convey meaning, then nothing in the world matters. Here is how another French writer describes Parain’s concept of words:  

“Parain’s basic premise is that if language is meaningless, then everything is meaningless, and the world becomes absurd. We know only by means of words. If they are proved useless, then we are finally and irredeemably blinded” (Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 230).  

For Christians, words are far from meaningless. Words are anchored in the divine Word. As John points out in the prologue to his gospel, “The word coming into the world enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). Human beings can communicate by words because God constructed the world by word. Further, God has designed the world and the human mind to communicate with and by His Word. God is not silent. He is speaking truth about the world, who his people are, what he demands, and what he condemns (Romans 1). As a result, no one has an excuse before God. His word is being heard — even if not obeyed.  

Returning to the simple questions posed at the beginning of this article, what good are words? Is action better? Even more particularly, does it help to speak up for persecuted Christians? The answer follows the nature of God’s Word and our words. When we speak a word about injustices against God’s children, we are firing a loaded pistol, as it were, directly at the heart of unrighteousness. God’s righteousness demands that God’s people worship and serve him only. Persecution defies the righteousness of God as directly as Pharaoh defied Moses in Egypt — and ultimately leads to a similar destruction for the persecutors.  

If we use words as Sartre proposed and make them mere expressions of ourselves forcing reality into existence, then we actually rob words of their power. We would be pretending to possess the God-like power to create reality through our speech acts. We would end up delusional rather than divine. We, in fact, would become less in tune with the real world and other human beings and more inclined toward a delusional life like Don Quixote, who famously jousts with windmills in a fantastic battle against non-existent giants. In other words, taking action based on our own words leads to fruitless, imaginary fighting for vainglorious conquests — having zero impact for justice or the well-being of other people.   

To have a true and lasting influence on the real world, Christians must speak words against injustice and for the righteousness of God in Christ. Christians understand that everything that has come into being has done so through the power of God’s Word (John 1). Even now, everything in creation is being sustained by the same word of His power (Hebrews 1). So, what do our words accomplish? Quite a lot — if our words accord with the real world governed by the true word of God. When our words are spoken in accordance with God’s Word, then we are calling human beings to account before God and pleading with them to wake up to God.  

Speaking against injustice is speaking for the right order of the real world as God created it. Such speaking puts the world on notice that the God who created all things and all people (Genesis) is the same God who is even now working all things together for his people and cataloging an account of those who oppose him, promising vengeance in the day of his wrathful return (Revelation). Between the past creation and the future recompense, God has fixed a day in which people might hear his voice and repent. Today is the day of God’s salvation! Today is the day in which our speaking words might lead to others finding regenerating faith. 

What if speaking words is active participation with God? If this is the case (and it is), then our words will not return void. They will not be in vain. They will accomplish something in God’s work. Our words against persecutors and for the persecuted church speak of salvation for all who will hear and believe. Our words are a powerful blessing to the world, like those blue emergency signs on interstate highways that instruct drivers to “tune your radio to AM 510 for important emergency instructions.”  

When speaking words this way, Christians demonstrate that “well said” is better than “well done.” Or, maybe “well said” is also “well done, good and faithful servants.” 

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