There’s a common assumption among evangelical Christians that all public Christian speech or all public speech that involves the Bible is an unmixed good. In fact, there’s something powerful about Christian talk that borders on magical.
This is based on a number of Bible passages, but most specifically Isaiah 55:11 in which the God of Israel says, through Isaiah,
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).
Many Christians take this passage to indicate that any Christian speech or talk about the Bible or the realities of salvation in Christ will do something. It is speech that goes out there and has some kind of powerful effect.
Therefore, even when a gospel presentation feels awkward, or perhaps a reference to the Bible isn’t warranted, Christians ought to inject Christian speech without hesitation. When they do so, Christians are making a bold stand for Christ. After all, “God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish its purpose.”
It seems to me that this approach to Christian behavior in public misunderstands both the Scriptures and our culture.
The Isaiah passage is not referring to any and all talk about God or Scripture. God is making direct reference to his specific word in Isa.55:1-7. The God of Israel is unlike anyone else and any other god. If Israel turns from its wickedness, he will forgive and restore his people. The one true God will stand by that specific promise. It will not return empty; he means it.
It’s a statement about God’s faithfulness to his promise.
Further, there are loads of examples in Scripture about God’s words in general having no effect. Because of the mystery of iniquity and the madness of sin, Israel ignored pretty much all of the warnings contained in the prophets.
In fact, God says to Ezekiel that his people actually love coming to hear his preaching, but it has no effect at all on their lives.
As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, “Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.” My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice (Ezek. 33:30-32).
Israel was like modern Christians who purchase all the materials of their favorite ministries but have no plans to let any of it shape their lives.
Beyond this, however, evangelicals would do well to consider their cultural context. In America, anyway, the broader culture has evangelical Christians pretty well figured out. We’ve made quite an impression and it’s not all that good.
I’ve made reference to these before, but books like unChristian and films such as “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” portray a culture in which Christians come off as insincere, flippant, superficial, judgmental, and hypocritical.
I wonder if we’re in a day, in many American contexts, anyway, in which less is more. We might consider the virtues of deference, the activity of listening, and the power of a timely and well-chosen word.
We might do well to consider our public witness from texts like Col. 4:5: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.”