Words Speak Louder Than Actions
Let me grant at the outset this this goes against conventional wisdom, so please hear me out. Today I want to tackle one of the most repeated proverbs of western language; “Actions speak louder than words”. I want to demote it from a proverb to a cliché. The challenge of doing this is that even a cliché has something true in it somewhere. But as Christians, we aren’t satisfied with something being kinda, sorta true. We want rock solid truth. And the only way we can have rock solid truth is to have it from the Scripture. And therefore I want to put our statement through the screening of Scripture. My conclusion is the proverb is only partially helpful, but gives more help when flipped backwards.
Why Words Matter More than Actions
How could this modern proverb be wrong? It is not that actions are unimportant. Actions are truly important. But they are not more important than words. They do not speak louder than words. Why? Here are two reasons. First and foremost, words matter most because words explain actions. Words give meaning to actions. Words are most important because without words we cannot know with certainty what an action is supposed to be or to supposed to mean. Any single action can have a multitude of reasons or motives behind it. How important are the motives behind an action? They are so important that an action can move from the category of evil into the category of righteousness simply because of the motive behind it. This would be easy enough to demonstrate from our everyday lives, but let me show you examples of actions in the bible that went from evil to righteous simply because of the words of explanation.
- Leviticus 10:16-20 tells us that Moses was angry at Aaron for burning up the goat offering instead of eating it. Moses even considered it a breaking of his command. Was Aaron’s actions louder than his words? No. Aaron explained that the devastating happenings of the day had changed the situation. Moses realized this was not a disobedient action, but instead a rightful action. Words spoke louder than actions.
- In Joshua 22, after the conquest of Canaan was complete, the two and half tribes when back to their land to the east of the Jordan. But before they crossed the Jordan they built an alter. Word of this got back to the other tribes and those tribes were indignant and gathered for war. But before they shot the first arrow they inquired of this action. Turns out the two and half tribes were not rebelling against the Lord and building a competing alter for worship, instead they were building an alter of witness about right worship for future generations. The western tribes when from a war posture to being quite pleased. Words spoke louder than actions.
- In Luke 10:40 Martha was giving her sister Mary the stink-eye because Mary was not helping at all. Martha thought Mary was wrong for leaving her to do all the preparations. Since Jesus knows the heart, he was able to explain that Mary was not trying to get out of helping, she was trying to get into greatest blessing of sitting at his feet. Words spoke louder than actions.
- In John 12, Mary, Martha and Lazarus are throwing a party for Jesus. To show their highest love for Christ they bring out a prized possession, an extremely costly alabaster jar of perfume. They broke it and poured it out over Jesus’ head and feet. The disciples were indignant with this, because they saw it as waste, but Jesus explained this was great act of love. Words spoke louder than actions.
Secondly, not only do words explain actions, God’s perfect judgment will be a three part judgment and two thirds of His judgment will relate to words. God is going to judge the deeds done in the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:10), God is going to judge every idle word (Matthew 12:36), and God is going to judge every hidden motive (1 Corinthians 4:5). While deeds certainly will be judged, it is the revealing of words and motives that will allow God to bring a perfect justice. The revealed motives of a person, with all the innumerable backstory features that produced that motive, is what makes God’s judgment perfect. He is able to know all the reasons that were hidden from everyone else. Words are so important because they articulate a person’s motive, which otherwise would remain hidden. This is why we are commanded to not judge motive in 1 Corinthians 4:5. We cannot know motives until they are spoken. Only until we have words can we judge a motive, and only when we have the motive can we judge the action in fullness. Our judgements have to wait till words are spoken. Even if an action is wrong, we can’t know how wrong it is until words are brought. While judging an action without knowing the motive sometimes must happen, it is a dubious judgment. But God’s judgment doesn’t have to wait and is never dubious. He know all the words of motive and reasons behind every action. This is the supreme importance of words.
One Exception That Isn’t An Exception
There is a reason that the proverb “Actions speak louder than words” is commonly used and it is because one of the most common and grievous sins is the sin of deception. Contradictory actions expose lying and deception. When someone says something and does the opposite, those opposite actions are telling us something. What are those actions telling us? They are telling us that a person is a liar or a hypocrite. It is in this case our proverb works and works well. But I would say that what is actually happening is the importance of words is still being shown again. Words are so important that being a deceptive person is one of the deepest of grave offences. It is one of the very worst things a human can be because speech is a defining quality of being made in the image of God. Speech is so important that to pervert it in any way is a reproach and smear upon God who made us like him. Actions that show one’s speech is deceptive rise in importance, i.e. speak loudly, because they are speaking about the worthlessness of that person’s words. That revelation about their words is so important. So while in this case our proverb works, the scenario is narrow enough that such a broad proverb isn’t appropriate, and additionally even this exception still displays the preeminence of words.
Verses that Speak of Action
There are a number of verses that speak to the importance of actions and these will sound like contradictions to what I am saying. What we will find in these passages is that the lying heart of sinful man is addressed several times in the scripture. God knows that when it comes to spiritual things, the deceptiveness of the human heart really shines forth. Let’s address these verses.
- 1 John 3:18 says “Little Children, let us not love with word or tongue, but in deed and truth.” This sounds like deeds are the place where truth is going to be seen and therefore of more importance. What is actually happening here is lying is being exposed. If people are only loving in words, the absence of deeds exposes that their words were lying words. It is this situation that we acknowledge that our proverb works well. This person is a liar. Their words are worthless. This is the real tragedy.
- In Matthew 21:28 Jesus told a parable of two sons told to go work in the vineyard. One said he wouldn’t but then did, and the other said he would, but then didn’t. Again, one son realized his sin and repented, but the other simply lied to get the Father off his back. When it comes to lying, deeds are the only way to expose it.
- In Luke 6:46 Jesus said “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I say.” Once again the heart of deception is exposed. The Title “Lord” is an all-encompassing word and the fallen heart cannot tolerate it. If it can buy some time by saying “Lord” then that is what will be done. And perhaps they can play the religious game just enough to earn some benefit of the doubt. But disobedience will eventually show his words to be lying words, and lying words are the tragedy.
What do we do with this?
So I think we would be better served to remember the extreme and preeminent importance of words. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21) Therefore, words speak louder than actions. However, because the church does have to deal with liars, there is a place for this proverb. But the proverb is too broad as it stands. It says too much. We need to modify it. Perhaps “Actions speak louder than lying words”. Whatever the case, let’s remember that lying is not the main thing we have to deal with. In the church, far more often than lying are the problems of judging motives, holding assumptions, hearing only one side of issues, and not being diligent to have all the conversations that need to be had. To confront those kinds of issues we have to do two things.
First, we have to embrace a deep and wide commitment to do the work of needful communication. Because the hearts of people are not only the most important issue, but also the most complex and hidden of all issues, we have to come to grips with the reality that a lot of talk usually needs to happen to the get to the bottom of things. Sure, there are people who are good at getting right to the point, or who are good at asking the right questions. These people make the best counselors. But for the rest of us, we just have to accept that we are going to have to talk over things for a while and have the determination to do it until it is done and we are back to greeting each other with a kiss.
Second, we really should strive to improve our communication practices. Are you too vague? Do you shy away from the hard topics? Do you try to make everything into a joke? Do you waste too much time with small talk? Do you speak before coming to a full comprehension of what the other person is saying? Do you move from one topic to another and never resolve anything? Do you always bring the conversation back to the same thing when there are other issues that are at play? Do you regularly exaggerate? There are a lot of ways to do poor speech and we need to eliminate those practices. In their place we need to put on the good practices of speech that is rightly motived, rightly timed, rightly mannered, and rightly placed.
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