Being fully human, and possessing a thoroughly sinful nature which I inherited from Adam, I have found myself deciding on occasion that I would not communicate with my wife. It was a stupid decision, but I thought I had good reason. She had misunderstood what I was trying to say (on purpose, I felt), misrepresented my intentions, misjudged my motives or accused me unjustly, and I thought the safest thing for me to do was to clam up. It’s a game many of us play. Subconsciously we think the silent treatment will punish those who have treated us unfairly, or it may cause them to react in some extreme way, further justifying our self-righteous insistence that they were wrong all along.
I have since learned, however, that I was actually communicating by my silence. My actions were saying something to my wife, something like, “I don’t care about your feelings. My feelings are more important than yours. And furthermore, you can’t treat me that way without paying for it.” I didn’t consciously desire to communicate that message. My conscious thought was to protect myself from further hurt. I really loved her and wanted to be close to her. But that’s what came through to her, nevertheless.
You see, what we do or fail to do says something. It is practically impossible not to communicate when we are in the presence of another person. Communication does not occur through words alone. Communication is any behavior which someone else interprets as bearing a message. We speak with our posture, our gestures, our face, our eyes, our eyebrows. We speak with a sigh, with a touch, with a tone, with a shoulder shrug, with the distance we put between us and another person, with almost any action we take. In fact, the experts tell us that 65 percent or more of all our communication is nonverbal. They also tell us that nonverbal messages are more powerful than verbal messages.
If we send two messages which contradict each other, people will have a tendency to believe the nonverbal over the verbal. For instance, if I insist that I believe what you are telling me, but my mouth is tight, my head is tilted, and there is a deep frown on my brow, you will probably conclude that I don’t believe you at all. Actions really do speak louder than words! And that is why it is so very important for us as Christians to be aware of our actions, and to make sure that what we do is consistent with what we say.
The Bible makes this emphasis. For example, John wrote, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17,18). If we say we love another believer but let him go on suffering when we have the ability to relieve his suffering, we don’t love him at all. Our actions contradict our words, and actions speak louder than words.
James made a similar observation. “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works is dead, being alone” (James 2:15-17). We can say we know the Lord, but if we are indifferent to the needs of other Christians, our actions contradict our words, and actions speak louder than words.
As we have seen, James moves from that exhortation on living faith into a major discourse on words which he concludes by asking, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom” (James 3:13). Although we cannot divorce words from that exhortation, it does refer primarily to nonverbal communication. Wise Christians let their manner of life back up what they say with their mouths. And they do it with the meekness or gentleness of wisdom, that is, without contentiousness, without arrogance, without self-centeredness and without retaliation against those who have wronged them. They do it with a gentle friendliness and unselfish consideration of others.
When James described the true wisdom that comes from God (James 3:17), he said it is “without hypocrisy.” One way to characterize people whose actions contradict their words is “hypocritical.” They are inconsistent, professing something by their words which they do not possess in their hearts. It is important for the wise Christian to act in a manner consistent with his words, and it is important for at least three reasons.
Harmony is uppermost in James’ mind. He talks about peacemakers who sow in peace (James 3:18), and then moves directly into a discussion of quarrels and conflicts (4:1). There seems to be in his mind a correlation between harmonious relationships and consistency between words and deeds. Some counselors feel that failure to heed this principle is one of the major causes for interpersonal strife and marital casualties. They are confident that many of the problems which develop in a relationship could be worked out simply by dealing with the inconsistencies between verbal and nonverbal messages.
For example, a husband may assure his wife that he loves her, yet he is often late coming home from work and he seldom calls to inform her. When she questions him, he insists that he had to work late, or run an errand, or see a friend, or something. She explains to him that it is important for her to know when he will be late so she can plan dinner accordingly. But he fails to call again and again, and meal after meal is spoiled. While his words say, “I love you,” his actions say, “I couldn’t care less about your wishes or your feelings.” And she believes the actions above the words. Her human tendency is to become indignant, then resentful, and eventually indifferent to his wishes and his feelings. Any hope of intimacy they might have cherished is dashed on the rocks of bickering and arguing.
Or turn it around. A wife tells her husband that she wants to do everything she can to insure his happiness, but she never cooks him his favorite meal. He asks her to prepare it for him and she assures him she will do it someday when she has the proper ingredients and the time, but she never does. Whenever he mentions it, she says, “Please don’t bug me about it. I’ll prepare it when I can get around to it.” But months pass by and she still hasn’t done it. Her actions say, “Your happiness is the least of my concerns,” and soon he begins to believe the actions above the words. Again, resentment begins to poison the relationship and pour gasoline on their fiery arguments.
It isn’t normally the big things that bring a marriage to the brink of collapse. It is the accumulation of little acts that have convinced each of them that their spouses really do not care. No protests of love will be able to convince them otherwise, because actions speak louder than words,
The principle does not only affect marital relationships. It affects every relationship of life. For example, believers are encouraged to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That is a natural byproduct of our love for one another and our care for one another in the Body of Christ.
So a new woman comes into a ladies group and she is bubbling over with joy. “I’m so excited. My husband trusted Christ as his Savior last night and now we are one in Him.” And the ladies in the circle say, “Oh, that’s nice,” as they sit motionless with arms folded, legs crossed and somber faces. I can guarantee you that the woman with the newly born-again husband is not going to feel a closeness or an intimacy with those ladies, nor any desire to share her heart with them. Their actions contradict their words.
The same thing applies to the man who lost his job. When he told a friend at church his distressing news, his friend replied, “That’s too bad, Tom. I’m sorry to hear it.” But immediately he turned away to ask another friend what time they were supposed to leave on their fishing trip the next morning. He never mentioned the job again to Tom, nor did he ever ask him what he could do to help. As you might suspect, Tom started attending another church where the actions of the people were consistent with their words. It is difficult to enjoy a satisfying and harmonious relationship with people who do not confirm their words with consistent actions.
There is a second reason that our actions must match our words, and that is to be an example to those we endeavor to teach, and so to enhance their potential for learning. The “Do As I Say But Not As I Do” philosophy is a total educational disaster. The most successful learning takes place when the student sees a positive example of what is being taught. That was the method the Lord Jesus used with His disciples. They probably learned more by watching Him than by listening to Him. For example, the night He taught them to serve one another in humility and love, He assumed the role of a servant and washed their dirty feet. They learned more from that dramatic object lesson than they could possibly have learned from a sermon alone.
On several occasions the Apostle Paul exhorted his converts to follow his example (see 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9). He modeled through his actions the truth he taught with his lips. He likewise challenged Timothy to be an example to the believers to whom he ministered (1 Timothy 4:12), and encouraged Titus to do the same (Titus 2:7). It is foolish to try to teach someone else to do something when we do the very opposite ourselves.
We parents are probably most guilty of that brand of hypocrisy. We want our children to learn to talk to us in kind and quiet tones rather than scream at us. We explain that to them clearly and simply. But five minutes later they hear mom screaming at dad, “How many times have I told you not to throw that dirty sweatshirt on the dining room table?” Or worse yet, one of them is screaming at the kids, “I’ve told you kids a thousand times not to scream at me while I’m talking on the telephone.” The words are meaningless. We teach far more by our actions than by our words.
Take another example. Both mom and dad have tried to teach the kids to carry out their responsibilities willingly and cheerfully rather than with a complaining spirit. But one evening mom says to dad, “Dear, I’d like you to fix the leaky faucet in the kitchen tonight. We’re wasting a lot of water.”
Dad has had an exceptionally trying day at work, and fixing a leaky faucet is the last thing in the world he wants to do. He should have said kindly and forthrightly, “Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow’s Saturday and I’ll get it first thing in the morning.” But he suspects that he will get a hassle if he does that, so instead he answers rather grumpily, “All right. All right—in a minute.”
An hour later he gets up and goes out to the garage, slamming the door so hard it shakes the whole house. He is heard grumbling about the mess the kids left on the workbench. Then he grumbles about the design of the faucet which makes the job twice as difficult to do. And he “accidentally” breaks one of mom’s favorite glasses which was left in the sink. The kids haven’t learned much about willingness and cheerfulness.
How we do what we do may be more important than the very doing of it. That’s an important lesson to teach children. But they will learn it best by observing it in us. We can stow our words if we are not going to model them before our children, because they will copy what they see far more readily than they will follow the instruction they hear. Actions speak louder than words.
There is another form of nonverbal communication we should mention, particularly when talking about teaching children, and that is touching. We want our children to know we love them, but words alone will not convince them. They need to be tenderly touched. Infants who have been deprived of physical contact have actually died as a result. Children who have had no tender caressing have become deeply disturbed. Every human being needs to be touched, apart from any sexual connotations, by those close to him. Husbands and wives need it. And children cannot progress normally without it. A tender touch says, “I love you. You are precious to me.” And we learn best from those whom we know care for us.
There is at least one more reason why wise Christians must back what they say with what they do, and that is for the sake of the lost who are watching. If they know we are Christians, they are probably observing everything we do. And everything we do communicates something. What are they reading in us? Paul called the Corinthians a letter known and read by all men (2 Corinthians 3:2). We are all living letters which the world reads daily. What is your mail saying?
To the Colossians, Paul says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). That refers to our manner of life, our behavior, our actions. But in the very next verse he talks about words: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (4:6). We cannot separate our words from our actions. They must be consistent with each other. If we tell an unbeliever that God loves him, we need to show him God’s love by the way we treat him.
One family decided that they would adopt as their project the showing of Christ’s love to an unsaved neighbor family. They prayed together for the family. The kids shared their toys with their kids. Dad volunteered to help their dad put in a sprinkler system. Mom took food over when they lost a relative. Their consistent expression of love opened the door to a verbal witness, and the family came to know Christ. That was conducting themselves with wisdom toward outsiders. And it was their actions more than their words that brought the family to Christ.
We can tell our non-Christian acquaintances that Christ makes a difference in our lives, but they will pay more attention to our actions. Do we talk to the store clerk with any more kindness than the unbeliever does? Do we flash a friendly smile any easier? Are we any more inclined to help a stranger in distress? Do we handle inconveniences with more calmness? Do we receive bad news with more peace and control? Do we treat our families with more unselfish consideration?
The world is watching. Wise Christians will show by their good behavior their deeds in the gentleness of wisdom (James 3:17). The only way we can do that is by immersing ourselves in the person of Jesus Christ, occupying our thoughts with Him and His Word, letting Him capture our affection, control us completely and live through us. Then the hypocrisy will be gone and others will know that we are real—our families, friends, fellow-workers, as well as the unbelievers around us. And they will begin to believe our words.