Talk is Cheap

Want to know a secret? Years of ministry have taught me a lesson. Perhaps it shouldn't have taken so long to learn but I tended to have a high view of people, especially those who profess to be Christians. In fact, some of the people we have worked with have arrived at the same conclusion, through experience, at a much faster rate. What is this deep secret? Here goes...

"I don't believe it, until I see the white's of his eyes!"

You're likely to hear a variation of this phrase in many ministries - at least those where the staff are open and comfortable enough to speak freely. Through repeated disappointment we have been trained to accept the word of most people, not with assurance and immanent anticipation, but with reserve and expectation of disappointment. Great and grand promises are tossed about casually and frequently by numerous people, but we know that for far too many they are hollow words. Talk is cheap.

"Until I see the white's of her eyes!"

Before continuing, please understand that there are highly notable exceptions to this rule. At each and every ministry we have been involved with, we have seen those rare individuals you can count on at every turn. When they say it, short of sickness or death, they will do everything in their power to make it so. These individuals are a joy to work with and are the prototype by which we desire to find more. They are living examples that oaths and elaborate promises are pale imitations of the simple Christian standard. Their "yes" means yes and their "no" means no.

Matthew 5:33-37 "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (NIV)

Maybe it was where I grew up. In the relatively isolated region of New Brunswick, Canada, I took it for granted that a person's word or handshake was a binding agreement. Then again, maybe it was where I grew up. My dad and my grand-fathers all believed and lived the same. With each of the corporations I started and directed, putting a sales order in writing, whether $100 or $10,000, was optional, I'd take their verbal agreement as a contract. During more than a decade, I only ever had two of these verbal contracts that I was burned on. There was something in common to these two, a detail we will examine further on.

Over time I learned to not be naïve enough to trust everyone. I have another expression that most who have worked for or with me will recognize. "Their lips were moving." If spoken after getting off the phone, it's always in regards to a telemarketer. And even more so if a telemarketer from a communications company. I have been lied to so many times by telemarketers, having had to spend hours correcting or reversing the unauthorized expensive account changes they promised would be done "at no charge", that I won't do anything with them unless I receive all the details in writing first. Most used car salesmen fall into that lot as well. Perhaps it was after such a run-in that King David penned these words...

Psalms 116:11 And in my dismay I said, "All men are liars." (NIV)

Certainly the easiest proof that the whole world is in rebellion against God rests in this characteristic. Not only is it perhaps our first visible display of sin as a toddler ("I didn't take the cookie"), it's one that we so easily fall into and work to justify the rest of our lives ("It's only a little white lie"). If God had forgotten to give us the other nine, this single precept of the Ten Commandments convicts us all as being law-breakers.

Exodus 20:16a Thou shalt not bear false witness... (KJV)

Christians should be different. We have been forgiven of our sins (Romans 4:7-8), set free to do what is right and good (Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 2:10). We serve our Lord and Savior out of love (John 14:23-24), desiring to please Him in all that we do. Yet, when feeling conviction over lack of self-control in this area, the words "Well I can't be perfect" are oft expressed and more likely thought. While true in this life, it does not give us an excuse to stop trying.

Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NIV)

Many who go into full time ministry are there because they truly desire to help people. Unfortunately they use good intents to excuse wrong actions. While still a traveling evangelist, many years ago I was invited to a pastor's conference. The noted speaker made a statement that has stuck with me all these years. "In the church, pastors are the most likely to lie to people because they don't know how to say 'no'". His examples included multitudes of circumstance where those in ministry over-commit, promising too much to too many, and then not being able to fulfill what they committed to. His offered solution to this problem has become another of my favorite phrases...

"Learn how to say 'no' without guilt."

This is key to making my "yes" be yes and my "no" be no. When asked if I can go somewhere, or help with something, I stop and consider, will I be able to do it. If I don't think I can, I'll say "no" - and I've been practicing not feeling guilty about saying "no". Better that someone is disappointed up front than to later feel mislead (or lied to) and disappointed later. Of course, there are times when my response is "I'll try, but no promise" because I certainly will try even though there are known circumstances outside of my control.

Ecclesiastes 5:5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. (NIV)

Even when I respond "yes" it's highly implied, or more often stated "Lord willing!" This is a statement of the sovereignty of God that I cannot guarantee anything, only as the Lord wills. God can, and does, orchestrate events to prevent what I plan, or to make possible what I didn't plan. Ultimately my "yes", even while I do everything within my power to honor it, is contingent upon it being what God wants me to be doing.

James 4:13-17 Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." 16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.3 (NIV)

Again, the church should be different than the world in regards to our word. While we make our yea or nay contingent on God's sovereign approval, we should be the ones willing to do all that is within our power to keep our promises. It's the casual disregard for commitments that has colored my willingness to quickly anticipate a fulfillment of promise by churches and those within. Want examples?

  • A church takes up a "love offering" stating that it was all to go to a specific ministry, but the check is never sent, even after a polite inquiry as to whether it might have been lost in transit.

  • A large mission's organization, many weeks in advance, promises to help with a major project. Their manpower was being counted on as two-thirds of the undertaking. On short notice they cancel with a "something else came up on our schedule."

  • The head of a Christian service group promises that he will have 4 or 5 people available to volunteer "every week". The group shows up once and is never seen again. (Multitudes of variations exist here; most never even call leaving you at start time wondering where they are.)

  • A church publishes documents showing their people how much they are giving to other missions organizations, yet year after year the organization actually never receives even close to that amount of money.

  • "I'll call you back" or "I'll get back to you on this" are typically meaningless words given by many pastors and church leaders - at best 50/50 odds on ever hearing from them.

  • A person commits to a particular ministry project, job, or term, and then does not follow through because something better/different comes along, or they grew tired of what they committed to.

  • A pastor and his wife promise to come and visit a ministry ("we'd love to come"). Years later, even with repeated invitations they've never darkened the door.

Hosts of other examples abound, but you get the point. Remember those two earlier occurrences where I had people default on verbal contracts? Sadly they were a Christian ministry and a Christian business. Not once did I ever have another secular corporation, individual, or government agency renege on their verbal contract, but the rational given by these Christians was...

"We've changed our minds and, besides, we never signed a written contract."

Based on his own experiences, another businessman told me, "If it's a Christian organization or business, I now make sure I get it in writing, they're the most likely to not follow through. And always double check the count of what is being sent to them, as they're the most likely to call and say they didn't receive it all, even when they did." At that moment, I so wished my experiences had enabled me to be able to contradict him.4 Unfortunately, this comment to me was only shortly after his latest run-in. The office of a large protestant denomination had, without notice, awarded a contract to another business after having, weeks before, entered into a verbal agreement with him. In good faith he had begun work based on that verbal commitment and was now out thousands of dollars.5

Romans 3:4b ... let God be found true, though every man be found a liar... (NASU)

Believers can profess to be different than the world, but the evidence will be found in our actions. Those around us can't know our hearts, read our minds, or rest in our self-made claims. If people were to interview our friends, family, business associates or congregation - and if they could trust them to be honest - how would they characterize our actions?

Proverbs 20:11 Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.1 (NIV)

Obedience is not measured by words, for children or adults, it's all about actions. The book of James, which is focused on the outworking of a true faith, emphasizes this very fact. James was certainly responding to those who claimed to be of the faith, but had actions that contradicted, or in the least didn't support, their assertions.

James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.2 (NIV)

How will the world see Christ in us if our actions are those of the world, if lying is as common in the church as it is outside? Do we imitate our Father, who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; 1 Samuel 15:29), or the Devil who lies continually (John 8:44)?

Matthew 15:19-20 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'" (NIV)

A believer's words are not to be filled with flattery and falsehoods (Romans 16:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:5), rather the grace given us by God is to show through into all we say and do. Is it not more likely that the world will listen to those who are known to tell the truth, with matching actions and words? Why should a non-believer consider anything I say about spiritual matters if I cannot show integrity in my daily dealings?

Colossians 4:5-6 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (NIV)

Much more could be said and certainly many more passages of Scriptures could be offered in support. While it's been nice having this brief talk with you, remember that talk is cheap if we don't live it out! The last words go to God...

Ephesians 4:22-25 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (NIV)

Colossians 3:7-10 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (NIV)

End Notes

1. Notice that the immediate context of this verse, the one previous, is dealing with a common business action of their day. The dishonest businessman or woman doesn't hang a sign advertising that fact, they try and mislead you into thinking that they are a good merchant but in reality they have secretly altered the standards.

Proverbs 20:10-11 Differing weights and differing measures - the Lord detests them both. 11 Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right. (NIV)

Too many Christians try and alter the standard to justify the inequity between their words and actions.

2. James does not contradict the apostle Paul in this chapter. Paul legitimately focused on salvation being by faith alone, apart from any works, an act of God. James was emphasizing the outworking of a true faith, which certainly would have sincere works that would flow from it. This is why James can use Abraham as an example of faith having works (James 2:20-24), and Paul can likewise use him as an example of one saved by faith apart from works (Romans 4:1-5:2).

For example, James warns of condemnation for those who don't keep their word, needing to make oaths to try and give extra support to their words. Paul, in Romans, makes it clear that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

James 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear - not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned. (NIV)

Romans 8:1-2 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (NIV)

Contradiction? Certainly not! God had made an unbreakable promise that He will never condemn his own. This leaves two possibilities with James, the first that he is focused on non-believers who, of course, appeal to oaths and other affirmation to try and prop up their broken words. Yet, James addresses them as brothers, something that is usually in regards to those of the faith. This makes the second the most likely possibility. Can a believer be condemned? Certainly, but not by God! If you are a person who has to resort to making oaths to try and have your word accepted, it's most likely that those around you know you to be untruthful (based on previous actions). Who would condemn you? Those who have been wronged by your words failing to match your actions. Are you a believer that is condemned by those around you? Start letting your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, work to be consistent with it, and they will change their minds.

3. We don't lightly make plans, but prayerfully seek God's will into whether to say "yes" or "no".

2 Corinthians 1:16-17 I planned to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. 17 When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, "Yes, yes" and "No, no"? (NIV)

4. When a believer does wrong you through their lies, learning how to deal with it is part of the process. Personally, I have struggled with what to do. Confront or not confront? Lawsuit? Just ignore it, and absorb the loss? In the end, applying a few Biblical principles, I have found the following to be optimal.

    #1. Talk to them about it and give them an opportunity to make it right. The Bible clearly tells us to speak the truth in love, which is a good principle for spiritual things and everyday life.

    Ephesians 4:15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (NIV)

    #2. Try and get the other party to agree to arbitration by a fellow believer, with a hope that they will see their wrong and make it right. Be willing to be wronged, knowing that it may cost you something. Taking a believer to court, even one clearly in the wrong, ends up airing dirty laundry before the whole world. Which is more important, correcting my temporary discomfort or the cause of Christ?

    1 Corinthians 6:5-7 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother goes to law against another - and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (NIV)

    Matthew 5:39-42 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (NIV)

Does it work? I have seen solution #1 work all by itself. After progressing to #2, I've seen it work and seen it fail - in regards to the other party even being willing to consider arbitration. But, in fact, #2 still worked. Though I was still wronged, and it cost me, I did so with integrity and a goal of being a Christian example. Only God knows how that will help, but that's enough!

Do I still struggle? Certainly. I find it all too easy to skip step #1 and half of step #2, allowing myself to be silently wronged. The problem with this is it that it is not helping believers to learn and the church to become better. Lord, give me the strength to do what is right!

5. This individual, who had been struggling with his faith for many years, also was using these examples to characterize the entirety of the church. While he reluctantly admits that not every believer he has met is that way, he does believe it's a majority. And "isn't the church supposed to be different?" While, in truth, it's a copout to judge what Scriptures says by the lives of those who fail to follow it, to one degree you can understand it. The lives of believers, for better or for worse, are the greatest billboard Christianity has. What's on your sign?

Article by Brent MacDonald, Lion Tracks Ministries (c) 2007