When We Don’t Know What to Say

More than anything else, I can sum up 2020 with this: I don’t know what to say.

I didn’t know what to say when coronavirus grew from “nothing to worry about” to a travel ban that put me on a plane home from the UK in a matter of three days. I didn’t know what to say when I came back to a stay-at-home order and online classes and all my sisters at home again. And I sure don’t know what to say about the injustice of racism and police brutality and a fellow image-bearer murdered on camera. I mean, what do you say? I’m sorry doesn’t quite cut it.

I have been honest about not having words before, and that feeling has only intensified over the last month. To be perfectly honest, though, when I say that I don’t know what to say, I don’t mean that I’m not journaling or praying or writing. I mean I don’t have words that I think are worth publishing. They’re too bumbling or too honest. They might offend someone. They’re not polished—so I hold them close to my chest and call it “processing” when really I am afraid to be wrong.

Some of the objections I have raised to speaking feel valid. My skin is white. I cannot pretend to understand what the black community is going through and has gone through for years and years and years. And it’s true: Other voices do need to be heard more than mine. If you have only five minutes to read something today, go read this piece by Shai Linne instead of finishing my blog post.

Still, the fact that other voices need to be heard more than mine does not mean that I ought not to speak at all. That’s a lie masquerading as humility. A chorus isn’t made up of the great singers or the showstoppers. A chorus is everyone who stepped up and said, “I want to use my voice here.”

I am joining the chorus.

I will be the first—though certainly not proudly—to admit that I don’t know the first place to start. I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to wake up to this. I am not guilty because of the color of my skin, but I am guilty of letting tragedy roll off my back as soon as the news cycle changes. All I can say is that I have carried it to the throne of Jesus, and I am deeply, deeply sorry.

It is time to speak, as scary as that is. Honestly, it feels like wading into a murky swamp with a big sign warning “Beware of Alligators.” But it is time to speak. And when you and I speak—at the dinner table, to our friends, on our own platforms—we must measure our words against the word of God.

The Bible is clear that every human being is made in the image of God, and every human being has worth because they are created by God. God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), and He calls His people to do justice (Micah 6:8, Isaiah 1:17). Racism is unjust. Murder is unjust. Abusing power is unjust. We have seen all three. We must call them what they are and speak out against them.

When we do so, the Bible is clear that we must give thought to our words: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6 ESV). At the same time, though, the Bible is also clear that it is the word of God, not our own words, that does the eternal work in the hearts of man: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV). It is not up to us to wield words (or Instagram captions!) in just the right way to convince our neighbor. It is up to God, whose words never return to Him empty (Isaiah 55:11).

This frees us to speak without tying our words into a neat little bow. N. T. Wright wrote this wonderful article about lament a few months ago, back when crises came one at a time and the coronavirus was approaching its zenith. The Bible offers neither public health policy prescriptions nor explanations for why COVID-19 hit the world, he writes, but it does offer a pattern for response: it shows us how to lament.

We don’t need to look much farther than the book of Lamentations to see that pattern. Its author, Jeremiah, paints graphic images of cannibalism and thirst and violent conquest, the dying throes of a desperate people. And he doesn’t tie their suffering up in a nice, neat bow. He doesn’t end the book with “God has a plan” (though this would be true). Instead, Jeremiah puts hope smack in the middle of the book. He takes a break from a litany of oppression to cry out this most incongruous of truths: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV).

Jeremiah’s people are dying in the streets. Yet somehow he still cries out to God: “your mercies are new every morning.” It is not a pretty little bow to hide the mess. It’s the hope in the middle of the mess. If Jeremiah can lament like this, then so can we. We can honestly confront horrific and immense grief and injustice without having answers—and we can lament with hope, trusting that at the cross there is both grace for sinners and the promise of judgment.

In other words, we can respond with the gospel—not “just the gospel,” but the gospel. Jasmine Holmes puts it like this in her incredible book Mother to Son:

The entire first half of Ephesians unpacks the gospel and the spiritual implications thereof, while the second half tells us what we are to do in light of that first half: walk in love (Eph. 5:2).

And that love looks like doing more than just preaching the gospel. It looks like applying the implications of that gospel to every area of our spiritual walk and relationships….even when saying ‘just preach the gospel’ is a lot more convenient than the actual application.”

Holmes, Jasmine. Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020, page 63.

So, yes, preach the gospel. Tell the world the good news! Write about how the Lord of the brokenhearted and Creator of the world put on flesh and ate with tax collectors instead of Pharisees. Talk about how Love Himself died and rose again for us who were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5-6, Romans 5:8). Weave it through your Facebook posts and your dinner conversations and your prayers. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory (John 1:14). Hallelujah!

John describes the gospel in these words: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18 ESV).

The gospel is, at its core, the good news of Love dead and risen again to take away the sins of the world. But love is not a kitschy decoration for us to frame, hang on our walls, and forget about. Love bled and died as God turned His back on His only Son, and Love defeated death and rose again. We love because He first loved us with just this kind of life-giving love, and in return, we are called to love in deed and in truth. So, yes, preach the gospel. But live it, too.

When we speak, we need to rest on Scripture. The Bible tells us that humans are image-bearers of God; that God’s Word does not return to him empty; and that we are to love in deed and in truth. When we see racism or injustice, we need to call it out, and our speech needs to be supported by our actions. When those of us who are not black have the chance to walk alongside and encourage our black friends and family—a chance we have every day—we need to walk in love, which means we need to be willing to lay down our lives, not just talk about it. We do not need to have the perfect words to speak Biblical truth to a hurting world, but all we say and do should point back to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

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