Why does it matter that you write well? Dr. Chuck Lawless addressed this question at the keynote address of Southeastern’s From Thought to Page: An Event for Scholars and Bloggers writing conference. (Read a recap of the event.)
Click above to listen to the audio, or read a transcript below (edited for length and clarity):
I do think it’s really important that we think about how we do what we do when we communicate. And so what I want to do is just spend some time this morning just laying that groundwork. Why does it matter that we write? Not just write, but communicate with the understanding that what we do, we do for the glory of God. So if you have your Bible, let me take you to a couple of places that I want us to think about as we consider this topic this morning.
I want to go first to 1 Corinthians 10:31. You likely are familiar with this text because we run to this text anytime we want to think about this kind of topic, that what we do, we need to do for the glory of God. So I take us back there to hear it again. Here’s what Paul says,
So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
So there’s a simple statement for all of us, that whatever we’re doing… we have to do for the glory of God.
I suspect though, that we know that terminology without thinking about how to make application of those ideas in our own lives. I’m not convinced that we really stop and think about, “Alright, I’m doing this today, I need to do this for the glory of God. I’m doing this today, I need to do this for the glory of God.” And I’m not convinced that when we think about what we’re writing and what we’re speaking and how we’re speaking and how we’re writing, I’m not convinced that we stop and think about, “Have I done this for the glory of God?”
In fact, for many of us, and I’m as guilty as anybody is of this, many of us write and write up against deadlines. Even in preparing to speak, we prepare up against deadlines, and sometimes we so write up against the deadline, that all we’re really concerned about is getting something done. We’re not really as concerned about whether or not this is done for the glory of God. We just want to make sure we get it done for the professor, or for the publisher, or for the editor. We just need to get something done.…
[My professor in seminary] challenged us that as we did our work, and as we prepared our sermons, as we wrote our essays and wrote our research papers and ultimately our dissertations, he challenged us to come to the place where we would do our work in such a way that before we ever handed any assignment to a professor, we could say with integrity in prayer, “Lord, I give this to you because I’ve done this for you first. And Lord, I give this to you for your glory.” And I’ll tell you when you think about that, it gives you pause in how you prepare your work and it forces you to back off the deadlines to say, “Alright if I really want to do this for the glory of God, then I do have to figure out how do I set aside adequate time to do so? How do I make sure I set aside time to review and to review and to review? And how do I come to the place where I can say with integrity and prayer, ‘God, this is the best I have and I hand it to you for your glory’?”
I lay that challenge out to you not to say that I always get there. I still struggle with the deadlines. I still struggle when publishers have given me a deadline and I’m fighting up against that. But I’ve never forgotten that as you can see. Can I come to the place to say, “Lord, whatever I’m doing, I’m doing today for your glory”? And so at least think about that. Let 1 Corinthians 10:31 settle in a little bit today to force you to ask, “Have I done what I’ve done for the glory of God?” Now that’s a basic reason, a simple reason, for why I would argue we need to write for the glory of God, or communicate for the glory of God. But out of that I want to move more specifically into why we need to do this.
God makes himself known to us through his word. And we make him known through our words.
1. God makes himself known to us through his word. And we make him known through our words.
Turn in your Bibles to Genesis 1. Go back to the story of creation. I want to show you just some repetitive texts in this chapter. I want you to think about how often you might see this kind of text in the Scriptures. Look with me at chapter 1. Let’s begin in verse 1 to set the context.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.
Look at verse 6, same chapter.
And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters. And let it separate the waters from the waters.’
Look at verse 9.
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear.’
And we could go on and on. Verse 11:
And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed and fruit trees bearing fruit, in which is their seed, each according to its kind on the earth.’ And it was so.
And God said…
You can see this over and over and over again. In fact, one of the things I do in my quiet time each year is I watch for particular themes or ideas or concepts, and every time I find a particular concept in the Scriptures, I highlight it in a different color so at the end of the year I’ve got a resource that helps me to see a theme just run through the Scriptures. Well, one year I spent my time watching for texts like this: “And God said,” “And the word of the Lord came to” Jeremiah or Isaiah or to whomever, “And God said.” You just listen for how many times the Bible says this and you will find this all over the Scriptures.
Here’s why that so grabs my attention: I’ve been in places around the world, and some of you have as well, where people are worshipping gods who have mouths and they cannot speak. Some of you have been in places where you can see the gods sitting on the shelf and you listen to people who speak to them and worship them and honor them and bow before them, and these are gods who don’t exist. And these are gods who can’t communicate and don’t communicate, and people are giving their lives for them.
This is not our God. Our God communicates to us. Our God has revealed himself to us. Our God has graciously made himself known to us. And then I think about the simple reality that you and I have today in our hands, whether electronically or in hard copy form, we have the entirety of the word of God from Genesis to Revelation in our language in our laps. Again, some of you have been in places like this where there is but a section of the Scripture in the language of the people. Or maybe there is only one copy of the Scripture in the language of the people. I’ve been in places where I’ve watched people pass their single copy of the Scriptures from person to person to person because they can’t believe they have this copy of the word of God. I’ve been in places where people ride their bikes for hours, sometimes for days, to get to a place where they can hear the word of God spoken, because they don’t have such a privilege that you and I have.
So I think about all that God has given to us to make himself known to us, particularly in our language as North Americans, and then I think about this is God’s plan. It is God’s plan that you and I would turn around then and communicate his word both in spoken form and in written form to people who need to know about Jesus. Our God makes himself known to us through his word and then he gives us the responsibility of communicating his word to others.…
So think about this. We have so many opportunities to communicate what God has communicated to us. We get to speak it, we get to write it, we get to live it, and what is at stake as we do this, is of eternal significance. And I do want us to think about that, that something you write, or something you speak, God may choose to use it to grab the heart of a non-believer and turn the heart to that non-believer to the gospel, who then might himself become a believer. Who knows what God might do?…
That says to me that how we do what we do really does matter. And as you think about writing your blogs, as you think about writing your essays, as you think about writing research papers, as you think about writing dissertations, as you think about writing books, whatever you’re writing, learning to communicate well in whatever you do will influence how you communicate the gospel. And so for that very reason, God makes himself known to us through his word; we make his word known through our words as well. We must do this well.
It is our responsibility to communicate the gospel clearly in everything that we do.
2. The message reigns supreme.
Always it does. But how we speak and write that message matters. The message reigns supreme. So I want you to hear that. The content, particularly as we think about the gospel, that’s really my focus here. As we think about communicating the gospel, the message obviously reigns supreme. We have to get that content out there. But how we speak and write it matters. And this in many ways a missiological issue.
I want you to think about context. I want you to think about our context. I want you to think about perhaps serving in the Research Triangle, serving in this area of our country. You know what? We live in one of the most educated regions of our country. PhDs everywhere, and I don’t mean just on this campus. They’re everywhere, in disciplines that I’ve never even heard of sometimes. Highly, highly educated people that we’re trying to reach with the gospel while we’re here. For this season of life, God has placed us here to reach people in this region.
So if they’re in the place where they’re listening to us and they’re hearing us and they’re reading our stuff, what does it say when we speak to them with sentences with improper subject-verb agreement? It does say something. What does it say when our sentences include pronouns and antecedents that don’t agree and they don’t even know what we’re saying because of that? Or what they think we said is not what we intended because the pronouns and the antecedents are confusing? What does it say when we stand before people or we write, most often we speak this way, but when we say something like, “Me and my wife did this, this weekend”? And we say that so many times over and over and over again, that some of the folks who listen to us want to come out of their seat and strangle us. And if you don’t think it happens, it happens all the time, and sometimes it happens so naturally, even out of our own mouths, that we don’t even catch it.…
In a highly educated culture, I’m telling you, somebody hears that and will write off some of what you say because of the way you speak. And it seems to me the gospel means more than that. What does it say when we produce church newsletters that clearly didn’t even go through a spell check, much less a grammar check? Not only do we do it wrongly, but we publish it. And it’s clear that nobody even took the time to take a look at it. What does it say when we send a résumé that is so poorly prepared that it gets thrown in the garbage before anybody gives you any attention? And my point is this, all of this, it seems to me, says that what we’re doing doesn’t matter that much. That we apparently can do what we do in the proclamation of the gospel, in the writing of the gospel, apparently we can do all that we do and not worry so much about whether or not it communicates well.
And I get it, you can say to me, “Dr. Lawless, you know what, if a lost person stumbles over the gospel because he doesn’t like my poor grammar, well that’s his problem more than it is mine.” I get it if you want to say that to me. But you know what? It has never been the responsibility of the lost person to figure out what we’re saying. It never has been and it never will be. It is our responsibility to communicate the gospel clearly in everything that we do because how we communicate this word really does matter.
So again I say to you, even as we push you, as we get out our red pens or however we grade, as we get out our red pens and we raise questions about why did you say it this way, and this doesn’t work, and this subject and verb don’t agree, and it feels like we’re getting nitpicky, this matters because how we proclaim anything we proclaim affects how we proclaim the gospel.
Our responsibility is not to impress; it is to communicate.
3. Our responsibility is not to impress; it is to communicate.
I think somewhere we have picked up some assumptions that aren’t always valid, and I think we’re notorious for this on a seminary campus. That is, we’ve picked up the assumption that complexity equals better; that the more complex our writing is, the more complex our speaking is, the better it must be; and we have somewhere picked up the assumption that longer equals stronger, that the more words you used, the better it must be.
And so here’s what we do: We write stuff that sounds really good to us, and then we read through it and we think, man, that’s good, and we’re ready to give it to whomever. We speak messages that we’re pretty sure rival the best that anyone has ever heard, because we worked at it, we’ve struggled through it, we’ve practiced it. And we lay it out there now and it might well be that people around us who read our stuff and listen to our speaking, they would say, “That was really good.” And we take the pat on the back and our ego gets stroked a little bit and we’re ready to write again and we’re ready to speak again because clearly God’s using us for his glory.
But then you know what? Sometimes if we could push into the hearts of those who read our stuff, and we could get honest responses from those who listen to us, those same people who said, “that’s really good, that’s really well done,” and we really push at them to say, “Alright, I’m glad you thought that was really well done. Tell me what he said; tell me what she meant.” I suspect, in fact I’m certain of this, there are those who would say, “I don’t have a clue, but it still was really good.” And the assumption is we evaluate the value of what we’ve read and what we’ve heard sometimes on how good it sounds, not on whether or not we learned anything from it.…
Our job is not to impress; our job is to communicate. We for some reason wear a badge of honor if only a few people can understand what we write or say. And some of that’s the nature of the seminary, but what I’m saying to you is that’s wrong. We are not called to impress; we are called to communicate. The best writing in my estimation is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and it is often reducing and reducing and reducing and reducing. The best speaking is often reduced and reduced and reduced in such a way that if you’re communicating the gospel, any kind of setting, if the five-year-old little child can’t understand what you said, it’s quite likely the fifty-year-old person can’t understand it either. And our job is to figure out how do we come back to the basic? And it comes back to, in my estimation it comes back to even the use of single words.
When I work with my PhD students, I drive them crazy to be honest, because I push back at every single word, because every single word matters. Every single word says something. And if you don’t think about the single words, you won’t think about the sentences. And if you don’t think about the sentences, you won’t think about the paragraph. And if you don’t think about the paragraph, you won’t think about the essay, and you will communicate something that doesn’t do anything. So we have to bring this back to say, my job is not to impress; it is to communicate. For those of who speak, for whatever reason we’ve decided if we speak longer, it must be better. What I say to my students is this: Look, if you can’t communicate it in thirty minutes, you can’t communicate it in sixty. Because all you’ll do is you’ll bore people for double the time. If you really can’t bring it back and do it well in thirty, I promise you you’re not going to do it any better in sixty. Our job, it is not to impress people; it is to communicate the gospel.
4. We must communicate well for the sake of the nations.
There are many parts of the world today where we desperately need to get missionaries and we cannot send people on a religious workers visa. Even in some places where we used to be able to do so, it’s getting increasingly difficult. So we just can’t get you there. But in many of these places we can get you there as an English teacher. We can get you there on a visa that will allow you to teach English because all over the world our language is still the language of communication. Today, right now, I could line you up and send you to a place if you go there to teach English, and out of teaching English, you work to get the gospel into the story.
But you know what? Just because we speak English as our mother tongue doesn’t mean necessarily that we are the best ones to go teach the language. And here’s the reason: We don’t even know our own language well enough to teach it. And some of you have learned this; some of you have learned this primarily in learning your Greek and Hebrew. Some of you have struggled in learning another language because you don’t understand our own language, and so some of the parts of speech and so forth that we talk about in another language, we don’t know what that means because we don’t know what it means in our own language. For whatever reason, we’ve come this far and we don’t even always know our own language well.
I have turned down people who are very committed to go to the nations, who want to go teach English, because it seems to me their own English is so poor that I’m not sure I want them to be the teacher. So they don’t recognize the difference between things like this. Just listen closely between this sentence: “God saved me when I was ten years old” or “At the age of ten, God saved me.” The latter not only has grammatical problems, but it is theologically heretical. Is it not? And so how we say what we say really does matter.
As we think about getting the gospel to the nations, and the door is wide open to get the gospel to the nations through the teaching of English, we can’t assume that we are qualified to go do that just because the only language we know is English. If we know our language poorly, we’re not best equipped to go teach it either. So it just seems to me that because that door is so wide open, because we can send you anywhere, we ought to long to know our own language well and learn to communicate it well so that we can walk through those open doors and make sure that what we’re teaching in the simplicity of sentences, we’re teaching not only our language well, but we’re teaching the gospel well.
This matters particularly when we work with translators. You know this. We cannot impress with complexity if we’re going to communicate through translators. Some of you’ve been in settings, I’ve been in settings, where an English-speaking person is speaking, a translator’s trying to bring that same message to people in another tongue, and I’m sitting there listening to the guy speaking English and I don’t have a clue what he just said, and then the translator’s trying to figure it out. We think we’re communicating well, and it’s going nowhere because we haven’t learned the beauty of the simplicity of our language. We have to learn to communicate well for the sake of the nations.
5. Knowing how to communicate well requires us to consider our speech in general.
We must communicate, not impress, communicate. We must communicate clearly. We must learn to communicate concisely. And we must communicate, and hear my adverb, we must communicate Christianly.
Here’s my point. The Bible says a whole lot about our tongue, yes? The Bible says a lot about how we speak. Paul says in Ephesians 4 that we’re to speak only that which edifies others. Think about how our speech would change and how little we would say if indeed all we were speaking of is that which builds somebody else up. In Ephesians 5 Paul says that we’re to put away coarse jesting and filthy talk. I want us to think about the more we consider how we communicate, the more we consider the necessity of communicating well and clearly, the more we consider our responsibility to do this well for the glory of God, the more we think about the very words that we say and how we say them, the very words that we write and how we write them, the more we give consideration to these issues, the less likely it is I think that we will let our speech go in places where it ought not go.
I think we let our guard down in the way we speak and even in the way we write, the things we tweet, because we don’t give nearly enough attention to the tongue. It just seems to me that if we learn how to communicate well for the glory of God, it will require us to consider our speech in general.