The phrase ‘let your life speak’ is a common one among Quakers, but where does it come from and what does it really mean?
It is little known that the original form of words used by George Fox was in fact ‘let your life preach’. I think it will be interesting for us to consider how ‘speaking’ has a different connotation to ‘preaching’ in this context, and for us to reflect on what is lost and what gained by substituting one word for the other. In this blog post, Martin Layton explores the significance of this phrase.
Integrity of word and deed
Even in his earliest epistles, Fox was suggesting that Friends’ actions were as important as their words. For instance his famous exhortation from 1652,
‘…be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one’
I think here Fox is thinking of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees from Matthew 23 where he asserts that the religious leaders of the day ‘do not practice what they teach’. Interestingly, this idea of the integrity of word and deed is also echoed in the advice often misattributed to Francis of Assisi to ‘preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.’
But it is in Fox’s 1661 epistle, commonly known as ‘The line of righteousness and justice stretched forth over all merchants’ where he expresses the idea in the exact formulation we are considering here:
So let your lives preach, let your light shine, that your works may be seen, that your Father may be glorified; that your fruits may be unto holiness, and that your end may be everlasting life. . . .And that hath the dominion which doth justly, holily, and righteously speak, act, and think; and this hath the praise of God; and they who do so come to answer that which God requires, ‘to love mercy, do justly, and to walk humbly with God.’ And this is more than all the talkers of justice, righteousness, and holiness, whose life denies what their tongues profess and talk of.
In this brief extract we can see something of Fox’s theology, which can be summarised in the following way:
- It is God’s will that we live just and righteous lives
- It is the inward Light that guides us to act justly and righteously
- We are to ensure that other people can recognize the influence of the Light on our lives
- To live this way is a form of worship
- To talk of justice and righteousness but not put them into practice is an affront to God
It is significant that this epistle begins with Fox admonishing Quaker merchants, tradesmen and farmers for neglecting their meetings in favour of their business as he goes on to remind them that their conduct in their everyday affairs is an outward sign of their inner spiritual state.
For Friends, if ye be not faithful in the outward treasure, and outward mammon, who will trust you with the true treasure? Or who can believe that ye have the true treasure, but that ye speak by hearsay of it?
A public declaration
Let’s now turn to the word ‘preach’. In the passages we’ve just looked at it means something like ‘to proclaim’. In other works by Early Friends it can take on the meaning of ‘to herald’ or ‘cry aloud’. It meant making a very public declaration of their experience that ‘Christ was come to teach people Himself, by His power and Spirit in their hearts, and to bring people off from all the world’s ways and teachers’.
Many modern Friends would probably express their experiences in quite a different way, but I think there is still much in those words that might resonate with us: the inward, personal experience of the divine, the sense of being led or guided by the Spirit, and the questioning of destructive values and behaviours.
For me, preaching differs from speaking in that it involves communicating a simple message to others and doing so from a place of authority. Whilst the act of speaking can be more private, unobtrusive and tentative – a mere whisper, a muttering under the breath, an exploratory discussion – preaching on the other hand can only ever be a public declaration of a confidently held truth. I think this is a challenge to us today when so much of life seems complex and uncertain, but I also think that both preaching and speaking are equally important and both should have their place.
There are times when it’s necessary to ask ourselves if we really do live and believe the values we speak of, to consider how they are written in our hearts and to reflect on the ways we embody the Quaker message.
Witnessing to the work of the Spirit
In the book of Acts, the risen Christ tells his disciples, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Early Friends understood that it wasn’t enough to simply live good and just lives, but that before all else they must be witnesses to the workings of the Spirit. In this sense to preach with one’s life was to make a claim about the power of the Spirit and to draw others into a relationship with the source of this power. This is what is meant to be a ‘pattern’ and ‘example’. To answer that of God in someone is to prompt them to consider the values and beliefs they embody and to ask them if they need to reconsider some of the ways in which they are living. So when we preach with our lives we are preaching for action at that moment and in that place. No wonder we so often run from the weight of this responsibility!
However, it is worth remembering that words like ‘clearness’, ‘strength’ and ‘transformation’ which characterise the nature and purpose of preaching are also very deeply woven into the DNA of Quakerism.
So to summarize, when we preach with our lives
- Our everyday lives are reflecting the source of our Light
- We are confidently, clearly and publically worshipping the source of the Light
- We are drawing others to the same source, challenging them by our example