Talk Less, Smile More

How to Share the Bible with Unbelievers

“Talk less. Smile more.”

That piece of advice, from the smash-hit musical Hamilton, is given by the politically astute Aaron Burr to the overly verbose Alexander Hamilton. Spoiler alert: That relationship doesn’t turn out so well.

But that line has been running through my head lately, as I’ve been thinking about how to communicate the truth and value of the Bible to those who don’t believe it.

We like words, don’t we? We are preachers, teachers, encouragers, poets. Language is our stock in trade. We assume that the right words will convince, convict, and convert. And sometimes that happens.

If you have a God-given gift for language, use it. That’s the force of the New Testament’s spiritual gifts passages, right? “If we can teach, we should teach” (Romans 12:7b CEV). Preachers preach. Writers write. Evangelists share the good news of Jesus. Perhaps you’ve seen lives changed through your ministry of words. That’s an awesome thing—no, actually, awe-some, something that fills us with a sense of awe as we see God working through us, flawed as we are.

Pass the salt

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

You probably have a good illustration for that “seasoned with salt” phrase. Maybe it’s a first-century version of “Talk less; smile more.”

And that’s not the only place we get this sort of instruction. We might paraphrase James 1:19 to say, “Talk less; listen more.” And Peter seconds Paul’s motion about knowing “how to answer everyone,” urging us to “be ready” with gentle and respectful responses (1 Peter 3:15).

While we know the ministry of preaching was crucial in the developing church, there was also a lot of buzz about grace-filled conversations.

A recent article in Christianity Today explores the power of listening, and it cites several studies in which people showed openness to changing their political or social positions after being listened to. The article quotes Penn professor Diana Mutz: “People who try to persuade us can feel quite threatening. The gentler people can be with one another, the more persuasive they’re going to be.” (Christine Herman, “A Lesson in Listening,” Christianity Today, June 2017)

This makes me wonder: As we share the truth of the Bible with unbelievers, would it be better if we ask people what they already think rather than telling them what they should?

Let’s be reasonable

Have you ever done a word study in Philippians 4:5? In a chapter full of memory verses, it’s a gem that often gets overlooked. Rejoice. Don’t be anxious. Think on these things. I can do all things through Christ. But verse 5 fails to make that all-star team, possibly because it contains a strange word, one that seems to baffle translators.

  • Let your moderation be known unto all men. (King James Version)
  • Show a gentle attitude toward everyone. (Good News Translation)
  • Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. (New Living Translation)
  • Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. (English Standard Version)

The Greek word rendered in these different ways is epieikes. In the Word Biblical Commentary, Gerald F. Hawthorne calls this “one of the truly great Greek words that is almost untranslatable.”

In fact, four centuries before Paul was writing to the Philippians, Aristotle spent several paragraphs discussing what this word meant. In a major work on ethics, the Greek philosopher focused on the difference between justice and epieikes. Justice was obviously good, generally regarded as the bedrock of a healthy society. But this other quality was even more valuable. It involved a commitment to justice, but within the realm of common sense. A person with epieikes might bend the rules to accomplish a greater good. It involved a sense of fairness, a gentleness in applying standards, a willingness to understand where people were coming from.

This is the word Paul chose to describe the behavior he wanted to see in Christians. And the multiplicity of translations helps us, as if we’re turning a diamond in our hands, viewing its different facets. What does the term mean? All of the above. Yes, we should be reasonable, gentle, gracious, considerate, moderate, and so on.

All of these characteristics match up with exhortations in other Bible passages, and yet there’s an extra sensibility in this passage when we consider that Philippians might be the most “secular” of Paul’s letters. (Remember that there was no synagogue in Philippi, just a prayer meeting by the river.) We need this sensibility as we consider how to live out and communicate our faith in a world that knows little of our Scriptures.

The moderation involved in epieikes does not diminish our testimony. We’re still called to shine like stars in this corrupt world (see 2:15), but we do so with understanding and gentleness. Perhaps talking less and smiling more.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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