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Ideas Unfold Themselves Over the Lips and Through the Fingertips

“Ideas unfold themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.” [1]

I first heard this quote from a trusted seminary professor, and I frequently share it in conversations, counseling sessions, or classes I teach. What makes it so helpful?

I hesitated for years to start a blog. Part of the hesitation was embarrassment about being 10-15 years late on the trend (TikTok anyone?). Secondly, I assumed no one would read the blog. As it turns out, both are partly true but neither matters. [2]

David Brooks has said he hopes to “write my way to a better person.” [3] I have found that to be true personally and pastorally.

- How can we bring clarity to ideas that are fuzzy or tangled?

- How can we develop thoughts, explore new concepts, or test theories?

-How can we become a better person by getting ideas out of our head and into the open air?

Speaking aloud or writing (typing including, but there's something special about pen-to-paper) forces us to pursue clarity that’s hard to achieve when ideas are floating around or somersaulting between the ears.

4 Areas in Which We Need to Unfold Ideas

1. In the Academic World

In the academic world, writing projects and oral presentations are more than busy work. Writing does what no objective test ever could, forcing the student to articulate ideas and shape arguments.

The first few minutes of a presentation will betray vaguely-conceived ideas. Not enough fluff in the world exists to cover fuzzy thinking and weak arguments.

Whether through articles, conference papers, or class lectures, professors and researches need to express their ideas in clear, compelling ways. Rarely -- if ever -- does this clarity appear in the first draft of a paper or the first presentation of a lecture. Multiple attempts and edits are usually necessary to express clearly what the author intended to convey. The secret is choosing to begin the project, make edits, and allow the project to unfold with time and testing.

2. In the Church World

Sermon preparation advice usually involves some combination of the following:

  • Think yourself empty

  • Read yourself full

  • Write yourself clear

  • Pray yourself hot [4]

Why is it important to write yourself clear as a preacher?

“A mist in the pulpit will be a fog in the pews.” [5]

Too often, I have hoped (wrongly) that a slightly fuzzy idea in my head would work itself out while preaching. And it’s true, the thought does work itself out, just in a stumbling jumble of words as I stand on stage grasping for God’s words in the moment.

3. In Pastoral and Professional Counseling

Part of counseling and therapy is helping another person unfold thoughts and feelings. Having the chance to speak aloud our fears, anxieties, and past experiences can bring a measure of clarity and healing.

4. In Family and Friend Conversation

Which brings us to some practical ways to unfold ideas...

5 Ways to Practice Unfolding Ideas

1. Bounce Ideas off Good Friends or a Small Group

Personal conversation and group interaction are rare skills in our culture. [6] We need safe spaces to express and debate ideas.

*You don't have to be a professor or pastor to do this. Many businesses, hobbies, and adventures have started because someone had a friend willing to listen while a new idea unfolded itself over lunch or coffee.

For students, refuse to sit silently in a classroom (assuming the class allows student comments). Ask questions; share ideas; receive feedback. As a student, I said many dumb, incorrect things in class. I’m just glad I said them there and not elsewhere.

For church members, refuse to sit silently in your small group or Sunday School class. Most groups I have led involve loud chatter before and after the meeting, but crickets as soon as the “lesson” begins. We need to unfold ideas about how to interpret and apply Scripture.

2. Volunteer (or be Voluntold) to Teach

  • “You won’t really know if you know something until you try to teach it.” [7]

  • “For though by this time you ought to be teachers…” (Hebrews 5:12a)

  • "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." (James 3:1)

A sort of tension exists between Hebrews 5:12 and James 3:1. Certainly, those in the position of a formal teacher should feel a weight of responsibility. Hebrews 5, though, suggests an informal teaching, possibly akin to what we find in the Great Commission ("teach them to obey all that I have commanded").

To make disciples we need to express ideas clearly. In my head, I might have a general idea of what it means to be a Christian or what a particular Bible verse means, but am I able share that with others?

*Part of growing in Christian maturity is being able to teach others. And the only way to learn to do this is by practicing.

3. Write in a Journal (It’s Not a Diary!) [8]

I respect those who journal everyday. That’s not me.

For me, writing in a journal is a way to untangle ideas, worries, and problems that swim around in my head.

Forcing myself to write what I’m feeling and thinking not only clarifies the issues at hand but also diffuses anxiety. Plus, writing is a wonderful way to unfold things God might be teaching you through a crisis in your life or in the world.

4. Write Letters to Friends or Family (Bring Back the Pen Pals!)

I was talking to a church member recently who corresponds, pen-pal style, with his grandkids. This allows him to share his life and faith with him, but also allows them to learn how to express their own ideas as they correspond long-distance with their grandfather.

Another church member recently wrote a short history of his life for his children. In the process of putting the dates and details on paper, he said he was amazed to recount the moments of God’s faithfulness.

The history of academia is full of scholars who developed revolutionary ideas and deep friendships through correspondence, both professional and personal.

To practice unfolding ideas consider writing letters to your family members or friends. Choose a topic, start writing, then hit send (or, better yet, hand write the letter and put it in the mail).

5. Writing Your Testimony

When we celebrate baptisms as Emmaus, a family member or friend reads the testimony of the person being baptized. We are careful not to expect theological precision or churchy language in these testimonies. The required beliefs for baptism are pretty simple. (Romans 10:9 is our focus.)

*However, as a church leader helps the new Christian write out his or her testimony, discipleship is beginning and the building blocks for evangelism are put in place.

What if I don’t write or speak well?

1. Informal Speaking and Writing

“Over the lips” doesn’t have to be in front of a crowd, and “through the fingertips” doesn’t need to be published or even publicized.

Much clarity can come through the imperfect conversation of good friends or the broken writing of email or texting.

The only requirement is refusing to keep the ideas to yourself or in your head.

2. Express Yourself in Other Ways

Those who feel uncomfortable speaking or writing are often great at:

  • art

  • music

  • craftsmanship

  • problem solving.

Pastors and teachers can have an extreme prejudice toward the written and spoken word. In the process, we sometimes miss the unique clarity and expression possible through other media.

3. Help Others Become Better at Speaking or Writing

Some of the best coaches are not great athletes. If you feel uncertain with your own speaking or writing, perhaps you can help others achieve clarity.

  • Offer to be a sounding board or proofreader for a friend or colleague.

  • Display the humility and engagement that would allow you to (kindly) provide feedback on your pastor's sermons.

In fact, attempting to help others gain clarity might prompt your own development of ideas.

The One Necessary Ingredient to Unfold Ideas

Humbly Craving Feedback

Part of allowing ideas to slip over your lips and ooze through your fingertips is craving the feedback needed to clarify and refine these ideas.

Don’t write for perfection and don’t speak for praise. Aim for a higher goal -- transformation! The transformation both of yourself and those who read or hear you.

Don’t keep inside you what God wants to use for something more.


[1] I’m not sure where the quote originated, but I learned it from a respected seminary professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

[2] Several people have been kind enough to subscribe to this blog. Join them by using the "sign-up form" on the right side of the page.

[3] The quote comes from Lisa Miller's April 2019 interview with David Brooks for New York Magazine. I first heard this quote from John Mark Comer when he was a guest on Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast.

[4] I’ve seen this quote -- or something like it -- attributed to multiple authors, most recently Alistair Begg and H.B. Charles, Jr. I am not a full manuscript preacher, but certainly see the value of this process. To achieve the benefits of manuscript preaching, I force myself to write out sections that seem particularly fuzzy in my head. Plus, I usually try to speak aloud certain sections, if not the entire sermon.

[5] I have no idea where this quote originated, but I heard it in class at NOBTS.

[6] Admittedly, this sounds like I’m falling into the “get off my lawn” camp. I don’t mean to seem as though everything in the past was perfect. However, it does seem seem as though interpersonal interaction is a dying skill.

[7] This great advice came from Dr. Bill Warren, an NOBTS seminary professor who gave us multiple opportunities during PhD courses to test his theory.

[8] Extra points if you catch the reference to the opening lines of the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.

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