I was always taught growing up that promises were big deals and that if you made one, you were expected to follow through. Outside of promises, however, I’ve found words to be cheap. Unless a person promises me they’ll be at something, it seems that I never know what exactly to expect until the day of or close to it. I’ve had people leave me hanging on some pretty important events, not just once, but over and over again. Because of that, there are actually friendships in my life that I have maintained throughout the years by coming to the conclusion that while I love these people, I should never expect them to be able to follow through on anything they commit to. Had I not reached that understanding, I very well could have lost these good friendships long ago.
A lot of pastors and nonprofit leaders have to do their entire job with this perspective. For these kind of organizations to work, you need people to volunteer—and volunteers can be hard to guarantee until the day of sometimes. Sign-up lists don’t always correspond to turnout rates and occasionally ministries are run by someone who was asked to take over right before service started.
On top of that, I’ve also learned that passion doesn’t equal commitment. How many people joined our churches because we value mission projects, but never attend the mission projects and keep on asking us what we’re doing to reach the community? How many times have I had people walk up to me and ask if they can start a new ministry just to have them never return to our church again?
And you want to know what’s really weird? Anytime a new person comes up to me and raves about how our church is most definitely their new home and that they are committed to us for the foreseeable future, I know they’ll never come back. If they do, they’ll stick around for about 1-3 weeks max. The more passionately a new person commits to our church, the more certain I am that they wont be around long. Very rarely is this assumption wrong.
It’s the exact same with people who lump special words onto their promises in attempts to get us to believe that this time, they’re going to follow through with what they said. The more extravagant the promise, the more likely they won’t fulfill it. There are all kinds of special add-ons: I swear to God; I swear on a stack of Holy Bibles; I swear on my grandmother’s grave; I swear by the moon and the stars in the skies; I swear by my pretty floral bonnet; and so on.
It may be different for you, but faithfulness is a sliding scale for me in which every person moves around. I know who I can trust and who I can’t. I know who needs to promise me something in order to follow through and I know who can just tell me they’re going to do something and they’ll do it. And I know that my life is on the same sliding scale with everyone else because I’m the same way.
The sliding scale of faithfulness is cultural and because of this, Jesus’ words on the topic are incredibly startling. While we’ve all come to expect to not know what to expect from each other, Jesus tells us that Kingdom people are to be people who don’t make extravagant promises, but simply follow through with their commitments.
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. (Mt 5:33-37)
James will go on to reiterate Jesus’ teaching, saying, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (Jam 5:12).
Apparently, if you want to avoid the condemnation that comes with failed promises (Deut 23:21-23; Lev 19:12) and you don’t want to participate in evil, you must avoid oaths. But that’s not to say that you don’t have to commit to others at all. Quite the contrary actually. If anything, Jesus is proposing something more radical than making extravagant oaths here. “The conclusion of the matter is that it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth,” says Leon Morris. “Their word should always be so reliable that nothing more than a statement is needed from them.”
Be a person of truth, integrity, and faithfulness. If you agree to something, do it. Be known as someone who will follow through on your “yes.” This is the desire of Jesus. He doesn’t want his people to have different degrees of commitment, but simply be committed. We are to be so faithful that saying yes to something is a guarantee.
For all of the people in our lives who don’t follow through on their word or commitment, there’s always that one who you can rely on. You know that if you call them, they’ll pick up. You know that if they say they’ll be there, they’ll be there. That is the kind of faithfulness that Jesus wants to see in us. If you have a friend like that, they are your example of the fruit of faithfulness and they are to be your role model.
And if you don’t have a person like that in your life, then turn to God who is faithful to us in all things. For “the word of the Lord proves true” (Ps 18:30); and “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Josh 21:45).
So if we are to be like God, then we too must follow through on our commitment to others.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.