Three words represent keeping one’s word—promise, vow, and oath. People use these words and the formulations that go with them to make a commitment. The intent, in every case, is to assure those receiving the promise that the promise-giver will keep his or her commitment. The idea, of course, is that the more formal the promise the more certain the fulfillment.
For example, a wedding ceremony includes vows, which the bride and groom give to make a lifetime commitment to their marriage relationship. I have married anyone who intended to break those vows; if I thought they did, I would not have performed the ceremony. In pre-marriage counseling, I always discussed the significance of the vow, something I have thought should rarely be given and only made with an absolute commitment to keep. Once, such vows meant something, but I fear it is a rarity today.
In ancient times, people swore by their gods, a custom that lingers in the profane swearing that some do when
they’re trying to convince people they mean what they say. I think of that when I hear the word oath. It’s the same, really, when a child adds the words “I promise” in assuring a parent or friend. For some reason, throughout history, people have given and gained reassurance when people promised, made a vow, or gave an oath.
Matthew 5:37 records Jesus saying, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” That follows a statement of the common practice, “(Y)ou have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.” I think Jesus wants us to be honest, nothing more, nothing less.
For a believer, bearing the same of Christ, truth-telling, keeping one’s word, not making false promises, and not failing to keep promises made is absolute. The dissolution of Christian marriages is wrong at this most basic level of obedience. The commitment supersedes the question of the nature or quality of marriage, and it certainly overrules concerns about happiness. Regardless of the romantic notions of young couples, there are no perfect matches or perfect people to marry. Each bride and groom promises “to love, honor, and keep, for richer or for poorer, in sickness, and health, for better or for worse, forsaking all others, till death,” or something comparable, to another fallible, imperfect, flawed human being. Discovering the failings and shortcomings, later on, does not nullify or void the vow.
My interest here far exceeds my concerns about marital permanence. In fact, I suspect the failure of marriages among Christians is an indication of their failure, in general, to respect Jesus’ command. We don’t keep these promises because far too many of us don’t keep our word. Call a Christian a liar, and you will likely get an angry reaction, but people who don’t do what they say are liars, who merely avoid facing their own dishonesty.
I found a German proverb that says, “Promises are like the full moon, if they are not kept at once they diminish day by day.” I’m reminded of its truth when a child remembers a promise that a parent has forgotten. Bad memory is not excuse for a broken promise, especially to a child. I wonder how many have learned to make empty promises as disappointed children?
Empty promises, promise-breaking, and dishonesty are common in our culture, where Christians seem to follow rather than lead. Our forefathers knew that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would fail without citizens and leaders of character, and honesty, keeping one’s word, is the first mark of genuine integrity. I read and hear frequent analyses regarding our nation’s decline and cries of despair
regarding our future. However, our Lord intends for us to influence the culture and the world, not the other way around, as I fear is the reality.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”–Matthew 5:13-16
Many today seem to fear Christians, and I have argued that they fear a caricature of Christianity, which is
partly true. However, when Christians openly demand morality that they seem not to practice, when we act religious without the fullness of grace and mercy found in Jesus himself, and when we lie and break our promises, just like everyone else, then they have some justification in fearing rather than respecting us.
I assert without qualification the necessity of absolute truth and the rejection of relativism, but our need to restore an solid foundation will fail without a corresponding display of our personal commitment to truth. We must also convey our insistence on truth, faith, religious liberty, and other traditional values in the only way that will prove our legitimacy, not merely an assertion of truth, not even in truthfulness, but in a love like that of Christ. Otherwise, we remain religious hypocrites, not credible beacons of the light of Jesus Christ.
I won’t lie. I am troubled, a little, by the phrase, “How can it be made salty again?” I understand the hopelessness that many feel about America’s future. Is the evident “blandness” of American believers irreparable? Is our earthly future hopeless? In a sense, I have been hearing for most of my life that it is. In that view, it is only a matter of time till the Great Tribulation and the Battle of Armageddon. Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series is only the latest in a long history of spiritual gloom and doom. The approach of the Second Millennium was another, which proved to not meet its negative press. Now, a convergence of “bad news”–9/11, the war, the economy, gas prices, immigration, global warming, radical Islamic aggression,
weak, self-serving American leaders, and vocal attacks on the Christian faith—all seem to suggest that some “End is near!”
Yet, God and the gospel are full of hope. Jesus came into this world and died, and his followers faced
persecution and martyrdom, 2000 years ago. In Matthew 24:36, he said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” No one knows when this age will end, and no one knows the future of this country, regardless of the lessons of history. Our job is not to wait for the end but to work till the end, works of compassion, outreach, and provision for ourselves and our families.
The United States was settled and birthed out of terrible problems. For over 200 years, it has been a beacon of freedom, a haven for the oppressed, and a lighthouse for the gospel. It took a revolution to establish what it became, and it make take another kind of revolution to preserve or restore it. In the meantime, we Christians have “promises to keep and miles to go before (we) sleep” (adapted slightly from “Stopping by Woods on a
Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost).
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[Ironically, Joe Biden, politician with no particular reputation for honesty that I am aware, has written a booked entitled Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics]