A friend of mine will not make a promise or a pledge–no matter how small it may be. They say it is because Jesus forbade oath-taking. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything else comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:37.
I think that they are mistaken. Jesus was, instead, condemning the fast-and-loose, conniving way that people of his day made vows. Vows that are similar to the schoolyard vow made with fingers crossed behind one’s back, thus secretly nullifying the promise.
Jesus was not condemning the act of binding oneself to another person. Nor did my friend absolutely condemn making vows. They did it with their spouse when they married and promised to “love, honor, and cherish until death breaks the covenant.” If Jesus condemned all vows, then marriage covenants would be wrong.
You could also argue that making an appointment, planning a trip with others, and partnering in hosting a party or some other event are forms of vows. The word “vow” or “promise” may have not been used but both parties involved assume that a commitment has been made. In my book, that is a vow.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that, “the man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place.” There is a loveliness to a vow so taken, and it implies certain winsome truths:
- The first is that the person making the vow is open to pledging a future time to his/her friend.
- The second is that the person making the vow is assigning importance to the recipient of the vow. “You can depend on me.” Or “I want to spend time with you.”
- The third is that the person making the vow is willing to sacrifice whatever opportunity may come up in conflict with the vowed time. The only exceptions to sacrifice would be an illness, a higher obligation like caring for one’s child, marital commitment, or some inescapable situation such as a crisis at work. You get the idea.
- Making a vow or promise to another person is an expression of love. Chesterton, again, said, “It is the nature of love to bind itself…” Promises are easy to make to someone you care about. You want to do a good deed for them or enjoy their conversation.
There is also another side to vow-making, and that is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “yes, yes or no, no.” Some people don’t take the vows they make seriously because it doesn’t serve their purposes to keep the vow – not convenient, no profitable return, or sense of commitment to the relationship. These people only make the lightest sort of vows that can be easily abandoned.
One of the most powerful passages in the Bible on the subject of vows is found in Psalm 15 which reads like this: “Who may abide in [God’s] tent? Those who walk blamelessly and do what is right, and who keep their pledges even if it is inconvenient to do so.”
By way of postscript: I would say that I do agree with my friend’s serious take on promise keeping. We live in a world that completely ignores the consequences of telling another person that you WILL do something, be it come to their party, or help with a task, or be present at an event. God certainly takes such matters seriously – “yes is yes and no is no.”
There are also the human consequences of an unkept oath: disappointment, loss of trust, and the loss of your voice. I’d say that making a promise, however, it is conveyed, is permissible as long as the gravity of the promise is respected. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” The words are not as important as your intention and commitment.