The other day in my morning devotions, I was struck by Jesus’ initial response to a request by two disciples.
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came near to him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask.’ He said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?'” (Mark 10:35-36).
James and John were not only two of the twelve apostles, they belonged to the inner circle: Peter, James, and John. And John is even known as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Since they were so very close to Jesus, it could have been natural for Jesus to simply reply, “Sure, what is it?” But He didn’t. He did not commit himself without hearing the specific request.
My mind jumped to a contrasting situation. Totally aside of the wicked people and events involved, consider this: Herod said to Herodias’ daughter, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you… up to half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:22-23).
Notice the difference. In the first case, Jesus wisely did not promise anything without hearing the specific request. In the second case, foolish Herod made an open-ended promise with no clue what the request would be.
The situations are worlds apart, but they carry a lesson about making promises. Herod got stuck between breaking his oath or cutting off John’s head! Jesus did not get stuck with anything, because He did not make an open-ended promise.
A close friend asks, “Can you help me?” Which is the best reply? “Sure, what do you want?” or “Hey, what’s up?” The first one sounds humble and loving. The second one may save you from having to eat your humble and loving words.
Is Your Word Your Bond?
No, that’s not in the Bible, but the concept is. “When you vow a vow to God, don’t defer to pay it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay that which you vow. It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:4-5). Strong words. To vow and not fulfill is to be a fool.
Now, Jesus taught us to stop making vows. For an honest person, they are superfluous. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No'” (Matt. 5:37). No vow, no oath needed. None of this “cross my heart and hope to die” stuff. You do what you say, period. You are trustworthy. You keep your promises.
Notice what Scripture says about our hope of eternal life “which God, who can’t lie, promised before time began” (Tit. 1:2). Look carefully. It is a lie to promise something and not keep one’s word. (OK, if you’re sick in bed, that’s another matter.)
James 4:15 says it is good to express “Lord permitting” and the like. But if we say it, we must mean it. Years ago, in certain places, I often had people promise me they would visit church “God willing,” and they never showed up. So, I started responding to such people: “God is willing. It’s a question of whether you are willing.” To say, “If the Lord permits,” and really mean it, is great. To say it and not mean it, is both a lie and taking God’s name in vain.
If you promise your children you are going to do something with them, you keep your word. You don’t make excuses because something more interesting popped up. A warning is really a negative promise: “If you do that one more time, I’ll…” Keep that word, or else your children will learn they can get away with stuff.
“I’ll meet you tomorrow at BJ’s at 5:30.” “I’ll pray for you.” “I’ll look into it.” “I’ll be happy to do whatever you need.” “Your wish is my command.” “I’ll pay you back in a month.” And on and on.
If your schedule is too full to do whatever, then be honest and say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got too much on my plate right now.” It is so much better to honestly say “No” than to say “Yes” and take a year to get around to it, if ever.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I forgot.” Yes, we all forget at times. To help out, use your phone calendar or whatever works for you. Not as good, but at least honest, is to ask, “Please call me to remind me.” Until you find a trustworthy way to remember your promises, it would be far better not to promise at all. Think about the disappointment and inconvenience you cause the other person.
And by all means, let’s not get caught in making open-ended promises. I doubt we will ever find ourselves in such a terrible dilemma as Herod did, but we can easily end up having to eat our “humble and loving” promises. It is far better not to promise at all than to promise and fail to keep one’s word.