In my school days, it was very common among kids to swear in order to convince friends about something. In the childhood innocence of knowing things, convincing others and getting convinced, a swear had enough strength to convert denial into faith. The highest forms of swears were ‘mother promise’ and ‘God promise’ which find acceptance even among many adults till date. It is believed that a person swearing by his/her mother or by God cannot be lying under any circumstance. How I wish this was true!
Oaths, pledges, vows, promises, swears are lifeless words generated by the activation of the larynx unless uttered with the conviction of heart. If you spend a few moments bringing to mind the humongous volumes of pledges, oaths and promises that are taken and given everyday all across the world for some cause or the other, you will soon start questioning their veracity.
Take for example the pledges for peace and unity, pledges against corruption, oaths in courts of law before witnessing, promises/vows exchanged at the time of marriage. Only a minuscule of the oath takers and pledgers attempt to keep them – either because they are convinced about the cause or because they need to save their faces. For most others these are mere formalities to be performed while life will continue to go its way as before.
The idea of binding people/self to pledges and promises is a way of ensuring that certain goals or higher ideals are adhered to. Surely a noble idea! However, this is what should make us think deeper. Are oaths/pledges/promises needed after all?
Oaths/pacts/vows/pledges are moral (and at times legal and social) checkposts for ethical functioning of individuals in a society and of the society as a whole. The human heart is prone to its myriad wanderings. The mind knows no end to its numerous exploits sans boundaries. Simply knowing that certain ends need to be achieved is not a guarantee of their attainment. Hence, the need for checkposts/reminders/declarations.
So then, do oaths assure adherence by the oath givers and takers?
Don’t all registered physicians take the Hippocratic Oath? Then why do a few of them indulge in malpractice, connive with ill-intending agencies or are caught in sexual exploitation of patients? Wasn’t the oath sufficient to transform the depravity of their hearts?
Mere oaths do not necessarily change actions or transform hearts. That’s why we observe lying witnesses in the courts of law even after they swear to give a true testimony. And, how many marriages end up in divorce even after being avowed before God! How many firm resolutions made at each New Year are broken within days! If oaths and promises were self-sufficient, much perversion of the human nature could have been averted.
The Bible is full of promises given by God. However the unlike us humans, God is true to each of His promises. 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.” At a time when Abraham was childless and desperate for an heir, God promised to make his descendants as countless as the stars of the heaven (Genesis 15:5) and as innumerable as the sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17). And, He kept His promise even when it was humanly unthinkable for Abraham and Sarah to have a child.
What is interesting to note here is that when God promised to multiply Abraham’s descendants, He swore it in His own name. “I swear by myself, declares the Lord . . . (Genesis 22:16)
Why did God have to swear? Not because, He was apprehensive of not keeping His word and an oath would prevent Him from going back on it. But because, in spite of his faithful relationship with God, Abraham was only a human. It’s a human tendency to give more weight to words when someone pledges an oath. It usually generates more faith. We tend to have a stronger belief that the person will do what s/he means when on oath. Who knows the human heart more than its Creator!
Why did God swear by ‘Himself’? There is nothing and no one greater than God Himself that He can swear by. “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Hebrews 6:13) He is great and Almighty and is above all creation. It is mostly because of this reason that most (not all) witnesses swear by God or a Holy Scripture to bind them to the greatest entity before they can testify – ‘I swear by [substitute Almighty God or the name of the holy scripture] that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’
The God who has created us is a promise keeper. And so, everyone who believes in Him ought to possess and nurture that attribute. This is why Jesus raised the standard when speaking of oaths.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)
A ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ – that’s it. A tall command indeed!
Imagine that your friend invites you for a meal on a particular date. You are known to be a person who stands by his/her word. A ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ is sufficient to make your friend believe that you would come. However if you are a person infamous for never keeping your word, it is very normal for your friend not to believe your ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You might say ‘yes’ and not turn up. Or, you may say ‘no’ and then pop up suddenly. And so, your friend might insist that you promise to come. You may go ahead and promise, but still not turn up. Of what use what the promise then? Was the promise able to affirm your action any more than a ‘yes’ would have?
The same analogy invariably applies to all life events. Oaths do not have inherent powers to seal the words of the tongue. Convictions of a true heart – true in the very nature of God is a sure seal for spoken words and unspoken thoughts.
When finding it difficult to keep words given to others, remembering the fulfilled and yet-to-be-fulfilled promises of God is worthwhile.
So yes, do not oblige yourself/people by subjecting yourself to oaths. Decide in your heart keeping the standards of God in mind regarding anything that you are committed to. Then, go ahead and stick to your word no matter what.
And, do not force people to pledge or vow. It may not change their viewpoints and convictions regarding the issue in question. Mere compulsions never bring out allegiance in the long run. Pray for a transformation of the heart and unspoken affirmations would soon be translated into visible actions.
My Prayer for us: Thank you Lord, for your wonderful promises! I praise you for being a promise-keeper. Help me to stick to my words at all times. Thank you, for believing in me. Amen.