“What happened to your “my word is stronger than oak” thing?!?” lamented a betrayed Jerry Maguire. I love this movie for so many reasons. This scene sticks with me. Jerry, a sports agent, has built a strong relationship the Cushmans, a promising young quarterback preparing for the NFL draft and his father. The father doesn’t sign any contract with Jerry but promises that Jerry is their guy, and his word is ‘stronger than oak.’ And then he promptly breaks his word and signs a contract with Jerry’s nemesis, Sugar. The broken promise sends Jerry into a downward spiral. Our words matter.
We are promise-breakers, all of us. Most of the times it plays out in small ways. Maybe we are chronically late for others. “I’ll be there at 5:30.” We roll in at 5:50. “Sorry, traffic.” Maybe it’s broken promises to ourselves. “Starting next week, I’ll start eating healthy.” We don’t. “Ok, next week.” We still don’t. While these may seem insignificant on their own, Dan Tocchini notes, “How we show up in the ‘small’ areas of our lives is indicative of how we show up everywhere in our lives."
Once the value of our word begins to diminish from broken promises, we up the ante in order to get buy-in from the other. We make bolder claims. “This time will be different, I swear…"
To which Jesus tells us:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not swear 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 swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No,no’, anything more than this comes from the evil one."
Why would Jesus say that to “swear to God” comes from the evil one? That seems pretty heavy handed. Aren’t many marriage ceremonies filled with promises made in the sight of God? Yes, but something different is going on here. There are a few instances when making a commitment to God are acceptable and powerful.
But when we use phrases like “God is my witness” or “I swear on my mother’s grave” in most conversations, it is really a form of manipulation. It’s a power play. We’re trying to convey how seriously we are taking our promise (and how serious they should take it) by invoking something that isn’t ours and doesn’t really mean anything. How can we offer something as collateral that isn’t ours to begin with?
Dallas Willard says it like this, “The essence of swearing or making oaths is to try to use something that, though impressive, is irrelevant to the issues at hand to get others to believe you and let you have your way…we are making use of people, trying to bypass their understanding and judgment to trigger their will and possess them for our purposes."
Jesus challenges us, “Why do you leverage things you have no ownership or control over in order to control or influence others? God is not yours. Heaven is not yours. Earth is not yours. Even your own health is not yours. Your word. Your character and integrity. Your actions and follow through on commitments. Those are yours. Are you willing to put your own skin in the game? Are you ready to own the impact of your words? Are you willing to do the hard work of building up a reputation of reliability and honesty based on your own merit and performance? Are you willing to own the relational consequences when you don’t?"
This is hard work and we will fail. But we can’t possibly improve if we aren’t willing to see and own the times when we use excuses or empty oaths to cover up or deflect the impact of our broken promises. Do the hard work of making your word ‘stronger than oak.’ Let your “Yes” mean “Yes” and your “No” mean “No."