One of the worst human tragedies a person can face is a broken promise. I see the consequences of broken promises among some of the folks with whom I work. A family member will make a promise — usually to spend quality time with someone — and the time never comes to pass. I see this especially with elders and children. A failed promise to make the ball game ends in a proverbial, “Next time, I promise.”
Broken promises litter our current landscape because we are facing a shortage of time and resources. Even the once-famous “Promise Keepers” seminars have faded into obscurity because men do not have the time and money to attend as they once did.
The Bible is clear that all of us — men and women — are to be promise keepers. In the New Testament, the letter by James is full of Christian instruction, among them a command to make your “yes be yes” (James 5:12).
This echoes Jesus’ words on the subject in Matthew 5:33-37. Keeping promises is an extension of truth-telling. When we promise something and it does not come to pass, we have lied to another and to ourselves. Keeping a promise is being true to our word. Jesus tells us that when we break promises we are no different than Satan, the Father of Lies.
Breaking our promises can lead to a cascading effect that hinders relational integrity. A repeat offender diminishes trust, and, in many cases, communication withers. When family members break promises with their elders, for instance, guilt sets in. The guilt that one feels actually keeps them away from their loved ones because facing Grandma to apologize is too hard to do. In the face of broken promises, reconciliation becomes elusive.
The teachings of Jesus and letter of James offer an alternative: do not make any oaths whatsoever. The original intent of this command was aimed at Christians working in the civil and legal parameters of society, not necessarily in one’s relationships with loved ones. These two people groups — the young and the old — are people to whom promises must be met. Reliability and predictability reinforce their own sense of value and dignity, and fulfilled promises stress their importance as active contributors to society. We affirm them in the follow-throughs of our yeses and nos. When I make a promise to my daughter and keep it, my integrity empowers her to believe in the best of her father and builds her sense of trust in her little world.
Promises are important because our words are powerful conduits of hope or harm. As a writer and speaker, I know firsthand how much words shape worlds for my audience. In many instances, I craft my words based on my convictions in gospel truth and inclusive ministry. I uphold a form of promises to my readers when I ensure that my language addresses situations appropriately and accurately. Some people call this political correctness, but I call it sensitivity. Politically-correct language can go too far, as anything taken out of moderation can, but it is important to use words that express the fullness of God’s majesty.
Is not our ability to make promises representative of God’s promises to us? God, being the incomparable Promise-Keeper, made covenants throughout the Bible, including the new covenant of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This covenantal God is a model for the covenant-makers in our midst; it would benefit us to keep our promises in ways that honor God’s faithfulness to us.