“But above all, my brothers, do now swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no…”
Why do you think people have to swear or to make oaths?
Because they are liars.
You make an oath to say this time I really am telling the truth. I know, I know you normally can’t trust what I say, but this time I am serious, I’ll even take this oath to show you how honest I’m being.
Helmut Thielicke, a German scholar and pastor during the era of Hitler explains, “Whenever I utter the formula, ‘I swear by God,’ I am really saying, ‘Now I’m going to mark off an area of absolute truth and put walls around it to cut it off from the muddy floods of untruthfulness and irresponsibility that ordinarily overruns my speech.’ In fact, I am saying even more than this. I am saying that people are expecting me to lie from the start. And just because they are counting on my lying, I have to bring up the big guns of oaths and words of honor.”
So what James is saying here when he writes, “…let your yes be yes and your no be no…” is that as believers “our truthfulness should be so consistent and dependable that we need no oath to support it: a simple yes or no should suffice. ‘Our mere word should be as utterly trustworthy as a signed document, legally correct and complete.’”
As a Christian, you should not have any need to make an oath or to swear to tell the truth because God wants your word to be your bond. When you say yes, you mean yes. And when you say no, you mean no. You are not constantly flip flopping back and forth. We should be completely distinct from the world around us because of our absolute, unswerving, unflinching commitment to keeping our word and speaking honestly.
Be careful here.
Because, when is it most difficult to keep your word? Is it hard to keep your word when it involves doing what you want to do? Of course not. Do you think the Pharisees and others really struggled with keeping their promises when it was a promise to do what they wanted? No. Those were the promises they kept. They had a problem and this is when we have a problem, when keeping our promises means do something difficult for us. And that’s when you need to think very carefully about what James is saying here – not when you are doing what you want to do, but to keep your word you have to do something that is difficult for you to do. One of my favorite descriptions of a godly man is found in Psalm 15:4, “He swears to his own hurt and does not change…” He’s faithful to his word even when it requires great sacrifice. That’s James’ point.
We’re going to face temptations to weasel out of speaking the truth, temptations to go back on our word, to say one thing and mean another, but one of the things that should most set us apart as followers of Christ is our firm resolve to be absolutely and completely honest.