The Test of Oaths

“Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.”
(James 5:12 NIV)

James finishes this section about suffering and speech by reminding us to always give a simple, straightforward, truthful  answer when asked a question, especially when challenged about our response.

Again, James’ command to us is very similar to Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount:

“But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”  (Matthew 5:34-37 NIV)

Once again, James uses his familiar term of endearment (“brothers and sisters”) to tell us to pay attention, that what he is about to say is important.  This time, James precedes his call for everyone’s attention by saying “above all…”.  Not only is this important, it’s the most important thing he has to say about our speech.

Now that James has our attention, what does he say is the most important about our speech?  Not to swear.

Is James saying not to use foul language, as in cursing, or not to swear, as in giving an oath?  In this context, James is telling us not to give an oath, not to make a promise based on something we can’t control.  Our answers are to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and leave it at that.

We’ve all heard people violate James’ command:
– “I swear on a stack of Bibles 10 feet tall !”
– “I swear to God…”
– “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”
– “To tell you the truth, …”
– “I swear on my mother’s eyes…”

What does this say about a person’s speech?  If people are having to use oaths to convince others to believe them, it implies that their speech pattern is based on lies rather than truth.  It also speaks in general to society’s tendency to lie to one another, for whatever reason.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ and James’ day used oaths a lot to hold one another accountable for their words.  Our society is no different.  If anything, our society has gotten worse.  Our oaths are no longer verbal – now they are written.  And they are not called oaths in our day… we typically call them “contracts”, and we make each other sign them.

In years gone by, a person’s word was taken as fact.  A verbal agreement, a handshake, and the deal was done.  Both sides held up their end of the deal.  Today, business and legal reviews must happen before two parties even think about making a deal.  Swarms of accountants and attorneys descend upon the parties to be sure everyone is telling the truth, and no one is hiding anything from the other.  This is not a slam on accountants and attorneys – this is the sad state of the integrity of our modern business world.

James concludes by saying that to violate this teaching, we put ourselves in judgment, in condemnation.  We show and prove ourselves guilty before God by making oaths by heaven, by earth, or by anything else that is out of our control.

So how does this apply to us?  Should we never sign a contract, or enter into agreements again?  No, that’s not what James is saying.  He is simply saying to be honest and straightforward with all our dealings.  We are to live a life of integrity, where our word can be trusted.

That means making sure we can deliver on our promises.  That means reading all the fine print of a contract before we sign it, and understanding what it means, and doing everything possible to live up to the agreement.

It also means separating promise from wish.  We may wish for the best, that a lot of good things will come true, but we are not to promise them when they are out of our control.  This is often where our heart gets ahead of our reality, and where hurt and disappointment come into relationships, both business and personal.

May we learn to live in integrity, and may our speech reflect God’s truth living in our hearts.