So far, we’ve looked at Jesus’ first two steps and learned something we seldom hear in today’s churches—steps are sequentially ordered for optimal well-being:
1.) Get rid of willful anger and contempt.
2.) Gouge out the obsession over others.
While it shouldn’t be treated as a mechanical formula, sequence is key to maximum success. If I try to stop obsessing over others, but I’m still an irritated, scornful person inside, my anger alert will trigger over every little offense and I’ll fail because I’m not correctly following Jesus. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t do what I say?” (Luk. 6:46)
Pride is the pre-disposition to insist on having our own way. The opposite of pride is humbleness, or, more accurately, love. It’s the pre-disposition to not insist on having our way. Love isn’t proud. (1Cor. 13:4)
So, Jesus’ third sabotaging culprit is swearing oaths. This isn’t about foul language or taking the Lord’s name in vain. Rather, it’s about proving ourselves and insisting that others prove themselves, and the related habit of manipulating ourselves and neighbors into correct behavior. There’s a lot of hidden pride in oaths.
Again, you have heard it was said to the people long ago, ‘Don’t break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the LORD.’ But I say to you, don’t swear 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’s the city of the Great King. And don’t swear by your own head, for you can’t make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything further comes from the evil one.” (Mat. 5:33-37)
Oath territory encompasses anything that goes further than simple Yes or No. Promises, commitments, pledges, vows, guarantees, and covenants are all within its borders. It also covers anything beyond “letting”—that is, to insist, force, compel, or persuade.
Make It Happen
Make-it-happen mentality plagues many people, especially type-A personalities like me. The pressure to be responsible, be the best example, and not let others down drives us beyond Yes into dangerous over-commitment.
Cross my heart and hope to die, we swear on a stack of Bibles, on grandmother’s grave, or by Jove. We pinkie swear, insist, and promise the moon, all to make extra-double sure that others know we mean Yes or No. To habitually go beyond them into oath territory aims to either show off correctness, or to please others with performance, or to make others perform to please us. Consciously or not, it’s an attempt to prove or manipulate—be it character, dedication, performance, or value. The biblical word “image” captures this mind-set nicely.
But doesn’t God swear oaths? Yes, but He doesn’t have the character issues we do and doesn’t depend on proving a point for His well-being.
When we swear by God, we invoke His power (throne), His property (earth), or His other designated authorities (city of the Great King) to make God make something happen. When we swear to God, we summon our own willpower (your own head) to make something happen. There’s a sneaky element of impatience in it.
Over-commitment tends to rely on self instead of God. It even has Him relying on us—“God is counting on me” for this or that. We thus swear and vow and fail to recognize the trap for fear we might appear uncommitted.
We’re not all-powerful, and neither are we responsible for guaranteeing outcomes. We can’t even make one of our own hairs white or black. We can’t make people happy, but we can let them be happy (or miserable). We’re not responsible for our neighbors’ trust, happiness, or satisfaction, nor for their opinions, failures, or successes. We can’t guarantee; we can only contribute. Anything further comes from the evil one by going beyond love into insistence.
On the flip side, show me a person who won’t take No for an answer and I’ll show you an impatient or worried person who doesn’t fully trust the partnership with God. He/she relies on self, takes personal responsibility for everything, and expects others to do the same. I know; I used to be one of them.
But trust teaches us to give and accept Yes or No without fear or worry. Yes can be yes, or No can be no and simply left at that. For those outcomes that we can’t always make happen, we can trust God and His kingdom.
No Need to Swear
To break an oath is serious business, but keeping one can back us into dead-end corners. Recall that Herod swore half his kingdom to his step-daughter whose dancing pleased his dinner guests. John the Baptist paid the price for Herod keeping his oath; he was beheaded at her request. (Mrk. 6:21-28) Peter swore three times that he didn’t know Jesus. Because he was afraid, he had to make people believe him. (Mat. 26:69-75) Jesus paid the price for that one.
Spiritual peer pressure is deadly because it’s based on image and reputation. But once we’re free of indulged anger and obsession over others, the compulsion to swear and prove things dwindles, and grace has room to grow. Relationships and people become healthier and less volatile.
Oddly, one of the secrets to honest Yesses is to get comfortable saying a calm No. That comes from the gracious ability to not insist, which translates into a Christ-like ability to turn the other cheek or easily forgive a betrayal. Further, to be comfortable with No is the skill we need to “resist the devil and he will flee.” (Jas. 4:7)
Culprit #4 will be exposed in the next step, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts? Is this what you’ve always heard?