We’ve looked at the first 2 of 6 universal habits that sabotage love and good will, as well as steps to minimize them as Jesus outlined in his Sermon on the Mount. We discovered that they’re sequential and cumulative, not stand-alones:
The Sermon’s sequence, and planning ahead (will/intent), are essential for success. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t do what I say?” (Luk. 6:46) For example, if I try to stop obsessing over others, but I’m still a “righteously” irritated person, my anger alert will trigger over every little offense.
I’m not following Jesus. I’m following a “harlot” that looks and sounds right, but sets me up to wish harm, not good. Instead of overcoming, I give up because biblical love is “unrealistic” and I’m just a no-good sinner.
Now if I give up pride and simply digest and do what Jesus says to do, I will have taken him into my whole being—heart, mind, body, and behavior—and my soul will flourish. Although there’s a learning curve, I’ll soon be prepared (“worthy”) to face challenges with a lighter spirit and a real sense of power and direction.
So, as we move to Step 3, keep these first two steps in view. Like building a house, Jesus is adding texture and detail to the frame. Biblically, houses or temples represent the self, or soul. Of course, there are literal houses, too, but your body “houses” your personhood. In fact, Jesus concludes his Great Sermon by comparing a wise and foolish builder.
Jesus’ third universal human habit is swearing oaths. Contrary to popular thinking, swearing isn’t about foul language or taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s about pride, the opposite of love. Pride is the pre-disposition to insist on having your own way. Love is the pre-disposition to not insist on having your way, and to wish for someone’s good. As Paul says, love isn’t proud (1Cor. 13:4).
There’s a lot of hidden pride in oaths.
Again, you have heard it said …, ‘Don’t break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the LORD.’ But I say, 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)
A whole book could be written on the several points Jesus makes here, so I’ll just hit the highlights. First, this is about our tendency to perform to “prove” ourselves or manipulate opinions. Just because I swear to tell the truth doesn’t prove I’m a person of love and good character.
It’s also about going beyond “letting”—that is, to insist, force, or compel behavior. It isn’t loving. Anything that goes further than simple Yes or No can be sneaky habits: promises, commitments, vows, guarantees, and covenants.
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 believe we mean Yes or No.
God swears oaths, but He doesn’t have the character issues we do. And His well-being doesn’t depend on proving His good character. Rather than manipulate, He allows people to think of Him what they will. That’s loving.
Make It Happen
Make-it-happen mentality, which often plagues type-A personalities like me, is the underlying issue here. The pressure to be responsible, to be the “best example,” and not let others down drives us well beyond Yes into exhaustion. It seems right, but it easily lusts after an over-achieving self-righteousness that’s never satisfied.
There’s an element of impatience in swearing. By contrast, love is patient. When you swear by God, you try to make Him make something happen. When you swear to God, you invoke your own willpower (“your own head”) to make something happen. Both appear humble on the surface, but underneath, you’re still insisting on your way.
Over-commitment tends to rely on self instead of God for outcomes. It reverses responsibility and even has Him relying on us: “God is counting on me!” So, in a kind of spiritual peer pressure, we swear and vow for fear we might appear uncommitted, and unwittingly divorce God by taking on too much.
His answer is mental and physical rest, i.e., “Sabbath” mentality. Relax, breathe. We aren’t all-powerful. We can’t even make one of our own hairs white or black. We can’t guarantee outcomes, but we can contribute and let God be God. Trusting Him teaches us to say (and also accept) Yes or No without underlying fear or worry. Yes can be yes, or No can be no and simply left at that. It really is a lighter burden and a restful green pasture.
No Need to Swear
Keeping oaths can be worse than breaking them. So Jesus says to simply avoid the habit altogether. Recall that Herod swore half his kingdom to his step-daughter when her dancing pleased his dinner guests. To his surprise, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter because her mother had long nursed a grudge against John. So he paid the price for Herod keeping his oath (see Mrk. 6:21-28).
When Jesus was arrested, Peter swore three times that he didn’t know him. Because Peter was afraid, he had to make people believe him (see Mat. 26:69-75). Jesus paid the price for that one.
This is why indulged anger and the obsession over others must go first. Then the need to swear fades like a movie in a dark theater when sunlight streams through an open door. So, gouge out this “right” habit once you’ve substantially cut out the previous two.
Lastly, another key is to simply get comfortable saying No. For me, this felt wrong at first. But with practice, it becomes a more Christ-like ability to turn the other cheek or easily forgive neighbors. Instead of indulging an urge for mean-spirited remarks or paybacks, I find I can now say No to it without feeling robbed somehow. In fact, it feels empowering.
This is “death to self” and Jesus’ strategy behind “resisting the devil” to overcome evil with good. Once you understand his expertise in soul care and his teaching style, all the apparent randomness of his Sermon disappears. “I am the Way, the Truth, and Life” ceases to be a T-shirt and begins to make actual sense. You’ll discover self-control and a knowing wink from God.
Next week, Step 4.