"I'm sorry, Bill. I really would like to discuss plans for the new corporate merger this afternoon, but I gave my word to my kids that I would take them to the park."
Does a statement like this sound far-fetched? Does it seem incredible that at one time a man's word, confirmed with a mere handshake, was all it took to bind a contract?
Increasingly so, the opposite is becoming the rule. Indeed, one of the detestable characteristics foretold of people living in the last days is that they would be trucebreakers (II Timothy 3:3, KJV). The promises or guarantees of entire nations, institutions and individuals are becoming virtually worthless.
Over two decades ago the honor and commitment of the United States were questioned by then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Calling for massive military and economic aid for South Vietnam, he warned the U.S. Congress that the response to this crisis would be an "elementary question of what kind of people we are."
The response to Secretary Kissinger's plea is now a matter of history. The answer to the "elementary question of what kind of people we are" is in the minds of some people permanently resolved. And it is not positive.
For instance, people living in Taiwan must have felt a cold chill when President Bill Clinton told the Beijing regime during his recent trip there that the U.S. is committed to a single China. With Hillary Rodham Clinton's enthusiastic endorsement of a Palestinian State, the people of Israel must have become instantaneously reminded of the late Rabbi Kahane's words: "The United States cannot be trusted to keep its word. If you don't believe me," he warned, "ask a resident of Taiwan about the validity of U.S. guarantees."
From international relations to personal relations, it has become fashionable and acceptable for politicians, corporate officials and private individuals to go back on their word. An alarming number of young people have borrowed millions of dollars for college loans, never intending to pay a dime back. Advertisements appear in respectable magazines urging financially strapped people to declare bankruptcy as a strategy to beat the system. Whose word means anything anymore?
Clouds Without Rain
Many years ago I worked for a company whose modus operandi (I later learned) was to drum up new accounts by promising goods they could not deliver and then ignore them. During the last few weeks of my service to the company—at which time I was exclusively handling customer complaints—I almost developed an ulcer. My employer had accepted thousands of dollars for prepaid accounts for which he had no merchandise. I was told to promise the customer that we would work on the problem immediately. When I really tried to help each of these individual customers, my boss would reprimand me, claiming that it was not good business to concern oneself over these puny accounts. The company eventually went bankrupt.
In this situation I learned through bitter experience the true meaning of Proverbs 25:14: "Whoever falsely boasts of giving is like clouds and wind without rain." This employer, who still owes me hundreds of dollars—money that I will never see—enabled me to see the consequences of rash promises. Although I had become extremely indignant with him then, I now look upon the experience as worthwhile tuition money in the school of hard knocks.
God has also convicted me that my own behavior has not been so unlike this employer. All of us have, to one degree or another, been guilty of broken promises and half-hearted commitments. God's Word has much to say about the practice of making promises and rash commitments without calculating the cost.
» Numbers 30:2 (All scriptures from The Amplified Bible): If a man vows a vow to the LORD or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break and profane his word: he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
» Deuteronomy 23:23: The vow which has passed your lips you shall be watchful to perform. . . .
» Proverbs 20:25: It is a snare to a man to utter a vow [of consecration] and [not until] afterward inquire [whether he can fulfill it].
» Ecclesiastes 5:2, 4-6: Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before God: For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few. . . . When you vow a vow or make a pledge to God, do not put off paying it; for God has no pleasure in fools (those who witlessly mock him). Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not allow your mouth to cause your body to sin, and do not say before the messenger [the priest] that it was an error or mistake. Why should God be [made] angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?
The intent of the last part of this scripture is that the rash promise to complete something or bring something to fruition, which later cannot be delivered, makes the entire act a sin.
» Matthew 5:33-34, 37: Again, you have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not swear falsely, but you shall perform your oaths to the Lord [as a religious duty]." But I tell you, "Do not bind yourselves by an oath at all. . . . Let your Yes be simply Yes, and your No be simply No: anything more than that comes from the evil one."
» James 5:12: But above all [things], my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath; but let your yes be [a simple] yes, and your no be [a simple] no, so that you may not sin and fall under condemnation.
Trail of Tears
As I prepared this article, I broke out in a cold sweat thinking about hundreds of promises I have made to people to whom I later had to apologize—because something came up. Rashly, I have promised students that I would have papers returned to them on a certain date, only to later apologize because "something came up."
The "something came ups" were not the problem, but the rash promises were. Surveying the vast number of promises I have made to my children over the years—only to break them because "something came up" from the adult world of affairs—would rival the "Trail of Tears," a euphemism for the excessive broken treaties the white men made with their red brothers.
Proverbs 13:12 teaches us that "hope deferred makes the heart sick." Our children unfortunately learn from us that keeping one's word is not that big of a deal. Young people grow up learning to break commitments.
Over the years I have taught evening or extended day classes at several community colleges. Comparing notes with my colleagues, I find it amazing that the percentage of students who begin a course of study but later drop out has remained alarmingly high, ranging from 20 to 60 percent. The absentee rate in local secondary schools would lead visitors to believe that a perpetual flu epidemic decimates the classes.
Many of my colleagues have stopped demanding high-quality work on homework assignments. They are just grateful to receive them on time, or in some cases, just grateful to receive them at all!
Whether committing oneself to a course of study or to an installment loan or to a marriage, too many people do not seriously count the cost.
For which of you, wishing to build a farm building, does not first sit down and calculate the cost [to see] whether he has sufficient means to finish it? Otherwise, when he has laid the foundation and is unable to complete [the building], all who see it will begin to mock and jeer at him, saying, "This man began to build, and was not able (worth enough) to finish." Or what king, going out to engage in conflict with another king, will not first sit down and consider and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand [men] to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? (Luke 14:28-31)
Many brethren say "yes" to commitments with every intention of carrying them out. Eager freshmen students commit themselves to more activities, clubs and extra-curricular affairs than they can possibly do justice to, prematurely burning out. Committing ourselves without fully counting the cost leads to embarrassing cancellations and bowing out.
When I formerly scheduled special music in the Glendale and North Hollywood, California, churches, I learned to anticipate cancellations at the last minute, some for good reasons and some, well. . . .
Deeds, Not Words
Frankly, God is not impressed with the number of commitments a person makes, but instead in the actions completed or the missions accomplished. Jesus put it this way:
What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He came to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard." And he answered, "I will not"; but afterward he changed his mind and went. Then the man came to the second and said the same [thing]. And he replied, "I will [go], sir"; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of the father? They replied, "The first one." (Matthew 21:28-31)
God Almighty does not exalt symbolism over substance! A significant dimension in character-building consists of a willingness to bring a task through to completion. Solomon notes in Ecclesiastes 7:8, "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning of it."
Psychologist Charles Richman suggests that "a successful person doesn't give up once he has started a worthwhile task until it is completed. Walt Disney, for example, always had many projects going at once, but he would follow each one to its completion."
By contrast, my father has a friend who fancies himself as an inventor. Every time my Dad has visited him, he seems to have a new project started. The only problem is that most of these projects were never brought to completion. Like many of us, he begins with a burst of enthusiasm, but becomes tired and either drops it completely or does it half-heartedly.
Hi-Ho Jews, Ho-Hum Christians
The designation given to a Jew who attends the synagogue only on the high Holy Days is a "Hi-Ho Jew." A good definition for a Christian who makes commitments, but half-heartedly carries them out would be a "Ho-Hum Christian." "Ho-Hum Christian" is a synonym for "Laodicean."
Too many of us are like spiritual quarter horses. With a burst of energy we leave the starting gate, but after a quarter mile our strength is spent. We should aspire to become spiritual thoroughbreds with the staying power to help us through to the final stretch. To build spiritual staying power, we need to begin small and work toward greater achievements (see "The Formula for Overcoming," October-November 1996).
Keeping our word is just as important on little matters as on large ones. Keeping non-earth-shattering problems, such as taking the children to the park or arriving at choir practice on time, are not terribly significant, but in the words of Horace Mann, "Habit is like a cable, and you weave a strand a day until it becomes almost unbreakable."
Jesus' principle in Matthew 25:23 holds true about making promises. The one who can remain faithful in the little commitments will likely be faithful in the big ones. It is like the story of the man who said to the young woman he was courting, "If I only had as many arms as an octopus so I could hug and caress you." The woman replied, "I don't know if I believe you. You don't even hold me with the two you have."
Solving Our Dilemma
One may feel, at this point, that the safest route consists of never promising anything or committing ourselves to anything. We might ask, "Which is better: never to make a promise, or to break one that has been made rashly?" A parallel question could be, "Which is better: not to pray, or to pray in a bad attitude?" The answer to both questions is the same.
The solution to this dilemma is two-fold:
1. Exercise care when making commitments.
Our ancient Israelite forebears boldly asserted, "Yes, Lord. All that you have commanded we will do," but they never followed through. Exercising care means not making rash pronouncements about when and what you can do. Proverbs 27:1 teaches us, "Do not boast of [yourself and] tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth." It is best to consider carefully what we can do before we commit ourselves.
2. Once we make the promise or commitment to do something, resolve to stay with the project to its completion.
Back in the late 1930s, Gene Autry formulated what he called "the Cowboy's Code" as a model for young people. Gene, Hop-Along Cassidy and Roy Rogers never violated this code, Rule #2 of which was: "A Cowboy must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him." We have a far more important code—God's—to live up to, which says, "[A man] shall not break and profane his word" (Numbers 30:2). We must finish what we start.
Of half-hearted or abortive commitments, Jesus says, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back [to the things behind] is fit for the kingdom of God." This principle of keeping our word has eternal consequences. It is best that we learn it and make it part of our character in these little things so we can attain the biggest thing of all: entrance into God's very Family!