Promises, Promises

Reflections on James 5:12 —

Wouldn’t it be great if people naturally kept their promises?  Especially political candidates. If Hillary could somehow close a few loopholes and make college tuition free for lower-income families, or Trump could get Mexico to build his wall, that would be great.  My kids would love it if Hillary could raise minimum wage. But we all know not every candidate lives up to their campaign promise.  

It’s politics.  We’ve heard the rhetoric before and have come to expect candidates to make great and impressive promises that we aren’t exactly sure they will keep. Believers, however, have a higher standard to live up to.  I am currently suffering the indiscretion of making a promise to someone that I’m struggling to fulfill.  My mouth is particularly bad at overcommitting, cashing checks that I can’t clear.  To all of us overcommitters, James writes,

“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.”

Essentially, James is saying you shouldn’t need to swear with an oath that you’re telling the truth.  Just be honest.  Say what you mean.  

But why does James say that saying what we mean is “above all”?  If it is “above all,” that tells me this command is the most important thing James is saying in his entire letter.  Is James suggesting that saying what we mean is more important than fighting partiality (James 2:1-11), stopping oppression (James 5:1-6), and denying worldly lusts that cause quarrelling and hatred among brothers (James 4:1-4)?  Surely those things are equally bad.  Why is, “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’” a command that is above all?

I think by using the phrase, “above all,” James is indicating that the integrity of our words is very important to God.  In fact, the use of carefully chosen and sincere words is the most God-honoring and glorifying thing we can do.

Words Matter to God

To God, keeping promises and using meaningful words is part of His nature.  With Him, it’s not just mandatory, it’s impossible not to do so.  He cannot lie, for lying would run counter to His inherent nature.  He says this about Himself(1):

“God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said it, and will He not do it?  Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”

I think we often don’t realize that God is not like us.  He doesn’t think and act the same way we do.  Unlike us, He always says exactly what He means and intends, 100% of the time(2):

“So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

When God first spoke to His young prophet, Jeremiah, He used a play on words to illustrate His careful, intentional use of words, committing Himself to only promise what He intended to fulfill, saying(3):

“I am watching over My word to perform it.”

That fact that God is inherently truthful, coupled with the fact that He gave us great and precious promises, sets the groundwork for our faith.  We are to fix our minds on these great promises, no matter the circumstance, that we might escape hopelessness, the corruption in the world(4).

Words are an intimate part of God’s nature.  He is inherently communicative and expressive. One of the best gifts He gave man at creation was the ability to speak–Adam and Eve did not have to take language arts classes.  Part of the image of God bestowed on them was the ability to communicate.  When John referred to the incarnate Jesus Christ in his gospel, he called Him “The Word”(5).  It is significant that no other expression suited Jesus Christ more perfectly than God’s “Word”–Jesus personifies God’s desire to relate to us, as well as His great love for us.  

God loves words and chooses them carefully when He communicates.  God has placed every word in the Bible for a reason–so we might know and believe Him.  Do you appreciate the unique power of God’s words?  God describes His words as “silver refined in a furnace seven times”(6). The words in your Bible are inspired by God and profitable for you(7)–i.e., you actually benefit from listening to and internalizing God’s words.  That’s because His words are not idle–they have a supernatural, life-giving ability(8).

Since words are so important to God, and since we are made in His image, it follows that we should use our words in the same way that God does…making promises carefully, intentionally, and sincerely.  We should be more introspective into the kinds of words we’re using, how we communicate, what we lead others to believe, and what we commit to.  Reality says we don’t typically use words this way.  We ought to take notice because James has said, anything less than letting our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’, ‘no’, brings judgment on us(James 5:12).  Let’s take a closer look to better understand the importance of our words.

Our Words Matter to God

James has already warned us about our own tongue–the words we speak–and our propensity to cause great fires, great destruction, by our words (James 3:10).  Here are some examples of how we use our words in a destructive fashion, often without really realizing it:

  • Lying – We all know lying is bad, but do we appreciate just how much of an affront it is to the God we claim we follow?  When we are dishonest in what we say, God doesn’t just get His feelings hurt, or look away in embarrassment.  To Him, our lies are an abomination, an act of treason, a slap in the face(9).  There are many forms of lying that we should be aware of, listed below.
  • Flattery – Flattery is propping someone up with patronizing words that have the appearance of praise but are ultimately designed to get something in return.  It’s a despicable form of lying that seeks approval or adoration from the receiver.  We can get really good at flattery, not even know we’re doing it.  Guys, beware of the girl who flatters with her tongue, laying on the complements designed to prop you up and feel appreciated, long enough to fall into a troubling relationship(10).  By the way, this works the other way around, girls, so beware yourselves!
  • Appeasement – If you’re a people pleaser like me, your first instinct is always to try to make people think the best of you.  It’s really hard to tell people something they don’t want to hear.  If you’re like that, then you probably struggle with appeasement.  This is a form of lying that gets someone off your back long enough for you to escape an uncomfortable interaction.  When a parent asks their teenager, “are you coming home by midnight?”, the appeasing teen will say, “I think so” as they walk out the door, even though they have no intention of doing so.  A pastor may ask you, “are you joining us today to help the Smiths move into their new house?”  The appeasing church member will say, “yes, pastor, I think we can make it,” while all the while, they’re making up plans for the afternoon that will magically create a conflict and keep them from being able to help out.  Look, try to help.  But if you just absolutely can’t, then say so.  God would much rather you say you won’t do a job, but then think better of it and just do it, than to say you will do it, but not really mean it(11).  That is perhaps the best example of letting your yes be yes, for it expresses plainly and sincerely that you are uncertain in your heart, but then ultimately, it achieves the Father’s will.  It is much better than doing the opposite and accomplishing neither.
  • Denial – Denial is similar to appeasement, only with a more defensive posture.  It is a device we use to get out of a difficult situation, helping us run from our problems and insecurities.  Peter used appeasement three times when he was confronted by the crowd as being a Christ-follower.  In all three cases, he panicked and violently denied the claim, an act which he regretted bitterly later on(12).
  • Silly Talk – Paul cautioned the Ephesians against using “silly talk” and “coarse jesting”(13).  I wonder what that was about!  Clearly, ours is a society that loves silly talk and coarse jesting.  I know I’m going to sound like an old person here.  I’m not a hater of all things humorous, but it just seems like we cling to humorous words, always trying to keep things light and funny.  Sometimes the humor gets nasty.  There’s a plethora of crude humor in primetime commercials, movies, Netflix originals, and “adult” cartoon series.  I’m not a Puritan.  I’ll watch things from time to time, and I’ll thoughtlessly use the same, cutting, silly lines and punchy phrases I hear in those things I watch.  We should think twice about using words so flippantly.  I am the worst at just saying whatever thought pops into my mind.  It’s a bad habit.  My frequent careless use of words trains people to ignore me, particularly my kids, which is really bad when I have something important to tell them.  

No wonder James cautioned us to be “slow to speak” (James 1:19) and to be cautious about presumptuously speaking against our Christian brothers (James 4:11-12).  We ought to take notice, for Jesus says we will give an account for every careless word(14).  Your words are pretty serious stuff to God.  We should treat them the same way.

Red Flags

If you’re struggling in this area, and want to improve your communication, I don’t think the answer is to follow a 10-step process.  Instead of just correcting your communicative behavior, consider this.  Our words show us what is in our heart(14).  Be reflective for a moment and consider the words you spoke yesterday.  If the words coming out of your mouth are harsh, manipulating, flattering, if they are untrue, insincere, self-serving, or boastful, then that’s a sign you have a heart issue, not a mouth issue, that needs to be addressed.

Just watching what you say is not enough.  You need Jesus living and abiding in you, taking His seat on the throne of your heart.  Submit your heart to the Lord, let Him transform it.  Paul calls this submitting your members as instruments of righteousness to God(15), and later in that same letter, he calls it offering yourselves as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God(16).  Read His words and meditate on them, “abide in them”(17).  His words are “living”–once you let them into your heart, they work overtime, in ways you cannot imagine.  Let them affect you, change your attitude, change what you do today.  Submitting to Christ also involves asking His Spirit to interact with our hearts, and to put to death wrong attitudes and lusts(18).  Submission in this way is like offering a burnt sacrifice in the Old Testament.  That calf offering was burned entirely, burned to a crisp, with nothing left but ashes.  In the same way, let the fire of Christ’s presence consume your old flesh, your old, selfish heart.  

Evaluate the words you use, but not as a judgment against yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up every time your mouth betrays you.  You will not be perfect in your use of words!  Words are an indicator.  They send up red flags when we misuse them.  We need to notice those flags.  When we say something we wish would could take back, it’s not the end of the world.  You may owe someone an apology.  You may need to apologize to God.  Do so, and be released from guilt.  Life is a process of learning how to submit to Christ each day.  Over time, let Him transform your heart.  He will begin to show you more powerful and healthy ways to use words.  He will help you consider your situations and to formulate the right message.  Do you have a child who is dangerously close to a sin that would be embarrassing to you?  Ask Christ to take the emotion out and to formulate a loving, truthful message.  Are you and your spouse at each other’s throats, wounded from a week of hurtful innuendos and accusations?  Ask Christ to put to death your faulty expectations and to generate a sincere message of repentance and regret–something more than a flippant, “I’m sorry.”  Ask Him to help you look for the positive things about your spouse, and to formulate a complement in that particular thing.

A well-spoken word of encouragement can work wonders.  This world is woefully bankrupt of encouraging words and painfully overflowing with careless, silly words and coarse jesting.  Be particularly mindful of your words, words to those we come in contact with.  Consider their needs.  With Christ living in your heart, put together a few timely words of encouragement based on the truth you know about the person, and speak it.  This is the message of Paul(19).  These are the “apples of gold in settings of silver”(20).  

We look most like God when Christ is abiding in us, helping us choose words that we mean and make sincere, intentional promises.  Let us watch for those careless, flippant, appeasing, and idle words we speak.  Let them be red flags reminding us we need Jesus’ presence with us.  Let Christ transform our words into powerful messages of caring, hope, and encouragement.  



  1. Numbers 23:19
  2. Isaiah 55:9-11
  3. Jeremiah 1:12
  4. 2 Peter 1:4
  5. John 1:1
  6. Psalm 12:6
  7. 2 Timothy 3:16
  8. Deuteronomy 32:47
  9. Proverbs 12:19-22
  10. Proverbs 7:5-21
  11. Matthew 21:28-31
  12. Matthew 22:69-75
  13. Ephesians 5:4
  14. Matthew 12:33-37
  15. Romans 6:13
  16. Romans 12:1
  17. John 15:7
  18. Romans 8:13
  19. Ephesians 4:29
  20. Proverbs 25:11

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