Diagnosing the Condition
As Christians we are called to stand firm for the faith, proclaiming the Word of truth amidst a world that denies it (1 Peter 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-4). This is a noble calling of great importance, one that I would never personally deny. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend in our evangelical circles. We are almost overly concerned with the world around us. We are at a crisis in which our concern for the world’s sin outweighs the concern of our own sin. Our efforts are directed against the sin of an unbelieving culture who won’t hear truth at the neglect of efforts directed against the sin of a believing church who can’t hear the truth (because we aren’t proclaiming it).
I am not saying that we should turn from our duty of defending the faith, but I do not want us to defend the faith at the cost of our own sanctification either. Before we can proclaim holiness to the rest of the world, we must demonstrate holiness in our own lives, a process that was clearly defined in Ezra 7:10. It is there that we see an example for all believers: study, do, teach. Study the meaning and significance of God’s teaching then do it yourself. Upon doing it and being an example, instruct others. If this were not the case, Paul could have never asked others to imitate him (i.e. 1 Corinthians 4:16).
The Diagnosis of the Condition
While I could list a number of areas in which we fall short, that’s not my intention. We know our own personal sins and failures. As I write this to you, I can list a multitude of my own shortcomings without pausing to ponder them. My concern lies in something more specific that seems to be a general trend: the integrity of our words. Maybe it is better to say the integrity of our commitments.
It has become too commonplace for each of us to give our commitment to something without following through. You know the typical example, “I’ll pray for you.” Yet if we were to follow-up later, we learn that most people never really prayed to begin with. I am certain that this example, though, is indicative of a bigger problem in our churches. We too often say we will do something and fail to actually complete it.
The Symptoms of the Condition
Sometimes life happens. We get interrupted and are unable to finish what we intended. However, this should be the exception not the norm. What is it that causes us to fail in keeping our word? I would suggest to you that there are six primary reasons for this:
- Lack of Ability (to say no): We are very much ‘yes’ people. We say yes to everything regardless of what our other commitments may be.
- Lack of Opportunity: Perhaps because we always say ‘yes,’ we are simply too committed and thus have no opportunity to actually follow through.
- Lack of Occasion: Often, people simply do not have the time because they are busy with their normal routines and tasks.
- Lack of Conviction: It may be that there simply is no conviction about the task, and thus no follow through. Related to this is our concern with offending others, so we say ‘yes’ when we really don’t want to.
- Lack of Interest: Perhaps whatever it was we committed to was not something we were ever interested in, making it very hard to ever follow through.
- Lack of Intention: Sadly, sometimes we commit without ever intending to follow through. There could be a variety of reasons for this.
Quite simply, we have a condition within our church that needs to be remedied. The diagnosis can be nothing less than we are living a lifestyle distorted away from truth.
Defining the Intention
It was certainly never God’s intention for us to live in this manner. Our words are meant to be defined by truth and accountability so that when the words flow from our lips they are expected to be reliable. God’s intention was integrity in language, liveliness, and lifestyle. We see this expectation defined in James 5:12 where James writes:
“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
James lived during a time in which the use of oaths was being misused. Swearing an oath by the Lord’s name indicated the Lord as a witness. It demonstrated a commitment to God’s divine authority and to violate an oath would mean to break God’s own law (note: in Exodus 20:7 God instructed the people to not take His name in vain, thus to violate an oath would violate one of the Ten Commandments).
James intention was not to forbid oaths. His intention was to compel others to truthful speech that would be exemplified in truthful living. In the Reformed Expository Commentary, Daniel Dorian points out, “James flatly prohibits the use of oaths because even the honest use of oaths testifies that something is amiss in the community” (pg. 186). His comments get to the heart of the intention of the text. The simple idea is plain and meaningful: our lifestyles should be such that oaths are unnecessary. Regardless of whether or not we swear an oath, our lifestyles are to be ones of truth, whether by speech or by action. God’s intention was not that we live a lifestyle distorted away from truth but that we would live a lifestyle directed by truth.
Determining the Application
So what does this mean? It’s easy to say we understand and agree with the concept of living with integrity in our words. However, our failures in this area show us that it’s not as easy to live it out. I would suggest three things that will help us in this area:
Prioritize your priorities: In Romans 15:24-26, Paul exemplifies this principle in his travels. While he hopes to travel to Spain, he recognizes the importance of doing some other things first. Even Jesus Christ did this with His disciples. While he did instruct the multitudes, His primary intention was to build up the disciples to continue the work. Like them, we must prioritize what is important in terms of fulfilling God’s calling upon our lives so that we know what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to.
Keep the light on the light (John 8:12): Never take the focus off of the things above. Instead, move forward with a mind that is fixated on the things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1-4). If He is not the focal point of everything you do, then it’s not worth doing. As Steve Lawson once said, “All that matters is this Lord Jesus Christ. If you please Him it doesn’t matter who you displease, and if you displease Him it does not matter who you please.”
Say what you mean and mean what you say: As James often does, His words follow along with Christ’s own teachings. Matthew recounts a similar time in which Jesus also provided instruction to not swear an oath but instead be truthful in speech and action (Matthew 5:34-37). We must never mince our words. Instead, we should say what we mean to say and at the same time we should mean what we say. So be honest and open, and if a commitment is given, then follow through with it.
My concern is how casual we have gotten with our words, with our promises. A broken word often leads to a broken heart.
May our lives please and glorify our God and, in doing so, may they build up and encourage one another. We are not called to a lifestyle distorted away from the truth, but to a lifestyle dignified by truth that is directed by truth.