“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” (James 5:12).
My mother had x-ray vision. She could always see through my childish deceptions. Too often she’d catch me getting into something I wasn’t supposed to do. (I wonder why she never told me not to wash the dishes or make my bed or clean my room.) When she’d grill me over an infraction, I’d invariably try to wiggle out of it. Somehow, she always seemed to know the truth, regardless of my clever excuses and insistent alibis. She’d whittle the truth out of me every time. Eventually, I just learned to tell the truth and be done with it.
Have you ever noticed how often people begin a lie with words like: “To be honest” or “To tell the truth” or “Trust me”? As children, we’d often seal a statement with, “Cross my heart.” I never really knew what it meant, but when someone drew an “X” over their heart with a finger, I knew I was supposed to trust whatever they’d said. Oddly, it seems that the more someone argues for a lie, the more ardently they invoke such platitudes.
To swear is to promise by invoking the authority of a greater power. In James’ day, a common practice was to invoke the formidable authority heaven or the earth to validate the truth of one’s claim. We do the same thing today. Many people will “swear to God,” while Christians reduce the pledge to a simple, “I swear!” The intent is the same.
When we swear, we claim to have some ownership or power over the thing by which we swear. How could we swear by something over which we have no say? So, to invoke the name of God is to raise ourselves above Him.
James advocated a simpler, cleaner principle: “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.” He agreed with Jesus’ command not to swear at all (Mt. 5:33-37). The point is to be such people of integrity that merely to give our yes or no is sufficient. We should require no greater authority because our very lives exude the kind of honesty and uprightness that leaves no room to question our motives.
The Christian doesn’t need to invoke God’s name to make a pledge because the very fabric of his or her life is woven into God’s ordained design. The Reformers coined the phrase, “Coram Deo,” meaning, “before the face of God,” to convey the idea that their lives were in full view of God’s watchful eye.
If my life lays bare before God every moment, then I don’t have to call on any special privilege or authority to give my word. I just give it, knowing that He sees me and knows the truth. The reason I can give my word, yes or no, without appealing to a superior force is because I answer to God. If I’m living to please and honor Him, I need no other authority.
The threat of judgment arises in the face of falsehoods. If I swear or appeal to some higher power and then am found in a lie, I can be sure that God will deal with me accordingly. The unregenerate faces God’s eternal wrath. While Christ’s grace protects the believer from God’s wrath, His corrective discipline is a dark providence that’s never pleasant.
May God give His people grace to live openly before Him and to speak the truth in love without evoking artificial means of substantiating false claims.