The Law of Moses has detailed rules on how to make an oath, including different types of vows and regulations for how, when, and by whom they are fulfilled. There are even rules about who can cancel an oath and when. God wants his people to honor their word, so let’s take a look at five ways to help us tell the truth.
Be Careful What You Say
God expects you to keep your promises (Deuteronomy 23.21-23). Psalm 15.1 asks “Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” Today, we might ask “Who will be in heaven?” Psalm 15.4 gives one characteristic of God’s redeemed people: “[the one] who swears to their own hurt and does not change.” Basically, keep your word – even if it winds up costing far more than expected.
A Biblical example of this is Jephthah, who made a tragic vow to God. He promised as a whole burnt offering whatever greeted him first upon his victorious return from battle. His daughter was first out of the house to sing his praises. At this point, one might make excuses for why Jephthah wouldn’t, shouldn’t, or couldn’t keep his vow. However, let’s look at the reactions from both Jephthah and his daughter. Jephthah said, “For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11.35). Jephthah’s daughter said, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said…” (Judges 11.36).
There is definitely more to talk about in Judges 11, but our lesson now is to be careful what you say. No one wanted to break the vow than Jephthah and his daughter, but they both came to the same conclusion: what Jephthah spoke he must fulfill. Considering his situation, we should never say something we aren’t willing to fulfill.
Be Specific in Your Promises
If we are to keep our word, then we must be more specific. Specificity helps everyone involved in a discussion by removing confusion about expectations. Hurt feelings, resentment, and arguments arise from miscommunication as often as anything else. We should take great care to avoid the problem by speaking specifically. We don’t need to sound like or turn into legalists, but we certainly want to protect everyone in our lives from misunderstandings.
For example, if someone asks for help washing their car, be specific in your answer. An answer of “Yes, I’d love to help!” will likely be interpreted as helping until the task is finished – whatever that entails in the asker’s mind. It could include a presoak, rinse, washing, rinse, drying, waxing, and vacuuming. You may not have time for or expect so much work, so, being specific is a good idea before agreeing to help. “What do you have in mind?” is always a great question to ask before giving agreement. “I would love to help with (a particular part of the process)” or “I would love to help, but I can only help till 3 pm” are both great, specific answers to the question. By speaking specifically, both people know exactly what the other expects, the answers are honest, and everyone can give thanks and glorify God together.
Jesus warns that judgment falls upon idle, or useless, speech (Matthew 12.36). This certainly includes gibberish and foolishness, and it probably also includes words that don’t do their job: communicating effectively. We should carefully choose and consider our words so true understanding happens. When miscommunication happens, as it often does, it’s our job to clarify misunderstandings and make things as agreeable as possible for everyone involved. However, intentionally vague or misleading statements are often signs of dishonesty, and should typically be avoided by God’s people. Precise communication helps our personal relationships, shows our good intentions, and helps us to glorify God better.
Precise communication is a good thing for everyone. It helps our personal relationships by avoiding misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Our good intentions, when clearly communicated, help deepen mutual love and admiration. Finally, specific speech helps us do more in a better way, which, ultimately, helps us glorify God better.
Respect the Wisdom of Leaders
Foolishness and inexperience often lead someone to make promises they can’t or don’t want to keep. God’s word says we should seek the counsel of spiritually wise people to help us avoid sin and better serve our Lord. For example, husbands and fathers were allowed to rescind the vows of their wives and daughters (Numbers 30.1-3, 6-8). Before we cry out “Misogyny!” let’s examine what’s actually happening. Remember, when the law doesn’t seem fair to us, it’s usually protecting someone.
Historically, the world has treated women very poorly. God has always sought to protect women, and the word of God, especially the New Testament, has tempered the world and brought great freedoms to modern women everywhere. Ancient customs were harsh, and most societies thought of women more as property than anything else. The Law of Moses is contrary to these human views and presents men and women as equals before God (cf Genesis 1.26-27, 2.18). From the beginning, God has taught an equality of human dignity and standing before the Creator for both men and women.
While the Law may seem unfair to modern readers, it is protecting the woman’s dignity and spiritual standing. Women, who typically spent most of their time at home, were somewhat insulated from the evils associated with business and politics. They would be less familiar with vows and contracts, and, because of inexperience in such matters, others could manipulate them or they might make a hasty or rash vow. It was the duty of fathers and husbands to protect the women in their families from these things. The Law didn’t remove a woman’s freedom to make a pledge, but it did give her an added layer of protection.
This is a powerful lesson for us in trusting wise, spiritual leaders. Hebrews 13.7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” We should also allow ourselves to be convinced by the spiritual wisdom they demonstrate from the Scriptures (Hebrews 13.17). By following these leaders, ideally, we will be lead into more truth and a better way of living for Christ.
Cultivate a Truthful Heart
Jesus knew where all of our problems ultimately start. He said, “How can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12.34-35). Our truthfulness must ultimately come from a changed heart, or we’re only fooling ourselves by feigning obedience.
Genesis 6.5 has a powerful truth: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Notice, the text doesn’t say they only acted evil, but their thoughts were evil. They may have restrained themselves on occasion, but their hearts wanted to sin. If our telling the truth doesn’t come from an honest and truthful heart, then we’re in the same boat as the people in Genesis 6, which isn’t much of a boat when you think about it.
We must shine the light of God’s word into the dark recesses of our hearts, expelling both the darkness and the desire to sin. God’s word will light our path and fill our hearts to keep us from sinning against our Creator (Psalm 119.11, 105). Filling our minds with God’s truth will remove our desire to lie, and we’ll have the divine wisdom to help us keep our word.
If you need a place to start, begin with the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is a great book with many practical applications on how to become a more godly person. Additionally, you can pace your reading at a chapter a day. There are 31 chapters in Proverbs, which roughly corresponds to the days in each month. This gives you reading material every day, making it easier to draw closer to God, to hide God’s word in your heart, and to gain spiritual wisdom and insight.
God doesn’t change (Malachi 3.6). The consistency of God’s character is our guideline; we should strive to have an unchanging character modeled after Christ. We must be committed to doing something If we agree to it.
Surprisingly, our godly character is best displayed by not making vows at all. Jesus says, “Do not take an oath at all…let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5.34-37). The Law contains the same admonition: “If you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth” (Deuteronomy 23.22-23).
Basically, God’s advice is to have such an honest and trustworthy character that you don’t need to make vows with other people. If people can trust you, then you really don’t need to promise to do something. Your word is your pledge. If you have to make a vow before you’re trustworthy, then, basically, you’re a liar most of the time.
Other people should be able to depend on us. Our word, like God’s, shouldn’t change. It is our consistent, faithful behavior that sets apart from unbelievers; if we do not behave differently consistently, then we produce no light to glorify God or draw people to him.
We can get better at being truthful every day. This is what God wants for our lives, and he provides the help we need. In becoming more honest, we become more like God and bring his glory to more and more people every day. Let’s all resolve to change our hearts, fill our minds with God’s word, and to become more like our gracious Savior, Jesus, every day.
 There is a great discussion about the meaning of the word πείθω and whether it should be translated as “obey” or “allow yourself to be persuaded by”. This isn’t what we’re talking about in this post, but you will be able to find it here in the future.