“The Importance of Being Honest”

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 5:12)

Among the many practical teachings in the book of James comes this word on honesty. In his typical tone of loving concern, James addresses his beloved “brothers” (and sisters) in Christ with this simple imperative: “do not swear.”

The kind of swearing he is prohibiting is not dirty language, although this too is something Christians must avoid (“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” [Eph. 4:29]), but rather the taking of oaths, invoking God’s name to guarantee the truth of what one says.

But didn’t God “swear” by his own name in the Old Testament? If so, how does this square with James’ prohibition against it? While it is true that God frequently guaranteed his promises to Israel with oaths, his purpose in doing so was not to increase his own credibility. “God is not man, that he should lie.” (Num. 23:19) God’s purpose in using oaths was to confirm our imperfect trust in him. The fault which made God condescend to our level was not due to any untrustworthiness on his part but rather to our unbelief and weakness. God swore not because he sometimes lies but in order to help us believe (Heb. 6:13-20).

It is also true that the Law of Moses allowed Israelites to take oaths, but it never commanded them. If one did voluntarily take an oath, he was obligated to keep it: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:12) Also, “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But 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.” (Deut. 23:21-23; also Ecc. 5:4-5)

The point James is making is that Christians should be trustworthy people. We should not have to rely on oaths to guarantee our word; a simple “yes” or “no” should suffice. Swearing is often a confession of dishonesty. The more we resort to hyperbole and exaggeration, the less value our words and promises carry. James is echoing the Lord Jesus in Matthew 5:34-37. Oaths were devalued by their indiscriminate use and the tendency to avoid fulfilling them by swearing on ‘less sacred’ things (Mt. 23:16-22). In contrast, citizens of God’s kingdom, whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt. 5:20), ought to say what they mean and mean what they say (Mt. 12:33). Those whose hearts and mouths are under God’s rule should have a reputation for honesty. After all, James warns, a failure to keep one’s word results in falling “under condemnation.” For there to be mutual trust in God’s family our promises must be firm and our words must count.

One final note on this topic. James and Jesus are not necessarily  prohibiting the use of every oath. We may be required to take an oath in a court of law. Jesus himself did not refuse to reply when the high priest put him on oath (Mt. 26:63-64). While our word should be enough, because of sin, sometimes more than a simple “yes” or “no” is necessary. If people never lied, oaths wouldn’t be needed. If promises were always kept, no one would be asked to swear. But because people do break their word, extra measures are sometimes required to guard against falsehood. Rather than forbidding legal oaths, James and Jesus are regulating voluntary oaths. While kingdoms of earth must rely on oaths to establish credibility, the kingdom of heaven needs nothing more than a “yes” or a “no.”