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
This past Sunday, a man came up to me after the service and asked a question: “How do you struggle with what you just preached? What do you find difficult about it?”
It was a great question. I had just preached on James 5:12 (above). The big idea is that God’s people should show integrity in their words and commitments. As God willingly binds himself to us in commitments and promises, and stays faithful to those commitments, we ought to do the same to others.
In this, a couple of important clarifications are needed, which relate to how I answered the man: first, being faithful to our commitments requires us to say “no” to some things. It requires us to recognize our limits and weaknesses, refuse to please people in the moment by overcommitting ourselves, and trust God with what is beyond us.
Second, because God is ultimately in control of the future, and not us, there are times we have to break our commitments. We should make our commitments with the humble attitude that James encourages in chapter 4: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” Which doesn’t mean that we’re always looking for an excuse to get out of things, and blaming God for it, but that situations will change, and despite our full intention to be faithful, God had other plans.
Back to my answer to the man: How I struggle with all of this is the wisdom to know when these clarifying points are legitimate, and not just excuses to be selfish. When am I committing myself not just to the point of sacrifice and discomfort (which is good), but to the point of being unhealthy and refusing to trust God with what I can’t handle? Letting my “yes” be “yes” and “no” be “no” is not so hard as knowing when to say “yes” and “no” in the first place.
Likewise, I struggle to know when the Lord has released me from a commitment versus when I am selfishly looking for a way out. The thing is, love is demonstrated by being faithful to our words when things get tough and it would be easiest to eject (“for better or worse, till death do us part”). But still, an honest and truthful plan will have to be adjusted or abandoned at times, “if the Lord wills.”
Now, these can be difficult decisions to make, but such wisdom and discernment is at the heart of the life of a Christian. God hasn’t told us what to do in every situation. But he doesn’t leave us without help. He has given us several ways to discern the best path.
First, he has given us his Spirit, living inside us, who leads us (Rom. 8:14) and helps us (John 16:7).
Second, he has given us his Word which teaches us the necessary principles for weighing decisions. We learn that sacrifice and selflessness are fundamental to the love we are called to. We also learn that there are always people and needs beyond our ability to take on, and we must trust God.
Third, he has given us the church community to help inform and shape our convictions and decisions. It may seem very spiritual to claim to rely only on God’s Spirit and Word alone, and thus not need other believers to help guide, advise and exhort. But even those renewed and led by the Spirit have understandings, desires and wills marred by sin. One of the means that God uses to lead and teach us is other believers, and so calls us to humbly “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
All of these means (Spirit, Word, church) assist us in our decision making. And yet they don’t always give us the “lighting bolt from heaven” that we sometimes want, that tells us exactly what we ought to do in every situation. But it is better they don’t, because we are left, after seeking wisdom, having to trust in God with the outcome and implications.