In today’s text, “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise you will be condemned.” (James 5:12), James is telling us to be truthful. This text goes along with Jesus’ teaching, “‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.'” (Matt. 5:33-37)
The fact that the Promise Keepers men’s movement has attracted thousands of men to its rallies says something about the need to restore integrity among men who actually do what they say they will do. If we promise to love our wives, to be faithful unto them until death parts us, then we should keep those promises. If we make a promise to a customer in our business, we should keep our word, even if it costs us. If we promise our children something, we should do what we promised. In our everyday communication, we should speak the truth and not shade it with nuances to hide the truth. All of these things are implicit in James 5:12, which is saying: As believers we must be truthful in our communication so that we do not fall under judgment. The real issue is speaking the truth at all times.
Some see no logical or thematic connection between this verse and the context. They view this section as a random jumble of exhortations with no flow of thought. But James has been dealing with both worldliness and a spirit of pride, which result in relational conflicts. From 4:1-5:18, he makes the point that true faith resists arrogance by humbling oneself before God. This includes humility in relationships stemming from humility before God together.
Oaths are necessary because bending the truth for personal advantage comes naturally to us as sinners. In speaking of the depravity that is common to the human race, Paul says (Rom. 3:13), “… with their tongues they keep deceiving….” You don’t have to teach a little child to lie. Rather, you have to teach him to tell the truth, especially when it is seemingly not to his advantage to do so.
James is not speaking here to those outside of the church, but rather to believers (“my brethren”). Becoming a Christian does not automatically produce truthful communication. The Bible is filled with exhortations to God’s people to be truthful in word and deed. For example, Paul says “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15). A few verses later (4:25), he writes, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” The apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:10) says, “For, ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.” (cited from Psalm 34:12). So don’t assume that because you’re a Christian, you won’t struggle with the sin of being deceptive. We all need to work at truthful communication.
When James says, “Do not swear,” he is not referring to taking the Lord’s name in vain, although Scripture clearly forbids that. The third commandment states (Exod. 20:7), “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” But James is not dealing with that subject here. Rather, he is talking about not invoking God’s name in everyday speech to assure the truthfulness of what you say. If someone often says, “I swear to God that’s true,” you begin to wonder whether anything he says is true. Your word should be true without needing to make a big deal about it.
In commenting on Matthew 5:33-37, Haddon Robinson (The Christian Salt & Light Company) says with regard to the Sermon on the Mount, “If anger was the real issue of murder, lust the real issue of adultery, selfishness the real issue of divorce, then deceit is the real issue of oaths.” He adds, “Jesus wasn’t addressing whether or not we should take an oath. He was talking about whether or not we are truthful…. We don’t tell the truth because we have taken an oath; we tell the truth because we are truthful.”
Truthful communication is essential for good relationships because truth is essential for trust. If you don’t trust someone, you’re not going to allow that person to get close to you. We lie or deceive others because we mistakenly think that it will hold the relationship together. So we rationalize bending the truth, thinking, “If she really knew the truth, she would never speak to me again.” But that’s like trying to fix a broken pipe with masking tape. You may slow the leak temporarily, but you’re only delaying disaster. The pipe will burst and cause far more damage than if you had just fixed it properly when the leak was first detected.
If we practice deception in our marriages, we may preserve superficial peace on the surface, but beneath the surface, a volcano is building. When the truth is revealed, the volcano will erupt and cause far more damage than if we had honestly dealt with the root issues when they first came up. The root of truthful communication is walking truthfully before God, who sees your heart.
Here are a few ways that we can easily fall into deception and falsehood: (1) The half-truth: you tell the truth, but not all the truth. Abraham did this when he claimed that Sarah was his sister. She was his half-sister, but he didn’t mention that she also happened to be his wife! (2) The “white” lie: these are the “innocent” lies that “don’t hurt anyone.” You call in sick to work when you’re really well. (3) The lie to cover for someone else: “He’s not in.” (4) Exaggeration: stretching the truth to make yourself look better or to evoke sympathy for your cause. (5) The silent lie: the other person assumes something flattering about you that is clearly false, but you don’t speak up to correct it. (6) The cover-up lie: You hide your own wrongdoing with the rationalization that it would hurt the other person too much to find out the real truth. (7) The evasive lie: you change the subject or conveniently dodge the truth by not answering directly.
William Barclay (The Daily Study Bible, Matthew) sums up Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:33-37: “Here is a great eternal truth. Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved and in others of which he is not involved; there cannot be one kind of language in the Church and another kind of language in the shipyard or factory or the office; there cannot be one kind of standard of conduct in the Church and another kind of standard in the business world. The fact is that God does not need to be invited into certain departments of life, and kept out of others. He is everywhere, all through life and every activity of life. He hears not only the words which are spoken in his name; he hears all words; and there cannot be any such thing as a form of words which evades bringing God into a transaction. We will regard all promises as sacred, if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God.”