Young people may say, “I’ll love you forever,” and be sincere in their exaggeration. Moms and dads tell their children, “I’ll always be there for you.” Our statements and words reflect a deed we may wish to perform, but reality says something different. Reality in most cases is the silent partner to our words. There is a distance between the “yes” and the “but” that remains unspoken.
We all are disturbed and feel terribly betrayed when another person breaks a promise. And yet we have all broken our word at one time or another. No matter how vehemently we deny that, it is a fact of life for human beings. Our “yes” is not definite—it carries unspoken and hidden conditions. The promise of a parent can be cut short by an accidental death. Unforeseen conditions can arise to interfere with what we may want to do. We humans are subject to various pressures we cannot control. Memory, distance, illness, emergencies or changing circumstances all play a role in our lives. Thus, we ought to realize (and I am sure we do) that we have a lot of “buts” in our lives.
The unspoken “but”
One area I have noticed that creates huge problems for Christians is in the promises God makes. James 5:14-18 has caused grief for many who were not healed of an illness—though they prayed fervently about the problem. John 14:13-14 has led some into grief as they suppose that whatever they ask in Jesus’ name will be given. Some pick up snakes believing that God would not allow the snake to bite them. Some are hurt when, after praying long and strong for a job or some need they have, the prayer seems to go unanswered.
We are all disturbed and feel terribly betrayed when another person breaks a promise.
We dig deep to explain why it is so. There is a silent “but” that we must not overlook. We could ask “amiss” (James 4:3). There is a “time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2) and a “time to mourn” (verse 4). Life is not always smooth. There are many pitfalls and difficulties we face. Some are of our own making and some are due to other forces.
James 5:7-12 is a scripture that contains some sound advice. It precedes the promise of healing. James speaks of patience and of suffering in the verses preceding this. We are to learn to suffer in patience. In verse 12, James tells us not to swear by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. An oath leaves little or no room for a “but.”
James hearkens back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:33-37 where Jesus told people not to swear because they cannot even make a hair black or white (or grow hair, I notice). Jesus was pointing out that we are limited by being physical. We are limited in a great number of ways. Unseen events and circumstances in our lives may all have a bearing on our “yes.” In other words, every “yes” has unspoken conditions imposed on it by the very fact that we are temporary creatures living in changing conditions in an ever-changing world.
The intention of a “yes” is good and necessary in life. In Matthew 26:41 Jesus stated, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This does not diminish the need for determination to fulfill a promise—but it does add reality. God is a realist. One example Jesus gives is in obeying God’s commandments. For example, Jesus kept the seventh day of the week as the commanded day of rest (Exodus 20:8-11). Yet He pointed out that it is acceptable to do good and care for the needs of humans and animals (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9; 13:15; 14:5). Common sense provided the “buts.”
Jesus did not condemn the taking of a solemn oath. Marriage vows are very serious and solemn oaths and promises we take before God. At baptism, we repent of sins and in that repentance is the affirmation that we will not sin again (Romans 6:1-2). In truth, we all do understand the conditions of a “yes” or a “no,” for we have all experienced these conditions to a lesser or greater degree. It is the frivolous and flippant use of God’s name or some other valued object to guarantee the veracity of our statements that is the problem. It is our tendency to exaggerate to show our sincerity that causes us to make statements that are not complete or correct. It is a correctly valued point of character to be a “man of his word” (or woman of hers). It is right to expect that of one another—provided we realize that we are all human.
A change of plans
In 2 Corinthians 1:12-23 Paul writes about a change in his plans. He writes of sincerity and in verse 15 relates his intention to come to Corinth again. In verse 23, he explains why his plans were changed. Paul states that with God there is not a “Yes and No” (verse 19)—that is, there are no “buts” in the sense we humans have through our weaknesses. New factors were not known when Paul’s promise was made, but the silent understanding was always understood in the promise.
Although God never needs to deal with frailties within Himself that may interfere with keeping His promises, He nevertheless includes some “buts.” One example is in the promise of God to King Solomon (I Kings 3:10-14), God states the “but” that is always included in His promises. That “but” usually starts with “if.” The seriousness of acting willfully and carelessly by even the most saintly human is shown in Hebrews 10:19-31. A person who has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit is still human. God understands that. But that person ought to heed his promises to God and strive to fulfill their commitment. That is vital to our character and for our own good on into eternity.
Luke 12:16-21 is another example of poor thinking. Our best laid plans and promises need to have the possibility of unforeseen events built into them. The man in this parable may have signed contracts and given his word—but death was a condition to his “yes.”
We have all made excuses for being late, missing appointments or falling short of our promises—our “yeses.” That is simply being human. There are always conditions, but our actions ought to reflect a “God willing” attitude. There is nothing wrong with a change of plans, but our character is under scrutiny. We should feel the obligation to express the condition that changed our plans. People do understand. We are all in the same boat!
We must remember that when plans or circumstances change, we are obligated to notify the other person about it, before the recipient is inconvenienced, only to hear an excuse later. For instance, this can happen when a hostess invites people to a dinner party. All too often, though she has prepared and set a place for them, they simply do not show up! Responsibility for our actions is a point of character. Wisdom in speaking and acting are paramount to our development as children of God.
So, we may conclude that godly character demands a sincere attempt to follow through with our promises—our “yeses.” But a good understanding of possibilities that are part of our lives is needed. That is just the way it is — so we learn the great lessons of life.