I am too often guilty of making promises that I don’t keep. I don’t necessarily intend to break them, but off-hand comments like, “Let’s get together for lunch”, or “I’ll try to not wait so long until the next time I call”, tend to get drowned out by daily responsibilities, and days turn into weeks and months.
At work, it’s pretty much a given that if I don’t write something down, I’m going to forget it. I find myself asking others to send me an e-mail note with a request, especially when we are just talking in the hallway, so that I don’t lose the memory of it. Still, my inbox continues to grow with needs from colleagues.
My normal reaction in a situation like this (other than just wanting to give up) is to try and work harder. If I just put in a few more hours in the week, maybe I can start to make headway on that backlog. However, history – and periods of more lucid thoughtfulness – show that this isn’t likely to help.
Have a look at this parable from Jesus:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go.
Matthew 21:28-30 NASB
In this illustration, it seems that the first son didn’t turn down his father’s request because he was unable to help. The first son appears to have just chosen not to work. After all, when he reconsidered, he was able to go and get the job done. That’s not quite the same as when we turn down someone whose request we think we can’t meet, but it does remind us that when we don’t commit to something, we may still have the opportunity to serve (without the risk that we won’t be able to deliver on a hastily-made promise). For those who think that they see a loophole here, I don’t think that this should be extrapolated to condone an attitude that says no to everything. Instead, we can be like Jesus, who made promises and kept them, but He only agreed to do what He knew that He would be able to complete.
The second son feels a lot more like my situation. We aren’t told why he didn’t keep his promise: perhaps he had other responsibilities that day, changed his mind, or was just lazy. Still, this second son was the one who – like certain people in the audience to whom Jesus was speaking – was ultimately disobedient.
Instead of just trying to do more than we are able, the generally-accepted solution is to promise less. This may mean leaving some requests unfulfilled, or even causing a few other people to be genuinely unhappy. Still, committing only to what we can reasonably deliver allows us to maintain a reputation for keeping our word (see below), and sometimes – when circumstances give us extra time or resources – even to offer help to others that we didn’t expect.
Choose a good reputation over great riches;
being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.
Proverbs 22:1 NLT
Our own limitations should also not deter us from following God’s calling into adventures that we don’t think that we can complete by ourselves. He can provide the right skills, resources, and solutions for great things. Still, following God’s clear direction isn’t the same as over-committing ourselves to what we like (or what we think will endear us to others). When we focus on pleasing people, rather than God, we will not only disappoint others (because we can’t deliver everything they want), but we will also often find – especially in a non-personal environment, like a job – that their gratitude can be erratic and unsatisfying (especially compared to God’s faithfulness).
May our goal be to hear praise from God, because we followed His will and gave honest answers when asked for help, even if that means we sometimes said “no” to other people:
“The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together! ’
Matthew 25:21 NLT