Why do people swear? Here, I don’t mean cursing, nor being under oath in a courtroom. Rather, why do people feel compelled to “underline” their assertions and their promises with an oath? You’ve heard them, swearing on “a stack of Bibles”, or on “their mothers’ graves”. (You’ve probably heard others, but let’s not dwell on bad behavior, here.)
Swearing in this case is calling upon another power in order to validate a statement. It can also imply that the other power will bring down punishment on the person making the oath, if they are lying or don’t keep their promise.
I think that people choose to do this for several reasons:
- Their word is normally not reliable. When someone has told lies or not kept their promises often enough, we have a hard time believing that this time will be different.
- Their story is unbelievable. I can appreciate crazy circumstances being met with skepticism, but there is a time and place to either demonstrate facts (to back up one’s claims), or to accept that others simply won’t believe that we saw a famous recording artist at the grocery store.
- They feel undue pressure to get you to believe them. I understand if someone is trying to convince you that help is needed in a life-threatening situation, but when our opinion of others is so important that they must convince us of the truth (for something that is relatively trivial), perhaps they are putting too much of their self-esteem in us, and not believing that they have value to God.
In addition, some people in the first century used the object of their oath as an escape hatch, where if they swore by just the right thing (in just the right way), they didn’t have to keep their vow. Jesus condemned behavior like this in Matthew 23:16-22.
If you’ve ever tried to propagate something that you knew was a lie (which may mean that you had to keep lying until deciding to do the right thing and tell the truth), you probably remember how difficult it is to remember what you’ve told various people. (Telling jokes is kind of the same way. If you have a good new joke, you can tell it to lots of different people, but you must not tell it to the same ones twice!). I have to imagine that the oaths of those in the first century were similar, in that they would have to keep track of which vows were made against “binding” authorities, and which were ok to weasel out of.
Jesus offered a much simpler solution (a command, really) to His followers:
“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.
Matthew 5:33-35 NIV
Imagine that: When we are simply truthful (and tell truths simply, I suppose), we no longer have to swear that things are true. And, when we follow Jesus, we are no longer compelled to swear for any of the reasons listed above:
- Our word is always reliable. When we make a commitment to tell the truth (as Jesus instructed above, and as the Israelites were told to do, all the way back in Exodus 20:16), it may take some time for friends to restore their trust in us if we lied to them in the past. Still, after a while, a pattern of truth-telling becomes clear to others.
- Our stories may be amazing, but they will be consistent with fact. It may be hard to believe that the holy God of the universe loved each person so much that He was willing to pay the price to redeem us from the punishment we deserved. However, that’s true, and it is consistent with the historical facts of Jesus’ ministry and self-sacrifice, as well as the changed lives of those who have found peace through Jesus.
- We don’t have to force people to believe us. Our self-worth is no longer a function of others’ opinion of us (or, what we think they think about us). God loves us, and Our value is found in facts like being created by God (in His image, no less!), and that He loves us (see Psalm 136, John 3:16-17, and Romans 5:8).1
So, let us simply be truthful today. We have no need to swear.
Based on Sunday School lesson prepared for (and delivered on) January 10, 2021
- Christian Standard, Volume CLVI, Number 1, pages 79-80. © 2020 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Matthew, by Larry Chouinard. College Press Publishing Company, © 1997, p. 102-121.
- In addition, I can appreciate the pain of wanting to make someone believe in the truth about Jesus, because of the missed opportunity for them to experience something better (both in this life and in eternity). We may want to do everything that we can to compel others to accept Jesus (for their own good), even if that means violating God’s instructions (whether commands about swearing or lying). However, the fact is that some will choose not to believe in Jesus, and we can only do so much on our own. The rest we must trust to God.↩