Keeping Foolish Vows
Q: A friend, frustrated when her boyfriend left her, swore that she would never have another boyfriend. Now a boy, also a Christian, is approaching her. She likes him but keeps thinking that what she promised in front of God is a serious vow and is afraid to break it. How can I help her? Do you know any Bible verses concerning a similar situation?
A: Your friend is correct: Any promise is serious — even if it’s not sworn to God or “on a stack of Bibles.” As James wrote, “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. (5:12).” While the Old Testament set standards for formal vows, Jesus specifically forbade swearing oaths under the New Covenant (cf. Matthew 5:33-37). Most Christians believe that this pertains especially to voluntary oaths and promises made between believers.
The all-time extreme example of keeping a foolish oath belongs to Jepthah. Judges 11:30-31 says, “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever [or whoever] comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it [him] up for a burnt offering.’” Living among the heathen likely skewed his understanding of God’s Word; he probably thought that the Lord would be as pleased with human sacrifice as were pagan deities such as Molech. Since he was well-off, he could have expected a household slave as the first one to come out to greet him.
Jephthah discovered his error when he returned home and saw not a household slave first coming to greet him. Instead, “His daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. (v. 34)” Devastated, he said, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow. (v. 35)” He allowed her two months to go off with her friends and mourn her fate. Then “she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. (v. 39)” Later, Herod similarly bound himself with a foolish promise that led up to the execution of John the Baptist (see Mark 6:21-29).
Your friend, you, I, and all others are much too casual with our plans and promises. As James elsewhere wrote, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (4:15)” And aside from Jephthah. how often does anyone keep his word regardless of the consequences? Are we not all guilty of telling someone else that we’ll do something with or for them at a certain time and then find ourselves unable to keep that promise without going against another promise or obligation?
Yet just as much as God hates liars and oath breakers, even more does He delight in forgiving. He recognizes that while some swear oaths to spite Him, more of us make poor promises or swear unkeepable oaths out of ignorance, fear, or foolishness. For example, Peter three times lied and renounced Jesus. With the final lie, “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’ (Mark 14:71)” However, Jesus forgave Peter, restored him into leadership among the apostles, and granted him years of faithful service before his death.
Throughout much of Christian history, the Church kept a distinction between deliberate denials of good vows and the inability to keep an oath that never should have been taken. As noted in Article XXVII of The Augsburg Confession, “All the canons show great lenience and fairness toward those who have made vows in their youth, as is the case with large numbers of priests and monks who entered their vocations out of ignorance when they were young.” The medieval Decretum of Gratian quite thoroughly compiles numerous sources advocating such leniency.
So what should your friend do? She should not stop at contrition (mere sorrow over a sin) — in so doing, Judas despaired and committed suicide. Instead, she needs true repentance — i.e., sorrow over sin, faith in forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and desire to amend sinful behavior — that she might be freed from the double guilt of swearing and then of breaking what became an untenable oath. Just as Jesus restored Peter, so also will God grant forgiveness and bring comfort to her.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #534:1