When I was a new believer a dear mentor who had great influence on my life made me aware of Psalm 15:4 which proclaims that the righteous man “swears to his own hurt and does not change.” My friend taught me that there will be times in life when one might regret making a commitment, but that it is necessary to keep one’s word. Or as we read elsewhere in Scripture, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’” (James 5:12 Matthew 5:37).
As counselors we often come across counselees who are lax in keeping their commitments. A successful and capable woman who is married to a lazy selfish man may realize that she could find a better husband, but she made a commitment before God and must keep it (also see Matthew 19:6). A father who promises to attend an event with his son on a Saturday, only to be offered great seats at the big game at the last minute, may be tempted to abandon his commitment to his son in order to take the better offer while offering his son a vague assurance that they’ll find another time to be together (“We’ll have a good time then, son” — from the folk song “The cat’s in the cradle”).
While it is of significant concern that ordinary believers are oblivious to this biblical principle of keeping your promise even when you regret having made it, I have been shocked at how easily some Christian leaders (even counselors) break their commitments. I have seen examples of conference speakers who unilaterally backed out of an event simply due to busyness or because another greater opportunity arose. In many such cases the conference organizers were left with significant fallout – having invested time and money in the event and perhaps having to find a last-minute replacement. I also have known of Christian publishers[i] who, sadly, have failed to follow through on their contractual commitments.
There is a sense in which every promise we make is conditional because we may be unable to keep our word due to circumstances beyond our control (James 4:13-15 Prov. 16:9 27:1). You could providentially be unable to be somewhere due to sickness, disability, death, or the failure of the airlines to deliver you on time. A publisher may go bankrupt and thus be unable to pay its authors.
Only God can perfectly keep each of His promises. Ultimately the righteous man of Psalm 15 is Christ who alone is worthy to abide in God’s holy place (Psalm 15:1) and who lives and speaks with perfect righteousness and integrity (Psalm 15:2-5). However, we whom He has saved should strive to emulate our Lord’s faithfulness to His Word.
I have seen some positive examples of Christian integrity. I know a Christian contractor and friend who bid a fixed price for a project which proved to be much more costly than he had anticipated. Not only did my friend not try to increase the price, he continued to do high quality work, not cutting corners even when others encouraged him to do so. Several years ago we invited a popular author as a keynote speaker at our annual conference. Shortly before he was supposed to be here a crisis erupted in his sphere of ministry. He went to extraordinary efforts to keep his commitment to us while trying to address the crisis from afar.
What should you do in response to Psalm 15:4?
- Expect to do some difficult things for the sake of keeping your commitments. There will be times when you may regret having made a promise, but must still keep it. The dad who is offered the ticket to the big game must be willing to keep his promise to his son. I have been guilty of over-committing to outside speaking engagements. What seemed like no big imposition when the commitment was initially made became overwhelming in the midst of the bustle of life. Sometimes as I am heading to the airport I ask, “Why did I agree to do this? Didn’t I realize how difficult and disruptive this would be?” These, however, are not valid reasons to break my word. Furthermore, usually I find joy and fulfillment once I get there and serve among the Lord’s people.
- Be very cautious about making commitments. One way to avoid being tempted to break a promise is to avoid making too many commitments. If you are like me and (like Ado Annie from the play “Oklahoma”) “can’t say no”, you may need outside help. Make a commitment (which you cannot break!) to your spouse or to your fellow leaders that you won’t accept any significant new responsibility (i.e. writing or speaking) without taking a certain amount of time to prayerfully consider whether this would be the wisest stewardship of your time and resources. It also might be wise to have others (it could be a spouse or a committee) with whom you must clear any commitments.
- If your promise is conditional make the qualifications explicit. If there are circumstances other than being prevented by God’s providence (health, family crisis, etc.) which could cause you to back out make these clear as you are making the commitment. For example, a speaker could tentatively agree to speak at an event in a year and a half, with the qualification that he reserves the right to back out as late as nine months ahead of time if he determines that other priorities (i.e. an overdue writing project) would take precedence.
- If you strongly desire to be released from a commitment, ask permission, rather than just declaring that you are no longer willing to keep your promise. For example, a few months ago I agreed to speak overseas next October. There has been a significant change in my life which would make this an extremely inconvenient (but not impossible) time for me to go. When this change took place, I contacted my host asking if he would be willing to release me from my commitment while also agreeing that if he wants to hold me to my word (for what I assume would be very valid reasons), I will cheerfully keep my promise while trusting God to work out the other situation.
- It may be that some of us need to seek forgiveness from others for not following the principles of Psalm 15:4, perhaps even offering to find some way to make it up to those whom we have disappointed.
[i] I am not implying that anyone who has published my books has done this.
(MA, DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is director of the Christian Counseling program and professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He is a fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and a board member of the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals (FIRE).
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