52. Be Simple

Meditations in James: 52: Be Simple & Straight Forward

Jas 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the practice of children crossing their fingers behind their backs to annul the promise they are making to other children, but that’s rather like what was happening in James’ time. Put in its most simple form, it is people excusing themselves from promises they have made. Children, especially, are good at using words to tie up friendships or try to bring honour to an agreement. Ah, that is what is at the heart of the whole problem of agreement; it is trying to bring honour to it. When someone swears an oath on a Bible in the witness box in a courtroom, the court are trying to make that person feel there is a solemnity in that oath-taking that will ensure they honour the court and tell the truth. People ‘swear’ by their mother’s grave, or goodness knows what, to try and give the other person a sense that they will honour their promise, or to reassure them that they are speaking the truth. Ensuring an agreement is honoured, or convincing others that you are speaking the truth, is sometimes difficult if your credibility or integrity is at stake. It’s a very important area of life.

It was to counter this dubious trend at that time that James wrote this verse. There had come a practice of distinguishing between oaths that were binding and those which were not. If God’s name was invoked, that made it binding, but otherwise oaths were not considered binding. Also oaths were used a great deal which also tended to undermine their trustworthiness. The whole point of an oath is that it is solemnising something that is special, something rare. The oath makes it special, the oath makes it something that everyone should feel MUST be kept. If an oath was used all the time, that would completely demean the use and value of oaths.

Oaths are all about validating the truth, but the truth should not need to be validated. If we are Christians we should, above all other people, be concerned to live in the truth and speak only the truth. This may limit our lives but it is what is required. Now this is such a simple yet profound thing that we need to repeat it again and again until we really do take in the significance of what is being said. The truth should not need to be validated by us, only on special occasions where there is a particularly significant or serious matter at hand, where we wish to convey to all onlookers that we are utterly, one hundred per cent, serious with no possibility whatsoever of doubt creeping in over our sincerity.

The writer to the Hebrews (Heb 6:13,14) cited God’s promise to Abraham (in Gen 22:17) which he considered an oath. A promise by God is the most serious of promises because God NEVER lies (Num 23:19), therefore if He resorts to a promise, it is a most serious thing. If He promises to do something that is the equivalent of taking an oath in His own name. Jesus clearly felt himself under a similar responsibility before the charge of the high priest: The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.” (Mt 26:63,64).  Paul involved God as his witness on rare occasions when he wanted to convince his readers: God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (Rom 1:9,10). Oaths should, therefore, be used very rarely, to ensure they keep their sense of seriousness, and they should also only ever be used to create that sense of utter seriousness, to confirm a promise in the eyes of the onlookers in such a measure that there can be no doubt about the integrity of the person making the oath.

Now James starts this verse with  “Above all.” Now remember that in this chapter he has been warning against unrighteous rich people who cause trouble for the poorer Christians or warning against the tendency to let riches bring you into unrighteousness. He has counseled his readers to be patient as they wait for God to come and sort out either the unrighteous rich or the struggle of the individual with sin and temptation. He has called them to be patient as they wait for the Lord to come and do this.

So what he is now saying is, while you are waiting for all of these things to be resolved, ensure that over all of that, you ensure that you keep your lives simple and truthful, avoiding the deceitful tactics that the rich (implied by context) and others use. YOU remain truthful and in simple honesty, having an integrity that ensures you don’t have to keep bolstering up your appearance by lots of oaths or other techniques to justify your position and integrity. May it be so for us today!

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