Saying What You Mean, Meaning What You Say

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “yes” mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no,’ so that you won’t fall under judgment”- James 5:12

I was about 10 when my dad handed me a large spoon, piled high with all of my least favorite foods, announcing he would give me ten bucks if I ate everything on the spoon.

“Really?” I asked. “You’ll give me ten dollars?”

“I’ll give you ten bucks,” he reiterated. His tone seemed fishy, but I closed my eyes and choked down his entire concoction.

Still gagging a little, I made my demand. “Where’s my ten dollars?”

“I said ten bucks,” he howled. “Buck, buck buck…”

Sometimes, words are carefully twisted to manipulate others, and the results can be much more devastating than a tween eating foods she doesn’t like. James 5:12 tells us, “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no,’ so that you won’t fall under judgment.”

Swear is another word for promise. When we “swear to tell the whole truth,” we are making a promise to do so. Whether we are standing before a court of law or trying to convince a friend or co-worker to believe us, adding the words, “I swear,” or “I promise,” gives our words a little more weight. If we really want our words to be significant, we will swear by or on something or someone else. You may have heard someone say something like, “I swear on my mother’s grave…”

In the Holman New Testament Commentary, Dr. Lea helps us understand one reason James emphatically tells his readers, a Jewish audience, not to make these frivolous promises. It was their belief that if they swore by God, their oath was binding. However, if they swore by something else, such as heaven, earth, or their foot, it wasn’t binding. It sounded really dramatic but was nothing more than empty words. James instructs his readers to avoid deceptive, flowery, yet empty words to get people to believe them. Instead, they should say what they mean, and mean what they say.

We fall into similar word traps, saying things a certain way to avoid actually promising what another person believes we are promising. When they realize the way we have twisted words to manipulate them, they lose trust in us. People need to know that when we speak, we are authentic and truthful, and that our words hold weight because they can trust us to do what we say we will do.

Pay attention to your own words today. Are you speaking fluid, easy words, simply because they’re what the other person wants to hear, or are you choosing honesty and integrity in the things you say?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.