How much thought do we give on a daily basis about making and keeping promises? Are they made casually without much thought at the time in really keeping them? If promises are intentionally not kept, or casually forgotten, are they considered lies?
There is an African folktale that goes like this:
Long ago, Truth, Falsehood, Fire, and Water were traveling together when they found a herd of cattle. They decided to divide the herd into four equal parts, but Falsehood was greedy and wanted the entire herd. He convinced Water to extinguish Fire so that they could have Fire’s part. Then Falsehood conspired with Truth to take the cattle and go high on the mountains. This is what they did, and since Water cannot run uphill, Water was left with no part of the cattle. Then Falsehood turned to Truth and laughed, “I tricked you! Give me all the cattle, or I will destroy you.” Truth refused to hand over the cattle and they fought for days until they realized that one could not destroy the other. So the Wind was called in to decide the winner. However, the Wind could not decide either, so he made this statement, “Truth and Falsehood must fight until the end of the world. Sometimes one will win and sometimes the other, but they will always struggle against each other.”
After reading this tale, we are reminded that there has always been a struggle in the human mind between telling the truth and lying; and between keeping and not keeping promises. Many of us may have had personal experiences with the sometimes difficult practices of both truth-telling and promise-keeping. As disciples of Jesus, we know that we can rely completely on the power of the Holy Spirit and our close walk with God to enable us to tell the truth and keep our promises to him and to others in community. We know that truth will win in the end.
I mention my grandchildren so much in these articles because they have certainly moved into the center of my life. Recently, I promised an ice cream to Huck after I picked him up from second grade. The promise was for the next week (with a slushie being the treat this week). So, when the ice cream week came around, Huck reminded me, “You promised me an ice cream!” Treat choice settled! Evelyn also knows about promise keeping! “You promised to play doctor and nurse with me after my nap, remember!” Long-lasting lessons can be taught by example very early in life.
The two practices of telling the truth and promises keeping are so similar in nature and so dependent on each other that we can feel comfortable discussing them together. Taken together, truth-telling and keeping promises can significantly strengthen a marriage, family, church, nation, and community, or tear it apart. Being deceitful and failing to keep promises are not new problems to our communities and world today. We find evidence in ancient Israel as recorded by Isaiah 59, “Your hands are stained with blood, and your fingers with guilt. Your lips speak lies; your tongues mutter malice. No one sues honestly; no one pleads truthfully. By trusting in emptiness and speaking deceit, they conceive harm and give birth to malice.” (vs. 3,4 CEB)
And in the New Testament we find the startling story of the death of Ananias and Sapphira in the middle of the beautiful account of an almost perfect church community. (Acts 5) What had this couple done that had caused this terrible result? According to Christine Pohl, “They had chosen deception: acting as if they were giving everything while holding back at the same time. Deception and lying had moved directly into the heart of community life.” God sends us a message in this sad narrative that in his community of believers there is no room for falsehood and breaking promises to him or to one another.
As believers, our practice of making and keeping promises is rooted in the covenant-making of the ancient world and found in the Old Testament as promises between God and Israel. God gave those early Jewish people an example to follow; one in which a promise was not entered into lightly, resources to carry out the promise were carefully considered beforehand, and the promise was to be faithfully and truthfully kept. Of course, we are reminded that God’s side of the covenant/promise was always kept, while the human side was consistently broken.
When we consider all the other practices that make a community, group of people family, or church, strong and unified, it seems that being truthful to one another and keeping our promises are central in making that community what God intended. However, we cannot be consistent in our efforts to carry out these two practices if we depend totally on our own strength. Polh writes, “It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, and the promises of Jesus that we are able to keep our promises and commitments in the hard places. When we or others fail, only grace can bring us to the point of forgiveness, and only grace can make our attempts at accountability life-giving rather than stifling.”
Truthfulness, fidelity, and keeping promises reflect the nature of God as we continue this journey to be intimate with Jesus, the one whom we follow.
Rev. Tim McConnell
Pastor of Congregational Care
O 828.456.3993 Ext 202