Say what you mean

What is the sign of authentic faith? From the birth of the church to the present, Christians have drawn lines in various places to mark off the “true” believers from everyone else. The lines might be defined by doctrinal beliefs, political party affiliations, or even one’s stance on vaccines and mask mandates. We put up an astonishing array of ideological walls, emotional fences, and social boundaries.

And don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that there should be no boundaries, that anything goes in the Christian life, that all beliefs and behaviors are equally acceptable. What I am saying is that, sadly, we invest way more energy into defending our stances of who’s right and who’s wrong than we do in the area of the Christian life James highlights repeatedly in his letter: how we use our words.

Think how often James tries to correct his readers for the way they speak to one another. With graphic language, he describes the tongue as a fire lit by hell (3:6). For that reason, he warns people in no uncertain terms: “So you think you’re religious, but you can’t t control your tongue? You’re just kidding yourself” (1:26).

It’s not because people are ranting and raving at each other like maniacs. It’s because they are failing at loving their neighbors (2:8) in their unexamined verbal habits. They speak quickly, and in anger, before they’ve really stopped to listen (1:19). They speak in fawning terms to the rich and disrespectfully to the poor (2:2-4). They argue and fight out of envy and desire (4:1-3). They say slanderous things about each other (4:11). They make empty boasts about their business plans in order to boost their status (4:13-16).

They act, in other words, like us. And it’s not a question of how often they or we do such things. It’s a question of what our words say about who we truly are, beyond the pious appearances we may try to keep.

As James approaches the end of his letter, he has yet one more thing to say about their speech:

Above all, brothers and sisters, 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. (James 5:12, NRSVUE)

He is once again echoing the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:33-37):

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you: Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Here, the ancient concern was that if you were going to invoke God in making a vow, then you’d better do what you say! It was common for people to add weight to their promises in this way, just as we might say, “As God is my witness!” or “I swear by all that is holy…”

But instead of saying, “You’d better keep your promises,” Jesus teaches, “Don’t make that kind of promise in the first place.” He eliminates the dodge of swearing by heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem, for these too were intimately associated with God. And swearing by your “head”? This would have been equivalent to saying, “May God strike me down if I don’t…” Jesus’ response is something like, Right. Like you have that much control over things.

But neither Jesus nor James is making a blanket rule against oaths, period. The apostle Paul, for example, made what seems to be a Nazirite vow not to cut his hair (Acts 18:18) and returned to Jerusalem to fulfill that vow. James knew about this, and even encouraged Paul to go to the temple with other believers who were also fulfilling their vows to God (Acts 21:23-24).

So what is this about? The underlying issue is shown by the corrective alternative: Just say Yes or No, and leave it at that. Why, after all, do we say things like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles”? Because we want to be believed, and for whatever reason, think our word isn’t enough.

And why isn’t our word enough? Sure, the other person may be a bit paranoid. But it may be that we have not demonstrated ourselves to be trustworthy, and trust can’t be earned in a moment. Or it may be that the other person senses — rightly — that we want something from them and are trying to urge them to say yes against their better judgment.

We’re trying to get them to think, Well, this doesn’t sound right to me, but if they’re swearing on a whole stack of Bibles…surely they can be trusted, right? (As folks might say in the South: “Well, bless your heart…”)

Remember the context of James. Believers are misusing their words in selfish and unloving ways. The corrective is a bit of wisdom with which we’re all familiar: Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Be the person who doesn’t have to say more, because people know your character and your trustworthiness. Don’t invoke God or spiritual language to cover your tracks; be more like God instead.

When you think of the misuse of spiritual and religious language, what examples come to mind? For me, it has to do with what is sometimes known as “churchspeak,” which we’ll explore in the next post.