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Beware Rash Promises

Beware Rash Promises

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and with the dawn of the new year comes the annual making of New Year’s resolutions. Many will resolve to lose a certain number of pounds this year, or read a particular book, or save a particular amount of money, or spend more time doing this or that.

It’s a popular pastime, if not a tremendously successful one. A study done in December 2008 showed that while around 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year, only about 8% or so are consistently successful in keeping them, with another 19% managing to keep them about every other year or so. Basically, only one in 4 people actually have much sustained success with their resolutions. 

That said, there’s a lot of benefit in resolutions, even with the high failure rate. I read once that a person who makes an explicit resolution is about 10 times more likely to actually accomplish what is intended than a person who does not explicitly resolve to do so. (Perhaps it would be better to resolve to make our resolutions explicit and public from now on, then!!)

More importantly, biblical history shows the value of a resolution (though not a New Year’s resolution!) in the institution of the covenant. In a covenant, an oath-bound promise is sealed between two parties, often with blood. That character of a covenant as a solemn promise--a promise to do something for or to the other party--finds an analogy in our resolutions. The value of a covenant was that it laid out, publicly and explicitly, the obligations and promises being resolved between the two parties, and it was the explicit and public nature of these promises that was intended to aid their accomplishment.

And certainly Christians in history have made use of resolutions. One need only think of Jonathan Edwards and his many resolutions, including the following:

Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.

Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.

Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.

There’s benefit in making New Year's resolutions, then. That’s not to say, however, that Christians are required to do so. Indeed, making rash resolutions may be unwise, for the following reasons:

1) Your life isn’t under your control.

James warns against an arrogant presumption about the future: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:14-15). It’s perfectly fine to make plans, take decisions, and resolve to do certain things, but these decisions must always be attended by a biblically-informed humility that recognizes that God has a plan of his own and may override yours. It’s not for no reason that Paul speaks the same way: “I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:19-20). I find it very interesting that Paul explicitly recognizes the authority of the Lord’s will in the same paragraph where he stresses the greater importance of “power” over “talk.” Our talk means little, compared to the power of God.

Therefore, any person making a resolution needs to humbly recognize the supremacy of God, and to make them in a spirit that affirms God’s final say over the matter.

2) Resolutions – especially those taken before God – are not to be taken lightly.

It’s awfully easy to make a promise. And many New Year’s resolutions take the form of promises to oneself, to others, or to God. When you bind yourself by a promise, it is not a light or trivial thing. Jesus himself warned against foolish and rash promises when he said: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). His point, in context, was that since men often don’t possess or are unable to control the things they commonly swear by (heaven, earth, one’s head), it is therefore extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous to attempt to use them to try to add weight to a promise (“…anything more…comes from evil”). It is more humble to simply say “yes” or “no” and strive to make one’s actions match one’s words. Similarly, the Old Testament law prescribed guilt offerings for those who made rash oaths (Leviticus 5:4ff) and gives some sobering examples of those who made foolish and unthinking promises (the offering of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:34-40, or Saul’s promise not to eat in 1 Samuel 14:24).

Given the importance that Scripture rests upon keeping one’s word, it is wise to be careful with the manner in which one makes a resolution. If it’s being made as a promise to others or to God, make sure it’s something that you have the ability to keep!

Just to be clear: this is not to discourage any resolutions you may be thinking of making! The New Year is as good a time as any to take inventory of what God has given you and seek ways to be more faithful to him. If you want to make a New Year’s resolution, you are free to do so. Rather, this is a reminder that we all belong, body and soul, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his Lordship extends even over something as seemingly trivial as one’s New Year’s resolution (or lack thereof). So if you make resolutions, make them in light of God’s sovereignty and demand for integrity. Honor him with your lips, and with your life.