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The Epistle of James: Truthfulness
James 5:12; Matthew 5:33-37
“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.”
James 5:12 NASB1995
James 5:12 is essentially a stand-alone verse in the fifth chapter of this Epistle. James repeated the admonition about oaths and vows to his brethren that Jesus gave us in Matthew 5:33-37, during the Sermon on the Mount:
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”
Matthew 5:33-37 NASB1995
As discussed in my devotional for the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, the point of the admonition is not that we cannot take oaths or vows, because there are many instances that can be cited in both the OT and the NT, where an oath was solemnly discussed or given, including oaths made by God. The point is that we should not make frivolous, foolish or false oaths. Binding oaths are one thing; non-binding oaths are meaningless and are the target of the admonitions from Jesus and James. Becoming a Christian does not automatically make a person a truth-teller, which is why this concern is targeted at believers. Referring to another superb Sermon by Steven Cole on Bible.org, the real issue at stake is truthful communication, without embellishment or “I swear by..” add-ons. When someone constantly says “I swear by God..” and then proceeds to deceive or lie or exaggerate, then that is certainly a false or non-binding oath and you are dragging God into your avowal, which is sinful. That person also becomes untrustworthy in any circumstance.
Some of the ways we can fall into deception and falsehood include the following examples (types of lies borrowed from the sermon referenced above with my own commentary):
Half-Truths: You tell some of the truth, but leave out part of the story. I can recall this happening in my work days when you were under pressure to meet a deadline (in my job, that meant solving problems and finding root causes). I probably did it myself by dancing around the entire story stalling for time and I heard others make statements that the problem was essentially solved (when it was nowhere close to being solved), then go on to tell the good part of the story and not the full truth about the things that still had to be done. At some point, you were likely trapped because of your inability to tell the whole truth. Abraham told half-truths (twice) about Sarah being his sister, but neglected to add that she was also his wife.
The White Lie: These little lies have been part and parcel of human communications since the beginning. You go to a friend’s house for dinner and can barely choke down the horrid entree, but tell them it was delicious. You call in sick when you are not so you can go to a baseball game or do something around the house, justifying it by knowing you will be working many extra hours later that week. I rarely did the “sick” lie in my life, because it seemed like every time you did something like that, then you really got sick! But we have all done little lies to loved ones and friends to spare their feelings or to appease someone. This is challenging, because if you HAD told the truth to your friend about their bad cooking, does that advance the friendship? Perhaps the truth done in love and caring terms would be the way to approach the problem and help them improve.
The Lie to Cover for Someone Else: The boss pops out and tells you that he doesn’t want to talk to another person because he doesn’t have an answer ready. That person calls you when your boss doesn’t answer his phone and you lie, telling them your boss is gone or at a meeting. I bet every single person reading this has done this type of lie at least once in their lives, to help another person (expecting a return favor in the future) or to get “brownie points”. So do you lie for your boss? Interesting question!
Exaggeration: This means inflating the truth to make you look better or to garner more sympathy. ALL of us have probably puffed up stories from our lives to impress others or to make them more interesting. My Mom, bless her soul, was a master at the latter type of exaggeration, telling me many times that “I have never had so much pain”. When she finally did have something serious, it was hard to believe it because of the many times she exaggerated it before and it turned about to be minor or nothing.
The Silent Lie: This one is really tricky. Someone else says something flattering about you that is either untrue or greatly exaggerated. Rather than correct them, your silence indicates that they are telling the truth. We rush to correct the bad things that people say, but never modulate their flattery with the actual truth when what they say makes us look extra good. Another response that is not silent is to say something that is falsely humble (“Ah, shucks, that’s too nice”), so that you can hear more of the flattery. Guilty as charged on this one!
The Cover-up Lie: In this case, you cover up a wrong-doing (sin) because you rationalize that someone else may be hurt by what you’ve done. This is the classic type of lie that starts when someone is contemplating or participating in adultery or has a bad habit that they try to keep secret from someone (excessive drinking, watching adult movies when the spouse isn’t there). I was a fan of the television show House, which ran on Fox for quite a few years following the antics of a brilliant, self-absorbed and crazy diagnostic physician. He trained doctors in his techniques and told them that “Everybody lies”. The cover-up lie is a known problem for doctors trying to help patients improve their health or diagnose an illness. You are only hurting yourself when you lie to the doctor!
The Evasive Lie: You change the subject or evade answering a direct question put to you. People have used the evasive lie in court by invoking the Fifth Amendment or evading the question. If you are caught up in cover-up lies, then you are also probably a master at the evasive lie and may even practice changing the subject to accusations against the questioner. Peter used evasive and direct lies to deny that he knew Jesus. Children and the immature love evasive lies, because they can throw the problem back on the person asking the question.
James was extremely concerned with judgment and he wanted his brethren to avoid situations that cause more lies and entanglements, so he recommends avoiding unnecessary oaths and vows. Let your yes be a yes (truly) and your no be a no (and not a lie). Good advice!
My next devotional will examine James 5: 13-18 - Prayerfulness. There is one more James passage after this next one and then I will start a series on the Christmas story in Luke.
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer:
Dear Lord - Help me to be a person who tells the truth, using love and compassion. Help me to honor the truth when told by others and to practice humility, knowing that every gift or talent I may have came from You. Help me to avoid meaningless oaths and vows and keep my word with a simple yes or no. In Jesus name. Amen
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org