“I’ll send you these photos as soon as I get home,” I said to two friends as I used my cell phone to take a few last pictures of our sons together at a neighborhood gathering.
“Thanks,” one of them replied. “That would be great. Wish I’d been able to take some shots of the boys. I was in such a hurry that I left my phone at home, and I don’t even have a separate camera anymore.”
The other friend laughed. “I have my phone with me but didn’t have a chance to use it while I was volunteering. Looking forward to those photos you took, Whitney. Thanks.”
“Absolutely. I’ll send them to you all later today,” I promised again.
After promising – twice! – to do that simple yet important task, I promptly forgot, and my friends were too polite to remind me to send them the photos. Many months passed before I realized that I’d broken my promises. It was only after I was flipping through some trip photos on my phone that I realized I’d forgotten the photos of our sons together at the event. Guilt flooded through me as I remembered how much my good friends had been looking forward to the photos that I’d failed to send them.
Making promises is easy, but keeping them? That’s more of a challenge – especially when we make promises carelessly.
Have you ever made some promises like these, but not actually kept them?:
“I’ll call you.”
“I can finish that project by next week.”
“I’ll meet you this weekend for lunch.”
“I’m sending you the check today.”
“I’ll pray for you about that.”
Many people struggle with keeping promises like those and others we make in our daily lives. If we’re not careful, we may end up with a broken string of promises in our lives. Broken promises can lead to broken relationships. Chipping away at our credibility damages our relationships with our fellow believers. But it’s especially harmful to relationships with the people we know who don’t yet have relationships with Jesus – but who are watching our lives to see if they can trust us when we urge them to trust the God we represent.
While changing your mind from time to time when circumstances prevent you from keeping a promise is just part of being flexible in life, breaking promises to other people on a regular basis isn’t healthy. Here’s how to really keep your promises:
1. Realize what happens spiritually when you make a promise. Biblically, making a promise (also called a “vow” or an “oath”) involves making a commitment that God takes seriously. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 warns: “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Lord your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth.” Just as you shouldn’t promise to give God a certain amount of money through your church but not follow through, you shouldn’t promise something to another person that you won’t do your best to deliver, because God wants you to be like he is: trustworthy. God is careful to keep every promise he has ever made. When you make a promise as one of God’s children, you’re saying that you agree with your heavenly Father that truth is an essential spiritual value.
2. Pay close attention to your words. Every word you communicate (through speaking or writing) matters to God. The God who created the universe by saying words pays close attention to how you use your words. Words actually carry spiritual power within them that can either help or harm others. Jesus himself promises that when it comes time to judge people for the choices they’ve made in their lives, “…by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). So don’t speak, text, email, or otherwise use your words to make promises that you don’t really mean.
3. Study your patterns of making promises.
Figure out when you tend to make careless promises, and study the situations in which you do so you can understand why you’re promising what you don’t really intend to do. Keep a journal for a week to record the details of what happened when you noticed yourself promising something to someone. Did you feel pressured to make a promise? Were you in a rush and just saying what you thought people wanted to hear so you could move on from a situation? Did you make a promise simply because it seemed like the polite thing to do? Were you trying to get someone to like you by promising them something? Pray about whatever patterns you notice, asking the Holy Spirit
to help you change unhealthy habits.
4. Take time for careful consideration before making a promise to someone. Don’t rush yourself into a promise that you won’t truly be able to keep. Even when you’re in a hurry, you usually don’t have an immediate sense of urgency about promising to do something. Stop yourself before you make a vow, delaying your decision long enough to carefully think it through. Count the cost of following through on potential plans, as Jesus urges people to do before making an important decision in Luke 14:28: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” If your promise isn’t impulsive, it’s likely to be genuine.
5. Think through what it really means to be nice to other people. In an effort to be nice to others, you may promise something they want – or something you think they want – without actually considering whether or not you want to keep that promise. But think it through. Is it nicer to say, “I’ll call you” and then not do so, or simply to refrain from saying anything? Is it nicer to volunteer for something just because someone asks you to do so and then fail to keep your commitment, or simply say “no” to their request? It’s more considerate to avoid disappointing others – which is what happens when you tell them to expect something but then break that promise. A truly nice person is a careful person.
6. Keep it simple when you communicate about promises. You don’t need to puff up your promises with elaborate efforts to present a certain image to others; you simply need to make sure that you do whatever it is that you promise to do. Jesus says in Matthew chapter 5 that it’s not necessary to dramatically swear to keep your promises. “All you need to say,” he says in verse 37, “is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” The emphasis isn’t on how convincingly you make a promise – it’s on how much integrity you have about keeping one.
7. Check in with God regularly to keep you accountable to your promises and receive his help to keep them. Make a habit of praying regularly about the promises you’ve made to other people, asking God to empower you to keep those promises. If you encounter a change of circumstances that truly prevents you from keeping a promise you’ve already made, do your best to fulfill your vow in another way at another time, following God’s guidance. Seek God’s help every day to live with integrity in all of life’s little details.
The more careful you become about making promises, the easier it will be to keep them. In the process, you’ll become more like our promise-keeping God and draw other people closer to him as they seek spiritual truth!
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, produces a site about angels and miracles for About.com. She is author of the young adult inspirational novel Dream Factory (which is set during Hollywood's golden age) and writes about the power of thoughts on her “Renewing Your Mind” blog.
Publication date: September 8, 2015