It’s been said we can be a “people-pleasing” culture, and many people struggle with issues of overcommitting their time and resources just so they don’t say no and miss out on an opportunity—or let a friend down. However, in one of the more oft-quoted verses in Scripture from His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us regarding oaths that we should be simple. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). Other translations take that a step further. The NKJV recounts Jesus as saying, “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” In today’s “yes” culture, where saying “no” can feel antagonistic or even downright wrong, what does it mean to let our “yes” be yes?
What Does the Bible Say about Our Nos and Yeses?
Quite simply, the Bible advocates that we be straightforward and do what we say. We shouldn’t say we’ll do something to look good or imply following the law, only to take advantage of a loophole and not actually do it in full. The verse above comes from a broader statement Jesus makes in His sermon about oath-keeping and vows in general. Jesus’s full statement on this is, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).
He elaborates on this in other portions of the sermon. For example, in the Ten Commandments, we are ordered, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). But as Jesus says in Matthew 5:28, adultery isn’t limited to one, more “base,” interpretation. “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Jesus explains. That’s what He’s saying a few verses later about oaths—oaths are oaths, period. Regardless of whether they are made in God’s name, a king’s name, or a hair on one’s head, an oath is to be taken seriously. If someone says he will do something and promises by the hair of his head, then goes and shaves his head, the lack of hair doesn’t negate the promise. Loopholes and twisted words are not OK. Rather, they are rooted in evil.
What Does it Mean to Let our Yes Be Yes?
When we say yes to something, we should mean it. (Likewise, when we say no we should mean that, too.) “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’” Jesus says.
James writes about this, too, in his epistle to the early church. The apostle notes that when we say we will do something, we should be careful to couch that in “if the Lord wills it,” for we are not God and cannot predict or control what will happen from one day to the next.
As James writes, “Now listen, you who say, “‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:13-17).
In the very next chapter, James goes on to reiterate what Jesus Himself said about yeses and nos, urging, “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned” (James 5:12). Other Scriptures say much the same. For example, the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Basically, he says we should be upfront and forthright with each other; mean what we say.
This concept of being straightforward and truthful isn’t just in the New Testament but was echoed by prophets and other wise teachers throughout the Old Testament. For indeed, among God’s Ten Commandments is that people “shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). While the language used appears to reflect the legal process (such as testimony in a court or before a judge), really the essence of this commandment is to preserve the holiness of truth itself. Do not lie—mean what you say. Don’t say something false when it is not true. God is truth, and circumventing truth is essentially going against God.
Proverbs 6:16-19 lists “six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” And Zechariah 8:17 commands people, “‘Do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,’ declares the Lord.” Be truthful, the Bible urges. Mean what you say.
How Does This Affect the Way We Respond to Others and Make Decisions?
Jesus’s commands are not to be taken lightly. His words are not suggestions but directives. If we are His followers, we do as He says and act in accordance with His wishes. That means honoring those words to the best of our ability and understanding. When Jesus says, “Do not swear an oath at all …. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’” we are to heed this. Mean what you say. Do as you promise. And do it well and fully, as though you are doing whatever it is for the Lord Himself and not just another fellow human.
In Colossians 3:23, Paul urges us that, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” It’s the same thing with the words that come from our mouths. For example, if we pledge to give a sum to a church mission, and then our circumstances change and funds get tight, we might be tempted to default on our pledge, or give a tiny amount—say, a dollar—so we can fulfill our promise, even though we know full well that dollar is not what we’d intended.
Or perhaps we promise to volunteer with a ministry and then decide at the last minute we no longer want to do this; we’re too tired, our workload doubled, or we would rather do something else. Still, if we are honoring our savior, the right thing to do is fulfill our commitment. We are to be people of our word and keepers of the truth. People who do not keep their promises are not honorable.
Proverbs 25:14 says, “Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of gifts never given.” But those who are true, and do as they promise, reflect God in the world. As 1 John 2:5-6 says, “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
It’s hard to be a person of one’s word, a person of truth, in a society where promises are slippery and loopholes are ever-present. But as Christians, we are to reflect Jesus and shine His light in the world. This means following His commands and living the way He would have us with. No more platitudes or empty promises—let your yes be yes and your no be no.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.
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