Faithfulness, Big and Small

My post on the Sola Panel today:

Late last year, Gavin wrote about the importance of being faithful in the small things. I’ve been pondering Gav’s insights, and I’d like to offer a couple of further comments.

Jesus himself directly teaches the importance of faithfulness in small things:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matt 5:33-37)

Is Jesus, in this passage, issuing a blanket ban on any formal promise-making activity? No, as usual, he’s being far more radical than that. He’s calling the people of his day to account for their hypocrisy. He’s teaching that it’s no good to keep God’s law outwardly while inwardly breaking one of its fundamental principles—in this case, faithfulness.

Jesus may be referring to a particular Pharisaical application of the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod 20:7, Deut 5:11). The Pharisaical application would have gone something like this: if you use God’s name, “the Lord”, when you are swearing an oath, you have to keep it. So how do you tell whether you have made an oath to the Lord? What if you swear toward Jerusalem? That’s an oath to the Lord, because the Lord lives in the temple—in Jerusalem. So you can’t break that oath, either. That would be taking the Lord‘s name in vain. What if you swear by Jerusalem—not toward it, but by it? Well, that’s not an oath to the Lord, because God himself is not actually Jerusalem. So you’re in the clear; you can break that oath. What if you swear by heaven and earth? Is that an oath to the Lord? No, it’s not, because heaven and earth aren’t actually God. So it’s okay to break that oath.

In effect, the Pharisees were distinguishing between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises. While, on the surface, they appeared meticulously faithful in keeping the third commandment, what they were really doing was creating loopholes for themselves. They had created a ‘fingers-crossed-behind-your-back’ mentality to making promises. In doing so, they limited the scope of God’s presence and power.

Jesus’ point is that you should be bound to act on any promise you make. God is Lord of the entire creation, and God is faithful. He keeps all of his promises. It is evil to break promises. The form of words doesn’t matter, nor does the solemnity of the occasion on which the promise was made. In fact, if you truly kept every promise you made, why would you ever need to take a formal oath? All you should need to say is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. That should settle the matter. Jesus’ standard is faithfulness in everything, big or small.

Our personal interactions are full of lots of little promises: “We’ll meet on the 5th of June at 10 am”, “I’ll pray for you”, “I’m happy to be on the morning tea roster in two Sundays’ time”, “I’ll call her to see how she’s going”, “I’ll email you that link”, “I’ll think about it and get back to you”.

Are you the sort of person who keeps your promises? Or do you have reasons why certain promises don’t need to be kept? “I didn’t have my diary on me at the time.” “I forgot.” “Nobody will ever know anyway.” “I lost it.” “I was born between 1980 and 1995.” “Oh yes, sorry, I didn’t remember until it was too late …” “Somebody else will take care of it.” “I didn’t get a reminder.” “It wasn’t one of my priorities. There are bigger things in my life right now.”

Sound familiar?

As somebody who is guilty of using all of the above excuses (except the birth year one), I’d like to offer a tip that I’ve picked up from friends and colleagues—something that has really helped me to be more faithful in the little things. It may sound a little strange, and you may have a better solution that works for you. But for what it’s worth, here’s mine.

The tip involves two habits. Firstly, carry a small notepad and pen around with you all day and scribble down the promises you make as you make them, no matter how small. Then, secondly, at the end (or beginning) of each day, take each of those promises and decide how you’re going to keep them (e.g. write it in your diary, pray straight away, put it on your To Do list, etc.). If you realize you can’t keep a promise, contact the person and apologize as soon as possible.

These two interrelated habits haven’t perfected my faithfulness, but they have helped me to realize the impact of the promises I make, and to act more like the faithful Son of God whom Jesus has called me to imitate. They have also helped me to be far more realistic about the promises I do actually make so that my ‘no’ means something, as well as my ‘yes’.