I Swear to God!

Hearing these words used to make me cringe because Jesus told us to ‘Swear not at all’ (KJV), yet when I was a child people swore all around me:

  • I swear to God!
  • As God is my witness!
  • So help me God!

Or:

  • By God!
  • I swear on my mother’s grave!

Swearing an oath

You Have Heard; But I Say…

From kids on the playground to adults—some of them even Christian—there was swearing. But I didn’t swear—I didn’t even ‘pinky swear’. I will share with you in a few moments when I started swearing, but the reason I didn’t then was because of Jesus’ words I read in Matthew chapter 5:

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.

The evangelical church I belonged to had a list of Church Teachings, and one of them was Against members swearing’. When new members joined the church, the teachings were often read to the candidates and the congregation.

One young minister was reading the teachings and explaining each one. When he got to ‘Against members swearing’ he commented, “The Church doesn’t want its members cussing and swearing!”

Afterward, an older member explained to him that the teaching was about taking oaths—not cussing (although cussing was much frowned upon).

Jesus vs. the Old Testament Law

Once again Jesus contrasts the Law with what he has to say about the issue. The Ten Commandments say in Exodus chapter 20: ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.’ (No, the main point here wasn’t cussing either.)

Other Old Testament passages add:

Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19)

Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. (Zechariah 8)

If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it. (Deuteronomy 23)

In Numbers 30, the entire chapter is about oaths, beginning with:

When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

The Old Testament allowed the swearing of oaths, but Jesus canceled that and said do not swear an oath at all’. His point is that our integrity and truthfulness are sufficient—Yes or No; no oaths are required.

Legalistic observance of the Law on oaths is inadequate. We all know that people can manipulate the truth and mislead hearers with statements that are ‘technically true’. In any case, it is unlikely that a person willing to lie will be deterred by an oath. Oaths are no better than our own good word.

Even swearing on the Bible does not guarantee truth.

Closing on a New House

I will now tell you when I began swearing oaths—never.

I have never sworn an oath in my life. Even in legal matters we often have the right to ‘affirm’ rather than ‘swear’. Sometimes the option is written right into the documents; I always circle ‘affirm’ and cross out ‘swear’. I would not swear even if it prevented me from being President of the United States. If my word is insufficient, an oath does not help.

Years ago I was closing on a new home and the documents asked me to swear repeatedly. I told the person across the table I would affirm instead, but he said that was unacceptable. So I replied that I wouldn’t buy the house.

He called some higher authority and received permission to allow me to affirm. We went through a mountain of pages with me striking out ‘swear’ and writing ‘affirm’ for the numerous signatures.  After the lengthy process we came to the final signature and he said, “This is the last step for you to get the house, but this signature must read ‘swear’ and cannot be changed.”

My wife and I loved the house and had spent untold hours in negotiation and paperwork, but we got up to leave the deal on the table. In a panic the guy said ‘Wait a moment!’ and made another call. After a few minutes, I affirmed the final signature and the house was ours.

If my word is no good, an oath does not improve it.

Jesus’ words on taking oaths are not a new legalism, and I cannot determine what another person should do in any particular situation, but the point Jesus makes is that we should always be truthful; it is part of loving others and looking out for their good instead of taking advantage of them.

Photo Credit: Office of Governor Patrick via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please sign up for updates in the column to the right (email, RSS, Facebook, or Twitter) so that you don’t miss future posts.
Also consider sharing this post using the buttons below. Have a great day! ~Tim
This entry was posted in behavior, Jesus, legalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to I Swear to God!

  1. michaeleeast says:

    Tim,
    I have never sworn an oath either.
    An Indian guru once told me I should take a vow to God.
    But I have never done so because I don’t promise things I might not be able to keep.
    Who knows what might happen in the future.
    So my policy is not to take vows to God at all.

    Like

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I never really understood this, to be honest. I usually have “affirmed” rather than “swore,” but I never understood why God would prefer the former and not the latter. They’re just words, right? Or wrong?

    Like

    • I am not legalistic about it James; it is not a new ‘law’ but a way of behaving, and I don’t think Jesus prefers one word over the other. I believe the important thing is to be truthful and trustworthy in everything we do and not depend on some ritual oath to guarantee our word.

      I personally use the word ‘affirm’ to underscore my high commitment to the truth and promote truthfulness. To me, it is the same as saying ‘Yes I will tell the truth.’

      If someone insists that I swear an oath, it indicates their distrust in my word and I won’t play their obsolete game of oaths. I am responsible for my truthfulness, not God or something else.

      Like

  3. Chas says:

    Tim
    This seems to follow on from our discussions about marriage. Are we not (in effect) taking an oath in our marriage vows?

    Like

    • Chas says:

      Tim
      Am replying to my own post, as I have taken some time to think about this more. Whether taking an oath in modern times, or affirming, we are actually making a promise. Swearing an oath was a mechanism developed as a test of truthfulness, in which the person being tested was asked to do something that he thought would bring a curse on him if he broke the promise he was being asked to make. For the case of swearing on the Bible it would be the assumption that God would curse them if they broke the promise they had made. However, if the person did not believe in God, he might choose to lie, because he did not fear the consequences.
      If we affirm that we shall tell the truth, this still has no more power than someone stating that they swear to tell the truth, if they have not thought about the exact meaning of the word ‘swear’, in the legal (civil law) context, and in their understanding it means that they intend to tell the truth.
      In the one case that I have appeared as a witness in court, I chose to affirm, because of the words that you have quoted from the Bible. If I had to do so again, I would still affirm, but because it would be the simplest way to say that I was going to tell the truth. I would not expect anyone to believe that I could not intentionally tell a lie, because the truth is so precious to me, since I believe that it is also precious to God.
      Chas

      Like

      • I would still affirm, but because it would be the simplest way to say that I was going to tell the truth. I would not expect anyone to believe that I could not intentionally tell a lie, because the truth is so precious to me, since I believe that it is also precious to God.

        Hi Chas, in response to your second comment I must say. ‘I agree!’ You have expressed the concept wonderfully! Thanks!

        Like

    • Chas, I think statements at marriage indicate our heart-felt intentions toward each other and are understood to be a promise or commitment. A typical statement is:

      I, (name), take you (name), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.

      I am aware that some use language such as:

      I offer you my solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow.

      We did not use such language as ‘solemn vow’ at our wedding for the same reason stated elsewhere in the blog post and in comments–our good word is not improved by an oath. But I do not say every believer should adopt my thinking on the subject, though I hope every believer will tell the truth routinely.

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim
        I suspect that the marriage ceremony, which asks a question requiring a simple response ‘I do,’ uses this format to avoid any problems associated with ‘swearing’.
        The swearing of oaths that has some dark connotations, and therefore one that we might expect God to disaprove of, is that taken by people joining the Freemasons.

        Like

  4. sheila0405 says:

    I agree with you, Tim. But I have a bad habit of saying “oh my God” when bad things happen. I suppose I have to find another way of saying that I am crying out to God to fix whatever happened, without using the world’s cliche.

    Like

    • Sheila, I have always noticed that many believers use the phrase ‘Oh my God!’. Some of the most ‘holy’ members say ‘My Lord!’ as an expression of surprise.

      I have thought it odd, but I’m not judgmental about it; I am sure God is not offended.

      Like

  5. Chas says:

    One is struck by the many words that have been developed simply to have the meaning of making a promise. In politics in the UK (and presumably the same applies in USA) politicians lie effortlessly in an attempt to persuade us to vote for them, knowing that, when the time comes, they can claim that circumstances have changed, and so their intended policies must change.

    Two prominent UK politicians made a pledge in writing before the last election promising that they would not increase tuition fees for universities, if they were elected to government. In the event, they became part of the coalition government, having been invited into it by the largest party, who failed to achieve an overall majority. As part of the coalition, they agreed to increase tuition fees considerably, but they did not seem to realize how much public contempt they reaped by breaking this contract that they had signed.

    They would have gained much more respect if they had said that they now accepted that tuition fees must rise, but that they would nevertheless have to vote against this, as they had signed a pledge which required them to do so. (Some of their winning candidates were standing in constituencies in which there were many student voters, so they were treating with contempt many of those whom they sought to represent – or perhaps whose votes they thought they were buying).

    Like

    • Chas, Something similar occurred in the United States when some politicians signed a pledge to not increase taxes in any way. Those who honored the pledge were unable to get other things their constituencies wanted because they couldn’t compromise on even small tax increases that were included in negotiations.

      Like

  6. Pingback: 3 Ways to Respond to People Who Hurt Us | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. Pingback: Jesus Obliterates Legalism | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Chas says:

    This topic reappeared on the Top Topics list, so I re-read it and it brought up another question: if someone says ‘Trust me’, should we be especially suspicious of their motives?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      This is an interesting question, Chas. In my experience I think it depends on whether I trust the person for other reasons. I would not trust a person just because they said ‘Trust me’. Salesmen say this for example, and it does not increase my confidence in them at all. But if a trusted friend were to say this about a situation, it would probably reassure me that they were committed to doing a certain thing.

      Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, what is the Top Topics list?

      Like

  9. Alan C says:

    I testify as an expert witness in court from time to time, and I’ve noticed that the oath administered has changed over time. In this jurisdiction we’ve never had “so help me God” as part of it in my experience. But in the last few years it’s changed from the traditional “truth, the whole truth, etc.” wording to “Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth?” Personally, I don’t find that swearing “so help me God” or putting one’s hand on a Bible magically makes anyone more trustworthy.

    I like the wording of the commandment in the Book of Common Prayer version of the Decalogue: rather than “take in vain” it says, “You shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord your God” Just in the last few weeks I’ve done that several times because my wife was beating the pants off me in a video game we’ve been playing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Alan, thanks for sharing the changes you have noticed on the wording of the oath/affirmation. And I agree with you that invoking God or the Bible is not a guarantee of truthfulness at all. I am sorry you are losing in video games; hopefully you will do better next time.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s