Stop Swearing!

James 5:12

September 10, 2018 | Ray Pritchard

We are all big, fat liars.

I ran across that statement in an article with a provocative title: 60% of People Can’t Go 10 Minutes Without Lying. It begins this way:

“There are two things you can say for sure about human beings: our opposable thumbs make us great at using tools, and we are all big, fat liars. By age four, 90% of children have grasped the concept of lying, and it just gets worse from there.”

Are you surprised by that?
I’m not.

We are all big, fat liars.

We are all “big, fat liars.”
I know of no evidence to the contrary.

But it gets worse. According to the book The Day America Told the Truth, we are a nation of liars:

86% lie regularly to their parents.
75% lie to their friends.
73% lie to their siblings.
69% lie to their spouses.
43% lie about their jobs.

In a world where everyone lies, God calls his people to tell the truth. Consider this brief sample of what the Bible says on this subject:

Psalm 12:2—“Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception.”

Proverbs 6:16-19—“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him . . . a lying tongue . . . a false witness who pours out lies.”

Proverbs 14:5—“A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies.”

God calls his people to tell the truth.

Ephesians 4:25—“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.”

Colossians 3:9—“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.”

Revelation 21:8—“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”

Because truth matters to God, it ought to matter to us too. Christians should be preeminently people who speak the truth. But that’s not always the case, which is why James 5:12 says,

“Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no, or you will be condemned” (v. 5:12).

On one level, this appears to be only a prohibition against swearing, but it is actually much more than that. This verse teaches us the necessity of truthful speech. Let’s see what we can learn from it.

Its Crucial Importance

“Above all” (v. 12a).

When James says “above all,” he wants us to stop and think. In a letter filled with exhortation (there are over 50 commands in only five chapters), James only says one thing is “above all.”

Because truth matters to God, it ought to matter to us too.

Why is this so crucial?

I spent time with someone involved in ministry to students. Occasionally he is faced with difficult disciplinary decisions when the young people break the rules of the group. “I’ve dealt with everything you can imagine. Every sort of sexual sin. Cheating. Breaking the law. You name it, I’ve seen it,” he said.

“You can’t help a liar”

During our discussion the man commented lying has almost become a non-issue today. Everyone lies, and they lie all the time. After discussing how people routinely lie to cover up their sin, he offered this conclusion:

“You can’t help a liar. You can help anyone struggling with any sort of sin as long as they tell the truth. But you can’t help a liar because you can’t trust anything he says.”

Perhaps that’s why James uses the phrase “above all.” Without truthful speech, you can’t trust anything someone says.

Its Divine Origin

“Brothers” (v. 12b).

Sometimes we see the word “brother” in the New Testament and pass over it as unimportant, almost as if it’s a throwaway word. The Greek word translated “brother” means “one born from the same womb.” I have three brothers—Andy, Alan and Ron. The four of us are brothers because we were all born from the same womb. This is true in the spiritual realm also. In God’s family, we are all born from the same spiritual womb. This relationship transcends status, achievement, race, ethnic background, money, education, talent, language, culture, age, sex, or any of the many other barriers that divide the human race into different groups.

In John 14:6 Jesus declared, “I am the truth.” In John 17:17 he said, “Your word is truth.” He gave this answer to a question by Pontius Pilate:

 “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me” (John 18:37).

Are you on the side of truth?
Do you speak the truth?

Are you on the side of truth?

If you claim to follow Jesus (who is the truth), and
If you claim to believe the Word of God (which is the truth), then
Should you not speak the truth?

In a world filled with lies, Christians should speak the truth. That’s the moral implication of the word “brothers.”

Its Specific Limitation

“Do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else” (v. 12c).

Now we come to the heart of this verse. Let’s get one thing out of the way first. When James uses the word “swear,” he’s not talking about curse words or sexually suggestive language. This isn’t a prohibition against unwholesome speech. You can find that in other verses, such as Ephesians 4:29-31 and Ephesians 5:3-4. Foul speech is ugly and unbecoming for a Christian, but that’s not on James’ mind in this verse.

James is thinking about swearing in the sense of making an oath to guarantee the truth of something, e.g. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” The Jews were quite proficient at making oaths for all sorts of occasions. Sometimes they used God’s name to make ridiculous promises, which is why Leviticus 19:12 offers this stark warning: “Do not bring shame on the name of your God by using it to swear falsely. I am the LORD” (NLT). Note the word “falsely.” The Jews would make promises to do this or that, and they would guarantee it by adding God’s name. But in many cases, they never intended to keep the promise. They were using God’s name as a cover for their own deceit. A lie told in God’s name is worse because you have dragged the Lord into the mud with you.

Does James intend to prohibit all oath-taking, such as taking an oath on the witness stand? Some Christians believe the answer is yes. They will not “swear on the Bible” because of this verse (and others like it). While I don’t believe that’s what James had in mind, I don’t have a problem with fellow Christians who follow their conscience in this matter.

We’ve become careless with the truth

The real issue is how careless we’ve all become with the truth. It’s almost as if we assume no one tells the truth anymore. We talk about lies, white lies, and fudging the truth. That’s why we say things like, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” I have no idea what that means.  My mother is buried next to my father in a peaceful cemetery in my hometown in Alabama. It’s a beautiful spot, but I would never say an oath where she is buried. Saying “I swear on my mother’s grave” is meant to guarantee I will tell the truth. But that doesn’t follow at all. If I’m going to tell the truth, I don’t need to bring my mother’s grave into it. The same is true if I am going to lie. It’s nonsensical.

Here are a few more examples:

“I swear to God.”
“I swear by all that’s holy.”
“I swear on a stack of Bibles.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“As God is my witness.”

“I swear on my mother’s grave”

One bit of historical detail may help us. In its most basic form, a Jewish oath had three parts. First, you made a promise. Second, you invoked God as a witness. Third, you declared God would punish you if you failed to keep your promise. That made it very serious. To get around that problem, the Jews developed a way of swearing that didn’t involve God’s name. They would swear by heaven or by earth or by “the throne of God” or by the hair on their head (Jesus mentions these examples in Matthew 5:33-37). They wanted to make a promise they had no intention of keeping, but they didn’t want to get God involved, so they would swear by something less than God’s name. It’s what we used to do as kids when we made a promise to do something, but we crossed our fingers behind our back. We lied while pretending to tell the truth. That’s what the Jews were doing. They used swearing as an approved way to lie to one another. (For a discussion of what the Bible says about oath-taking, see Do Not Swear by Geoff Thomas.)

God takes your words seriously. He listens to what you say whether you mention his name or not. Perhaps you remember the children’s chorus that goes like this:

O be careful, little tongue what you say
O be careful, little tongue what you say
For the Father up above is looking down in love
So be careful little tongue what you say.

That’s exactly the point James is making.

God takes your words seriously!

Don’t promise to tell the truth.
Don’t swear to tell the truth.
Tell the truth!

Lying is a slippery slope. One lie leads to another and there is no end. Remember Peter in the courtyard. He lied to the servant girl, so he had to lie to the onlookers, so he had to lie to folks who knew the fellow whose ear he cut off (Malchus). In the end, he had to reinforce his lies with an oath.

 Consider the simplicity of honesty. You don’t have to remember your lies when you tell the truth.

Its Clear Example

“Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no” (v. 12d).

If you mean to say yes, then say yes.
If you mean to say no, then say no.

Don’t leave the rest of us guessing about what you really mean. We have far too much passive-aggressive hemming and hawing, fake promises, or promises with a thousand conditions, or “maybe this or maybe that,” or the kind of studied indecision that takes forever to come to a conclusion, and then hedges it by trying to say yes and no at the same time.

Say what you mean,
Mean what you say

What’s the point of all this?
Tell the truth.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.

It’s okay to say no. Sometimes that’s the smartest thing to do, but we have trouble saying no because someone will get mad at us. So we make excuses, we shuffle our feet, we say yes without conviction, or we say no and immediately start apologizing.

No wonder people don’t trust us.

We’ve all become accustomed to people not telling the truth. We’ve bought into fake news, shaded truth, and white lies to the point where we expect other people to lie to us. That’s why we have to say, “Tell us the truth.”

I’ve already said I don’t think this verse is primarily about taking an oath in a courtroom. Most of us won’t do that very often anyway. In my lifetime I’ve had to take an oath in a courtroom exactly once. James is working at a deeper level than that. He wants us to become men and women who tell the truth.

No wonder people don’t trust us

We fudge the truth so often that we have to say things like, “I’m going to be honest with you.” But if we were honest all the time, we’d never have to say those words.

The standard is both simple and daunting: tell the truth every time. Let your lips speak truth and not falsehood. No lies, no flattery, no “white lies,” no clever excuses, no misleading explanations.

Its Concise Warning

 “You will be condemned” (v. 12e).

These words are for church folks, not outsiders. Remember, James is writing to the “brothers,” not to the pagans. Here’s a warning for people like you and me.

When we lie, we face the judgment of the Lord. We must someday give an account for every idle word we have spoken. By our words we will be justified, and by our words we will be condemned.

In a world wholly given over to lies, deceit, and dishonesty, the honest man or woman stands out in the crowd. God bless those people  . . .

We serve a God who cannot lie

Whose word is their bond,
Whose promises mean something,
Whose “yes” means yes, and
Whose “no” means no.

This matters because we serve a God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). Lying is not part of his personality. Our God does not lie because he cannot lie. If we claim to be his children, should we not live up to that high standard?

In recent days we have read much about the cover-up of sexual crimes by religious leaders. Under the guise of church authority, those leaders broke their vows and abused young people and sometimes abused children. This scandal is made much worse through the elaborate cover-up that is only now coming to light. I do not say those words to heap condemnation on anyone. Justice is coming and is already arriving. The faith of millions has been shaken because we ought to be able to trust those who claim to serve in the name of Christ.

I had someone say to me recently, “I don’t know who I can trust anymore.” He didn’t say it lightly but rather in a tone of despair.

“I don’t know who I can trust”

Now is the time for every Christian to say, “By God’s grace, I will be a person of truth. With God’s help, I will live with integrity so that others can trust what I say.”

Having said that, even if we mean it, we must agree with James when he says, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). We have all fallen short in this area. We have all made promises we didn’t keep. We have all lied under pressure. We have said things we knew weren’t true, we have fudged the truth, we have told white lies, we have played fast and loose with the facts, and we have done it again and again.

What hope is there for any of us?

The Psalmist considered the whole human race and then threw his hands up in despair, saying, “All men are liars” (Psalm 116:11).  He was right about that. We are condemned by our own deceit. If God requires honesty, who will ever stand in the presence of the Lord? Only one man qualifies: the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only honest man who ever lived. He never lied, never stretched the truth, and never deceived.

Twenty years ago the Promise Keepers movement swept America. I remember sitting with 80,000 men at Soldier Field one weekend as we promised to be men of integrity. It was a noble movement that helped many men (myself included). But there is only one true Promise Keeper, the Lord Jesus Christ. The rest of us are liars.

That’s why we need Jesus.
He spoke the truth because he was the truth.

Jesus is the true Promise Keeper

He never cursed, yet he was cursed by God the Father.
He became a curse for our cursed race.
He who never sinned became sin for us.
He who never blasphemed was treated as a blasphemer.
He died for the murderers who murdered him.

Recalling his career as a slave trader, John Newton (author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”) called himself “the African blasphemer.” The blasphemer was saved by the death of the One who died in his place. Do you believe this? Your only hope in life and in death is the cross of Jesus Christ. Run to the cross! Do not delay or hesitate or say to yourself, “I don’t deserve this.” No, you don’t. That is why you should come now, come quickly, come while the door of heaven is still open to you.

John 1:14 says Jesus came to the earth “full of grace and truth.”

—To know Jesus is to know the truth.
—To follow Jesus is to follow the truth.
—To believe in Jesus is to believe the truth.
—To love Jesus is to love the truth.

That’s why truth-telling is so crucial for us. We know the truth, we have believed the truth, we have committed ourselves to following the truth. Therefore, we must become People of the Truth.

When will the lying end?
When God’s people decide to tell the truth!

Lord Jesus, come with your grace, come with your wisdom, and fill us with your power until your truth drives out all falsehood. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?