The trial of suffering (Ja. 5:7-12) teaches us that genuine faith is expressed in patience during affliction. Intertwined in the trial, and the trials preceding it, are tropes on speech. For example, “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Ja. 5:10), “do not grumble” (Ja. 5:9), “all such boasting is evil” (Ja. 4:16), “do not speak evil” (Ja. 4:11), “you ask wrongly” (Ja. 4:3). James even included a trial on speech (Ja. 3:1-12).
The topic of speech is like a snowball building throughout the epistle reaching its largest size in the final section on prayer (Ja. 5:13-18). Our speech is an important topic when considering the genuineness of our faith. The tongue utters the secrets of the heart. So, a pure heart will excite pure speech (Ja. 3:10). This is the idea behind James 5:12, as he directs our attention to making oaths.
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.James 5:12
There is a striking resemblance between this passage and the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:34-47. There, the Lord teaches on oaths as part of His sermon on the mount. It reads this way:
“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.”
Oaths were common practice then, as they are today. They were meant to give the statement a sense of credibility in order to be trusted. Hebrews 6:16, might help us get the gist of it, “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.”
Do Not Swear
The first time I financed the purchase of a vehicle, I had to have a “co-signer” join me in the statement of trust. And, it had to be someone with a history of credibility. In my case, my father-in-law signed the promise-to-pay with me which gave my signature a sense of trust that I would not have had otherwise, since I had no history of credit.
Oaths were useful in a society where truth-telling was falling away. This is true today. We put little stock in what most people say. Politicians, businessmen, salesmen, lawyers, and even preachers have made us use to hearing promises that are never meant to be fulfilled. In essence, we have grown accustomed to false-telling. And, with so many claiming to have the truth, we are suspicious when we actually find it. Swearing an oath, especially when legally bound, would help reinforce trust.
The Jews, however, were using oaths flippantly and frivolously to deceive others. So, oaths became empty promises and people had little confidence in them. For this reason, Jesus told them to stop using them. “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord,” to borrow from the Old Testament (Lev. 19:12). Their empty oaths brought shame to the name of the Lord by whole they swore.
The temptation to advance a life or promise an action that we cannot guarantee arises when we are suffering because it can alleviate our pain. But James says, “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath” in order to get out of your present affliction (Ja. 5:12). By this, he means empty-oaths. If you are making promises you cannot guarantee, don’t evoke the credibility of anyone or anything else. For it is sinful and may fall “under condemnation” (Ja. 5:12).
The Condemnation is Sure
We may not be sure of others who make truth claims. We can, however, be sure that those who make oaths deceptively will be condemned by God. This is what James is urging us to avoid. “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (Ja. 5:12). In other words, have simple, straightforward and honest speech or you will be condemned.
What matters to the Lord is that our word is matched by our deeds. What we say should be trustworthy and truthful all the time. Suffering can tempt us to say things that are not true and to make guarantees that we cannot keep. This kind of deception is evil and worthy of condemnation. Moreover, it causes others, and should us, to question the validity of our salvation. True faith is reliable and trustworthy. So, truthfulness should come from our mouths.
People who demonstrate true faith are patient while suffering. They do not get jealous of others who are not suffering. Rather, they are cheerful and glad for the person who is doing well. A person who has true faith is aware of God’s will and does not make promises he cannot keep. True believers also realize that the Lord is compassionate and merciful, and that He is coming soon to avenge and to bless those who have endured.
The Lord expects us to be long-suffering and reliable regardless of the trials we endure. In fact, Paul encourages us in Romans when he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
God is in control of our lives and when we grasp this truth we can rest in the knowledge that he sees our suffering and provides the comfort and strength we need to endure. As Paul said to the believers in Corinth, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:5). Charles Spurgeon said this that motivated me to endure suffering. I trust that it will also encourage you.
“Be thankful then, dear brethren, be thankful for trouble; and above all, be thankful because it will soon be over, and we shall be in the land where these things will be spoken of with great joy. As soldiers show their scars and talk of battles, when they come at last to spend their old age in the country at home; so shall we in the dear land to which we are hastening, speak of the goodness and faithfulness of God, which brought us through all the trials of the way. I would not like to stand in the white-robed host and hear it said, ‘These are they that come out of great tribulation, all except that one.’ Would you like to be there to see yourself pointed at as the one saint who never knew a sorrow? We will be content to share the battle, for we shall soon wear the crown and wave the palm.”