Don’t Bring God into It

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Don’t Bring God into It
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I was listening to The Bible Project Podcast episode Why Does Jesus Say Not to Swear Oaths? this morning and they had a surprising interpretation of Matthew 5:33–37 that has sat with me.

Sermon on the Mount E14: Why Does Jesus Say Not to Swear Oaths?
In this episode, Jon and Tim discuss Jesus’ teaching on swearing oaths, which demonstrates God’s wisdom on the integrity of our words and the danger of even small deceptions.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

—Matthew 5:33–37 (NIV)

In the podcast, Tim refers to a famous book that is on my reading list (it’s now moved to the top of my list) The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard which he says has shaped how he views these words of Jesus.

The fundamental idea (at least the one that struck me and is rattling around in my brain) is that Jesus’ wisdom in these verses is about refraining from bringing God into something that God isn’t in. It seems quite closely related to me to using God’s name in vain, using God to manipulate other people. When you say, ‘I believe God has told me this’ or even, more generally, ‘God has given me a real peace about this’ – you need to be sure that God actually has. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 come to mind: ‘I, not the Lord’.

Dallas Willard (in The Divine Conspiracy) gives ‘six contrasts of the old and the new morality’:

  1. A – situation: Irritation with one’s associates.
    B – old dikaiosune (right behaviour): No murder.
    C – kingdom dikaiosune: Intense desire to be of help, no anger or contempt.
  2. A: Sexual attraction.
    B: No intercourse.
    C: No cultivation of list.
  3. A: Unhappiness with marriage partner.
    B: If you divorce, give ‘pink slip.’
    C: No divorce, as then practiced.
  4. A: Wanting someone to believe something.
    B: Keep vows or oaths made to convince.
    C: Only say how things are or are not. No verbal manipulation.
  5. A: Being personally injured.
    B: Inflict exactly the same injury on the offender.
    C: Don’t harm, but help, the one who has damaged you.
  6. A: Having an enemy.
    B: Hate your enemy.
    C: Love and bless your enemy, as the heavenly Father does.

I reproduced this list in full because it is just so good, but this post will focus on number 4. The way that Willard puts it cuts to the heart of his interpretation: the situation is ‘wanting someone to believe something’. And, I think, that is why humans make oaths, it’s a good way to describe the situation. The old standard was to keep one’s word – this is good, but Jesus raises the stakes and says that we must simply say how things are not use ‘verbal manipulation’ including invoking the name of God to get people to believe what we are saying.

The Divine Conspiracy (Willard, 1997)

But Jesus goes right to the heart of why people swear oaths. He knew that they do it to impress others with their sincerity and reliability and thus gain acceptance of what they are saying and what they want. It is a method for getting their way.

As God’s free creatures, people are to be left to make their decisions without coercion or manipulation. Hence, ‘let your affirmation be just an affirmation,’ a yes, and your denial be just a denial, a no. Anything more than this ‘comes from evil’—the evil intent to get one’s way by verbal manipulation of the thoughts and choices of others.

This is such an important point and, frankly, it blew my mind. I’ve always had trouble with people who say they have received a word from the Lord which is suspiciously like what they already wanted and had been arguing for and I’ve had the privilege of working in church leadership positions alongside people who simply refuse to do this.

I spent a bit of time this morning thinking about whether this is something we do in our church, do we use God’s name to bolster our argument for something that we want to do? Something that we just think is best? I came to the conclusion that, no, I can’t think of any instances when we’ve done this – I have personally done it in the past, though it is not common, and I will naturally now be more clued in to it should it come up again, but as far as I can recall, we don’t have a history of pulling the ‘God card’ to convince others that we are right.

A corollary for this is that it is, actually, okay to have our own thoughts and ideas and put them out there. Perhaps I have gone too far the other way. I have refused to speak without specific guidance from the Lord. I have perhaps used this as an excuse to do and say nothing on important topics. It is okay to say, ‘I, not the Lord’ think such and such.

“He says, the essence of swearing oaths that Jesus targets here is about invoking something or someone else, especially God, to make your words seem more significant and more weighty. The aim is to impress others with your seriousness or your piety so that you get what you want. It's a device of manipulation designed to override the judgment or input of others in order to possess them for our purposes.”

BibleProject: Why Does Jesus Say Not to Swear Oaths?, 1 Apr 2024
“But again, if we're reading this as wisdom literature, we're also gonna try and imagine what are other ways that I use God to manipulate other people's perception of me to get them to do what I want. And somehow when Dallas Willard put it like that, all of a sudden, I just started to think about all of these ways that in religious cultures, people use language about God to cut off input from other people, or to bulldoze over other people for their own purposes. So that's not exactly what Jesus is talking about, but it's another way that people use God to get what they want.”

From BibleProject: Why Does Jesus Say Not to Swear Oaths?, 1 Apr 2024