“O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart . . . who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” Psalm 15:1-2,4
David asks, “O Lord, who shall dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1) A momentous question! Like David, you should want to know what kind of person stands under God’s favor and in his holy presence.
The answer to David’s question includes this heart-piercing declaration: He “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4). Let the words sink in. A godly man keeps his word not only when honoring a commitment when it’s advantageous, but also when it’s costly.
The godly understand that every promise made is a point of honor. The believer’s reputation and the church’s reputation are at stake. Christians who bear God’s name must honor it by keeping their word.
Listen to words from another generation:
“The preservation of integrity should be superior to all other considerations, and it is a miserable confession of weakness that the love of life or limb has been stronger than the love of virtue . . . It cannot be too earnestly inculcated upon the young that to break a pledge is apt to be followed by the total ruin of one’s virtue. Transgression is not a transitory thing. The single act is soon done and over, but it leaves an influence behind, which, like the adder’s poison, may grow and operate and spread until it reaches the seat of life and triumphs in the ruin of the victim.”*
This writer captures a truth we dare not forget. The breaking of a promise is not an isolated act. If unchecked, it leads to habitual dishonesty; promise-breaking easily becomes a soul-destroying way of life. God’s name is dishonored, a life is ruined, and the reputation of the church scandalized.
What kind of person does a believer become as he makes and keeps promises?
A person who makes and keeps promises is consistent. Because he has pledged himself to the Lord, he does not surrender his moral principles to accommodate his physical impulses, circumstances, and public opinion. Consistency is harmony of character – a principled desire to keep one’s promises regardless of circumstances.
A young person has integrity when she keeps her promises to the Lord when she’s with the youth group, and when she’s in a crowd that pressures her to immoral behavior.
A husband is a man of integrity when he’s committed to his wife at home, and when he’s alone in a motel room on the other side of the country. He lives by the promises he made to her before the Lord.
A businessman is a person of integrity when he discloses his full tax obligations, even when it jeopardizes his business. He lives out his commitment to be a person of truth.
A Christian citizen acts with integrity when he defends the weak and oppressed and when he refuses to make them objects of prejudicial humor or derision. Whether or not it’s socially popular, he refuses to abandon his core biblical conviction that all people – because they are fellow image bearers of God – must be treated with respect and dignity.
A person who can’t make or keep promises lacks consistency. No biblical principles govern him. His identity constantly changes. In one situation, he acts like a follower of Christ, and in another, it’s as if he’s never even heard of Christ. He is driven by feelings and dominated by the passion of the moment. The word of God does not constrain him.
When we are tempted to break our word, we should remember whose reputation is on the line. Ours is, of course, and how terrible to forfeit it! But of far greater consequence is the name we bear by baptism, the name of the true and living God. You have been baptized in his name. Throw away your reputation, and certainly, you hurt yourself. But you also damage, in the world’s eyes, the reputation of the One whose name you bear. And you make his church the subject of ridicule and mockery.
Our obligations to be promise-makers and promise-keepers breaks our hearts when we think of the many times we have spoken and acted carelessly. Our breaches of promise send us to God who has made an unbreakable promise of mercy to those who come to him in Christ. But while at the throne of grace we seek not only forgiveness, but the renewing power of the Holy Spirit that we might keep the promises we make to the good of our souls, the welfare of others, and, above all, the glory of God.
* James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 2. 1875 (Banner of Truth, 1986), 559.