“I swear on my saintly mother’s grave that I didn’t….” “Hope to die, I do….” Have you ever heard people say these kinds of things? Of course, we all have. They are informal vows that people make in order to add credibility to what they’re saying. Our court system relies on oaths in order to make people tell the truth. We swear on the Bible, although it seems that punishment for perjury has more weight in our modern culture than swearing to God.
But, truth be told, these are all forms of manipulation that carry no weight at all in the Kingdom of the heavens.
The Old Testament says a lot about making and fulfilling vows to God (73 times in NKJV), which makes Jesus’ subversive statement so interesting:
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (Matt.5:33-37 *)
An oath or vow is “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior.” Under the Old Covenant Law, vows were used to bind people to do what they said they would do. In our modern culture that’s alienated from God’s rule and authority, oaths have the effect of a legal formality. But this is not to be so in Jesus’ kingdom.
Under the New Covenant, we’re to be self-governed by the Spirit and compelled by other-centered, self-giving love. We’re to simply let our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and our ‘No,’ ‘No.’
Why this form of manipulation is from the evil one
The last sentence in Jesus’ statement is key to understanding why this is so important: “For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.“ Jesus is telling us to stop appealing to a higher authority to add weight to what we say. We should appeal to the Bible for authority, but not to use as a club to keep people under our control.
As “Bible-believing” evangelicals, we can manipulate people by appealing to the Bible to tell them if they disagree with our interpretation, leave our church, or go to the wrong church, they will end up in hell. There’s no stronger form of manipulation than striking fear and terror in the hearts of religious people.
In the Charismatic camp I belong to, we can easily spiritualize our manipulation through “a prophetic word from God,” or a dream or vision. It usually goes something like, “God told me to tell you…” then we add whatever it is we want them to do. And when we really want to spiritualize our dismissive attack, we can tell them, “You have a Jezebel spirit!”
In all these situations, appealing to God is a trump card used to stop the argument or coerce people into submission. After all, who are we to argue with God! End of discussion. This is why Jesus says doing this is actually from the evil one. It’s a form of witchcraft, rooted in a carnal desire to dominate, manipulate, intimidate, and control.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft…I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal.5:19-21 NIV *)
What makes this practice so insidiously evil is that it sounds righteous. After all, we appealed to the Bible, or some special revelation. But Jesus calls us to stop manipulating relationships this way, going “beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” so we can participate in the Kingdom of the heavens.
Manipulation reveals a wounded soul
When we go deeper, we find that manipulation and control reveals a wounded soul, which is why we end up hurting others with our own pain and brokenness. It usually starts when we were quite young and experienced a deep sadness—rejection, abuse, abandonment—which made us feel out of control. So we make inner vows, that no one will ever get inside our protective wall. Control becomes the relational means to keep everyone out…including God. Sadly, we will seek out love manipulatively and even pass this codependent behavior on to our children if we don’t get healed.
Control looks like making everyone around us behave the way we expect. And when they don’t, they experience our wrath. This fear-driven reaction wreaks havoc on all of our relationships.
The only path to permanent freedom is receiving God’s unconditional love for us. When we know we are loved, we can begin to trust Jesus to go into the deepest part of us and heal our wounded heart. The more we learn to trust Jesus, the more we will let go of our need to control everyone around us.
* New King James Bible translation unless otherwise noted. All emphasis added.