Verbal integrity

Verbal integrity: Words have power

James–Part 25

The 2016 Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth,” an expression that was frequently heard during 2016 election season. Post-truth basically means, “belonging to a time in which the truth has become unimportant or irrelevant.” Do we live in a post-truth world? Yes. But is this something new? No. The truth has been irrelevant to our world for a long, long time. Power and profit are what the world deems important, and if the truth must be sacrificed to get ahead, so be it.

James wrestled with a similar mindset in his day. People sought influence, and oaths were often used to persuade others of a person’s sincerity. The ultimate oath was to God, and the Lord was clear about the gravity of breaking such a vow: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12). Violating this law was equivalent to breaking the Third Commandment. Since the penalty was death, it is understandable that people were not quick to make a vow to God. And when they did swear an oath, they made sure they fulfilled it.

Because oaths were trustworthy, they became valuable, and their value was not lost on those who sought influence. Clever men and women used oaths to manipulate others. They thought they could circumvent God’s commandment by slightly changing the wording of it. They made oaths to heaven and Jerusalem and other places. The intent was to deceive. The “fine print” in many of today’s contracts has a similar purpose.

James singles out this issue because it is a perfect example of the kind of verbal misuse he has been condemning throughout the letter. Followers of Jesus are to live with integrity in what they say and do.

Above all, my brothers and sisters, 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 do not fall under God’s judgment.
James 5:12

James’s teaching is not his own. He is repeating what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Again, you have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘Do not swear falsely,’ and ‘Carry out the oaths you made to the Lord,’ but I tell you, do not swear at all–neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is His footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. And do not swear by your own head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Anything more than that comes from evil.
Matthew 5:33-37

Jesus and James are talking about verbal integrity–a principle that is categorically opposed to the notion of post-truth. In the midst of a world that has embraced post-truth, Christians are to stand out like lights in the darkness. Of course that’s easier said than done. It is very tempting to spin the truth in a way that allows us to do what we want. And with today’s technology, we can be far more sophisticated in our deceits. We have pictures and videos and memes to help us.

Spend some time this week reflecting on the things you say to make people come around to your way of thinking. How often do you spin or shade the truth to get your way? What price have you paid for telling the truth in a post-truth world?

Next: Christianity’s best kept secret.

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