When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God. Ecclesiastes 5:4-7.
I’m pretty sure this is one of those passages many would rather relegate to the Old Covenant and never think of again. The reasoning goes, “Jesus revealed God as loving and personal. How can He also demand such special treatment?”
And right there is the problem with most of our “modern” views of God.
We give the president of the United States more respect than the Creator of the universe far too often. To treat God as a common being is a mistake, in my opinion; one which the contemporary church in America has perpetuated to its own hurt. We buy into the “name it, claim it” variety of Christianity forgetting His sovereignty and ignoring all the lessons of those who came before. We read NT stories like Ananias and Sapphira, recoiling at the thought God would actually punish such an action with death. Our reasoning is faulty, our conclusions about godliness and righteousness out of step with Jesus and our sense of what true love is based on brokenness few desire to fix.
How do I know this attitude pervades the church?
I own it.
Oh, I admit to fighting it in this public arena, but I struggle to like this part of God’s personality/character. I don’t want strictness but leeway. And if we’re all honest with ourselves, in some area of our lives or another we all want the same thing—that is, for God to excuse some trait or sin in our lives so we can keep on doing it or so we don’t have to look at it. To get even this reconciled to our text has taken me years.
Yet our reaction in the West has much to do with the attitudes which pervaded the East and Europe in times past. Jesus made God approachable by proclaiming Him personal. This changed how we see God as a whole for we look at Him through the cross. However, in contrast to the austere, severe and disinterested God of past centuries (perpetuated by church hierarchy often to secure their own power and position), twentieth century Christianity took it to the other extreme and made approaching Jesus a casual thing. Now I’m not saying this is everywhere in the church, rather that I’ve experienced these two extremes in an almost schizoid (which means out of touch with reality) dual personality way. The reality is somewhere in between these two extremes, which makes both of them true, although only a half truth taken by themselves.
In my late twenties I made a vow to God, which I have tried to fulfill to the best of my ability. Before that I made another vow which I kept for a long time until the pressure to conform took over, so I compromised. I’m not sure of the ultimate consequences of either, though I know there are some in minor areas for the latter. However, the vow I kept has resulted in censure from leadership, mild interventions on the part of family or friends and lastly a lack of financial security.
Though I know grace covers all, every act carries natural consequences—and not just the bad deeds have outcomes. There’s a sarcastic saying which goes, “No good deed will go unpunished” which is snide way of saying doing good often results in loss and ingratitude. The losses I have endured have been mostly in the relationship arena. I can’t sustain certain relationships because of how I choose to live. Some important people in my life keep their distance and avoid any conversation about my work.
You wouldn’t think being dedicated to working for God and working hard to not be a burden on the church would arouse censure, but it does. Or, may be a better way to say it is the way I interpret the calling on my life definitely does. This is gist the first vow (which I found recently in a Bible dating from 1987): “I vow to serve God in whatever capacity I can full time, full tilt, no holds barred.”
The second one dealt with media. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and in most circles around that time they frowned on going to movies or watching TV shows except for news. So I vowed to abstain from all media and keep my head clear of all these distracting voices. The problem came with my band—they all did both, not being raised the way I was. One day the leader of the band told me the rest of the folks felt I didn’t want to hang out with them. We had a long talk about my vow and what it meant. In his mind I had made a foolish promise that God would look on as silly. The pressure continued for a couple of weeks. I know my story probably sounds ridiculous to some of you reading this, but I’d like us to consider the nature of our take on God through my experience. I eventually folded after much prayer and agonizing over the issue. Not only was I bucking the conditioning from my heritage but also working against this very text, which I knew well at the time.
For years afterward I feared God would destroy the work of my hands. In some ways the suspicion is still with me in the dark corners of my psyche that the current state of my music career is due to this broken vow. Whether or not this is true, I can’t really say. What I can say is that I came to God humbly aware that for me to reach into people’s lives I couldn’t be a recluse. Writing songs amounted to some worth for the kingdom but it was in relationships where the real work began. I realized my vow had isolated me from not only my friends but most people I would reach out to for Jesus.
I began watching TV and going to movies with the band. Not a lot, but enough to show friendship. To this day I limit how much I take in, not as part of the vow but for the sake of focus. At this point in my life I can safely say I’m not a conservative or liberal in my thinking about these things. In other words I don’t buy into either ethic as sacrosanct or the final word on righteousness. My purpose here is different than you might imagine.
Our mistaken perspectives push us into all sorts of vows, arbitrary rules and foolish “spiritual” takes on very ordinary things. As I grow in a knowledge of Christ, I realize more and more how very broken we all are and in our efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging in our spirits we create elaborate rules and erect formidable walls of doctrine to limit our baser passions.
All for nothing.
Jesus made something clear, “Of yourselves you can do nothing.”
Anyone—and I mean Anyone!—who believes we change our own natures by personal effort misses the point of the cross. Later Paul chimed in on this subject by stating emphatically, I can do all things through (Christ) who gives me strength! Do you see the difference?
My vow had to do with my own efforts to be remain pure and untainted by the world—a godly goal. The only problem was it didn’t work to keep me pure. My thoughts were no less sinless than anybody else; my actions no less arrogant spiritually or more in tune with God’s Spirit. What I find is that we fail as believers to strike a balance between what is and what should be. To be blunt, I doubt most people really have a good (or even fair) grasp of what “should be” over anyone else. Legalism is based on human efforts to improve ourselves so that we can approach God. Since no one can approach God except through Christ, our efforts and rules are wasted.
What brought me to my senses about vows came in the form of a small story in the book of Judges (10:6 to 12:7) where Jephthah made a vow to God to sacrifice whatever came out of his front door first for a winning edge in the war he was about to fight. His vow came from a lack of faith, first off, and in the second place, he forgot or didn’t know the law concerning sacrifices. The first one to greet him on his return wasn’t a dog or goat or lamb but his only daughter. I don’t know what he expected when he made the vow but the wisdom of it seemed to escape him. He sacrificed her to the Lord as he promised.
The law clearly prohibits human sacrifice. Look it up and study what God said through Moses about such things. Jephthah’s ignorance set him up for heartache. His God (as opposed to gods of the nations around him) considered such a sacrifice abhorrent and abominable. The sad truth is his daughter died for a foolish vow.
Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, made a similar promise to pay the entire proceeds of the sale from a piece of property then lied to renege. Peter’s question to Ananias was paraphrased, “You could’ve given any portion to God you chose because the land belonged to you. If you hadn’t wanted to give it all, God would not have had a problem with that. But instead you promised all then held some of it back, which made your promise a lie.” The vow turned out badly for both he and his wife.
Solomon’s assertion that we need to be reverent and differential when approaching God, however, still applies. Yes! He is interested in us. Yes! He loves us with a passion we can barely comprehend. Yes! He longs for us with an aching heart we cannot begin to fathom. Yes! He is personal. Yet in all of this He is still wholly other and set apart (the meaning for the words “holy” and “sacred”) for specific reverence, respect and communication. Jesus came to show us how personal God is in contrast to what the law seemed to imply (which it didn’t, we just interpreted it this way), at the same time, never do we see Him suggesting God as common.
My conclusion? Instead of grabbing onto a specific view of God and running with it we need to add it to our list of characteristics. If a human being is both good and evil, happy and sad, successful and failing—and the list could go on—all at the same time, then God created multidimensional creatures capable of being many things at once. If this is true of His creation, then what does it say about the Creator?
As to vows, I say we should stay away from them until we have some inkling as to what we are doing. Much heartache and unneeded stress comes from ignorant promises. A vow—any vow—before God is never to be taken lightly or left unfulfilled.