When people use the term “telling the truth”, they are usually thinking of statements about the past or present, but statements about the future can also be true or false. If I promise on Monday to show up at an event on Thursday, no one will know until Thursday whether or not I told the truth – but if I didn’t show up on Thursday, I did lie on Monday. Perhaps it is this time lag that makes it easier to forget about the lie, or to think of a broken promise as something other than a lie. The long term effect, at least in the eyes of others, is the same: eventually they will not believe you, and you will have lost the power that telling the truth holds.
I used to be confused about the word “promise” when I was growing up: what did that mean? Obviously, if you say the words “I promise I will . . .” that qualifies as a promise. But if you simply say “I will. . .” is that a promise? How about any statements about the future, such as “The sun will rise tomorrow”? All of these can be considered promises – you can tell, because when they turn out to be false, people will say “You promised!” (Which is why people get angry at weathermen). Eventually, I realized that I was not the only one confused about what constitutes a promise, and some people still seemed to think that you have to use that specific word for it to be a promise. Obviously the wording itself is not the most important factor; what is important is how much value your statements about the future hold. And their value is measured in terms of their truth.
As a performing musician I usually tell a large number of people about my upcoming performances, and many of them promise to attend. Normally the ratio of how many people actually came to how many people promised is quite low – one out of ten, perhaps. The end result is that I become cynical about these promises, and I often get depressed during the performances (even if nine out of ten people who promised to show up actually did, I still get bothered by the one who didn’t). The question I am left to ponder is, “Why do they keep promising?” I am certainly no saint, and I find myself making such promises frequently.
From my perspective I would prefer that no one promise to come or that more people actually come than promised to come. The Lord addresses this issue directly in the parable in Matthew, about two sons who are asked to do a job. One promised that he would and didn’t, the other refused but ended up doing the job anyway. Matthew 21:28-31. It is obvious who delighted the Lord more, but the question remains, “Why did the first laborer make the promise?” no matter how much it bothers me when others do it, I still find myself doing it as well.
The answer, apparently, is that when we make promises of this sort we might think we are doing others a favor of some sort. Perhaps we feel we are brightening their day or making them feel better if we make a friendly promise. The end result is the opposite, of course. In spiritual growth terms, we are choosing a lower delight over a higher one.
The word “promise” can refer to any statement about the future, and in fact, the other forms of lying also apply to promises. Breaking promises, however, is different from other forms in that we have more control over whether the promise turns out to be true or not. We can prevent the lie at both ends of the process – by not promising what we can’t (or don”t intend to) do, and also by doing everything we promise. One of the most important spiritual tasks in my life has been learning to do everything I said I would. When I was a free-lance typist, I would often get last minute rush jobs, where the customer would plead that they absolutely had to get it back by 8:00 the next morning. I would say “It will be finished by 8:00 then”, and I would stay up late into the night working on it. Often the customer would not come to claim it until later, but that did not bother me much. What mattered to me was that I kept my promise.
One of the personality traits that most people admire is reliability. Unlike other personality traits, however, this one is almost totally within one’s power to achieve: all you have to do is make your promises a higher priority than anything that gets in the way of fulfilling them. It may seem like enslavement, to surrender your freedom about your behavior once you have made a promise, but like many spiritual things, there is more freedom in being responsible.
by Dr. Jeremy Rose, Teacher and Musician.