Promises are hard to make these days. As I was reflecting today on the practice of ‘promise-keeping’, I began to think that the difficulty for many of us isn’t that we aren’t keeping promises, its that we aren’t even willing to make them. If we tell someone that we will be somewhere or that we will do something (in the form of a promise), then what do we do if something better comes along? Do we forsake the better option for the lesser option about which we made a promise? Do we break the promise? No, if we don’t commit to anything, then we won’t have to break a promise, won’t be held accountable for unreliability, and won’t be letting anyone down. “I’m not going to promise anything, but I’ll do my best” has become our promise-averse culture’s motto towards doing anything – because a yes to one thing is a no to a million other things. Why not keep our options open and avoid needing to receive forgiveness, as well as being the hero if we actually do the thing or attend the event that we weren’t willing to commit to? It’s win-win.
Jesus tells a parable about a man who had two sons whom he was sending out to work in the vineyard. The first son tells his dad he doesn’t want to work, and later changes his mind and does the work as requested. The second tells his dad that he will do the work, and later changes his mind and decides that he doesn’t want to. Jesus asks, which one did the will of the father? What I find to be striking about this story is that there isn’t an obviously correct third person in this scenario – the son who said he would do something and then followed through on doing it. That son doesn’t exist, even though he is obviously the one who would have solidly done the will of the father in the story.
So, the answer, then, is the first one, I guess, question mark?
The parable isn’t about our generation – it’s actually about how the sinners are turning their hearts towards the kingdom of God and the ‘righteous’ are turning their hearts away from the kingdom of God – but I think the point here for us is why we have such a hard time just making promises or commitments.
The main problem I already outlined above: if we don’t commit we can’t be held accountable if something better comes up. The second is this: We really like not being the bad guy. We would rather be considered unreliable by no fault of our own (other’s perceptions) than be considered unreliable because we broke our promise. I don’t know who it is that started this whole breaking promises thing, but he really betrayed our trust to the point that we aren’t willing to even make promises, right?
But, there is a darkness that lurks behind our unwillingness to make promises which is this: It robs us of the ability to truly be in relationship with anyone. When we won’t make a promise, we lose touch with two other relational practices that are key to relationships – confession and forgiveness. There’s nothing to confess if I didn’t show up at that thing that I never said I would, and likewise nothing to forgive. No wrong has been done.
But imagine a wedding in which both the bride and groom say, “I mean, I’m not going to make any promises here, but I will certainly try to be true to you through thick and thin or whatever“. There’s no relationship there. There’s nothing riding on it. And that’s just a worthless story to keep living.
So, I challenge you to make a promise. Promise you’re going to show up to some event that sounds just marginally interesting. Then, try to keep that promise. Look at all the ways that you had to value that relationship over other competing events and opportunities. Take note of all the no’s you had to say because of that one ‘yes’. It’s really worth it, as is failing, confessing, and receiving forgiveness. Because we all need forgiveness, and even more, we all need to feel the pain that is being in a real relationship with another human being who is counting on us and whom we count on to be there when it matters, and who sometimes fails us and hurts us and makes us feel alone and angry…who makes us feel something at all, because when we feel we live and when we live we can bring life to dead places. And that is certainly better than the no-life we are currently living.