Last year one of my former students contacted me in a panic.
He is a wonderful young man, an excellent student, a devoted Christian, and he had been a tremendous pleasure in class: eager to learn, quick with questions, early to turn in work. After our course had ended, he asked me for a recommendation letter for a graduate program to which he was applying: his dream was to get a degree in medicine and then return one day to his home country of Sierra Leone and put it to use.
I obliged, wrote the requested letter and submitted it, and then thought nothing of it. Which is why I was surprised to receive his panicked e-mail months later. “Did you turn in my recommendation letter?” he asked. “The deadline is quickly approaching and the application has informed me that only two of my three required letters have been returned. Please, if you can, turn it in quickly for my sake!”
I let him know that I had turned in his letter months ago. He sent me another confused, panicked email; his other two professors had sworn to him that they had turned in their letters also. Was I absolutely sure mine had been turned in properly? I was; I sent him a copy of the confirmation email that I had received upon turning his recommendation in.
His email in return broke my heart. “Then one of my other professors has lied to me,” he wrote, “having sworn that they would do me this service. They have not completed the letter. I am at a loss for what to do.” His remaining in the country depended on the renewal of his visa; the renewal of his via depended on his getting into the program; and his getting into the program depended, at least minimally, on getting the required recommendations.
I was helpless to assist him. Fortunately, another professor intervened in his hour of need and agreed to write him a quick recommendation letter on the fly so that he could complete his application. “Praise be to God,” my student wrote me, “for He has provided!” The last I heard from him, he had been accepted to the program and was proudly going forward with his education.
I’m relieved his story had a happy ending. But I think a lot about the professor who, either intentionally or unintentionally, broke a promise to a student.
I’ve been reading in the Old Testament a lot lately (due to the ongoing Jonathan study I have started here) and thinking a lot about promises and vows. The Bible, for all that it values honesty, takes a dim view of them generally. I imagine that is because God Himself knows human inconstancy well; impulsive and spontaneous, we blurt out all sorts of things without thinking through what they mean or what the consequences of breaking them might be.
Vows must be kept, the Bible says, over and over, because if you make a vow and you do not keep it, you are sinning against God (Ecc. 5:4-6). Better, in fact, not to make a vow, because at least then you won’t be able to sin by breaking it (Deut. 23:21-23). Fathers could oppose their young daughters and thus prevent them from being responsible for their (presumably rash) vows (Numbers 30:1-16); reflection and forethought are encouraged before making any solemn promise.
King Saul was a walking, talking vow-maker whose ill-thought-out vows had serious consequences for himself, his family, and his kingdom; Hannah immediately and completely kept her vow regarding her son, and God blessed it (1 Sam. 1). Even the New Testament gets in on the action; the book of James warns believers against swearing oaths to back up their words. Simple honesty is best, the Bible counsels, but beware of your own limitations. Watch what you say, and don’t you dare utter anything that you don’t expect to be held accountable for.
Which brings me back to the promise-breaking professor. I wonder what it was that prevented him from writing a recommendation letter for the student to whom he had vowed it. A life emergency, perhaps? Simple carelessness? A misunderstood date? I can’t bring myself to think that he did it out of malice or unkindness – and yet even if his lack of action came from benign neglect or a justifiable cause, he nonetheless very nearly killed a student’s bright future.
It’s easy when we make promises – when we swear we’ll do this or that, when we say we’ll never be this or that, when we vow our solemn oaths – to imagine we’ll follow through on them. While some people’s promises almost always double as lies, I believe that most people make promises intending to follow through on them.
But we don’t always. Life gets in the way. We forget. Something unexpected happens. Stuff piles up. Circumstances change. And the thing that we swore to becomes as malleable as anything else; our words spoken with the most honest of intentions turn into blatant lies, sometimes with consequences we never could have foreseen.
Be careful of what you promise. Be careful of the certainties and the absolutes you declare in language. Be careful of your oaths, your vows, your “I will never“s and your “I will always“s. If you promise to do something, do it immediately or as soon as you can. Follow through. And if you can’t, or if you’re unsure, don’t promise at all.
The words you speak will bind you. Sometimes they’ll bind others, too. Keep an eye on what you’re saying, and be honest with yourself about who you are and what you can do. It’s not worth risking the consequences to do otherwise.
Come join the new Bible study with me!