Watching Your Mouth

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.


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6 thoughts on “Watching Your Mouth

  1. This is a MAJOR pet peeve of mine – people not doing what they say. Partly because (while I am not perfect!) doing what I say is really important to me. I can remember times where I experienced significant hardship to do what I said. Maybe I got sick or something unexpected came up, but regardless I worked sick or lost sleep to do what I said. So, I guess I expect the same from others. Rant over. Good post!


    1. Hah, mine too, and from a professorial perspective. “I know I SAID I would have this paper in but [xyz emergency] happened and…”

      And then I always have to tell them: “It is your job to plan ahead in CASE of an emergency! Think ahead!” A lot of people think a “good” excuse makes renegging on something A-OK regardless of the consequences it has for other parties.

      It’s good that doing what you say is a trait you strive to cultivate! I try not to make a lot of promises unless I am CERTAIN I can follow through with them. Why disappoint or hurt people unnecessarily, or go back on my word?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It also works the other way in that we shouldn’t demand others to make a promise either. About 12 years ago, a pastors wife of our church who was frustrated about the poor attendance at mid-week prayer meetings got people to stand up and promise to show up at the prayer meeting that week. I considered my work schedule and decided that there was no reason why I couldn’t show up. I would go straight from work to the church. Lo’ and behold, I was asked (forced) to work late and to renege on my promise. I felt terrible. The next day, I emailed the pastors wife and told her what happened. I also apologized and said that I would not make any more promises like that because I had little control over my work hours. She didn’t reply. I learned a big lesson that day about making promises. Good post.


    1. Oh, that is a tremendous point that hadn’t occurred to me! Yes, it’s easy to try to coerce people into promises, especially when we really, really need/want something from then – but sometimes we’re helping set them up to break their word. It’s amazing the way an experience like that can hammer home the truth about the value of our words and oaths!

      Liked by 1 person

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