The Bible’s Viewpoint
Must We Pay Our Vows?
AN OTHERWISE happily married couple faces an agonizing problem. Years ago, when they were deeply mired in a thorny family dilemma, they vowed to donate one tenth of their income to God if he would pull them out of their troubles. Now, well advanced in years and saddled with unexpected money problems, they wonder, “Are we compelled to fulfill this vow?”
Their predicament underscores the wise man’s counsel against overhastiness in speech: “Better it is that you vow not than that you vow and do not pay. Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin, neither say before the angel that it was a mistake.”—Ecclesiastes 5:5, 6.
No Lame Excuses
Even though frivolous oaths and evasive promises are the norm in today’s permissive society, we cannot expect God to believe contrived excuses; even businesspeople know better than that. Laments the article “Business Integrity: An Oxymoron?” in the trade journal Industry Week: “We no longer trust people to tell the truth, to do what is right rather than expedient, to live up to their commitments.” While convenient falsehoods, such as “the check is in the mail,” might buy time with human creditors, angels are never deceived.
This is not to say that God uses angels to enforce vows in the way that an unscrupulous loan shark might use thugs to extort usury payments from hapless victims. Rather, God lovingly makes his angels “spirits for [upbuilding] public service, sent forth to minister for those who are going to inherit salvation.” (Hebrews 1:14) As such, angels can and do play a part in answering our sincere prayers.
However, if we continue to make empty promises in our prayers, can we rightly expect God’s blessings? The wise man states: “Why should the true God become indignant on account of your voice and have to wreck [to some extent, at least] the work of your hands?”—Ecclesiastes 5:6b.
Thus, it is not the fear of an avenging angel that should move us to pay our vows rather than make excuses. Instead, we should value a good relationship with God and honestly desire God’s favor on our activity. As the above-mentioned couple beautifully expressed it: “We want to have a clean conscience before God and want to act according to his will.”
Keep a Good Conscience
In order to have a clean conscience about paying a vow, we must be honest with ourselves. To illustrate: Suppose someone owed you a large sum of money but because of some misfortune found himself unable to repay you. Which would please you more—if he shrugged off the whole debt as impossible to repay or if he at least arranged to pay you small, regular amounts as he was able?
By the same reasoning, suppose a hasty vow to devote one’s full time or other resources to proper Christian activities simply cannot be kept. Should we not feel duty-bound to come as close to complying as present circumstances allow? “If the readiness is there first,” Paul wrote, “it is especially acceptable” whether we have much to give or only a little. (2 Corinthians 8:12) But what about vows made before one had an accurate knowledge of Bible truth?
Wrong or Unscriptural Vows
If we learn that a vow is unclean or immoral, we should drop it like a hot coal! (2 Corinthians 6:16-18) Examples of unclean vows are:
◻ Vows made to false gods or goddesses, such as the Babylonian “queen of the heavens.”—Jeremiah 44:23, 25.
◻ Unlawful vows, like the oath of 40 men not to take a bite of food until they had killed the apostle Paul.—Acts 23:13, 14.
◻ Apostate vows that follow the “teachings of demons, by . . . men who speak lies . . . , forbidding to marry, commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be partaken of with thanksgiving by those who have faith and accurately know the truth.”—1 Timothy 4:1-3.
So, obviously, we may have to declare some past vows void. But as to vows that involved nothing unscriptural, why look for loopholes? Should not our present accurate knowledge make us show greater respect than ever for past vows?
Consider Your Past and Future Vows
It also follows that we should think soberly before adding any future vows to our worship. Vows should not be used simply to motivate a person to do or not do something, such as increase one’s time spent in Christian worship or refrain from overeating. Jesus, though, did not object to all oaths, as, for example, when required in a court of law. But he apparently drew the line with regard to indiscriminate oaths, for he cautioned: “It was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not swear without performing, but you must pay your vows to Jehovah.’ However, I say to you: Do not swear at all.” (Matthew 5:33, 34) Why did he take this position? Had vows become less appropriate than before?
Oaths by faithful ones of ancient times were often conditional. In solemn prayer they would promise Jehovah, ‘If you help me through this crisis, I will do such-and-such in your behalf.’ But Jesus said: “If you ask the Father for anything he will give it to you in my name.” Far from recommending conditional vows to faithful ones of his time, Jesus assured them: “Until this present time you have not asked a single thing in my name. Ask and you will receive.”—John 16:23, 24.
This confidence in the name, or office, of Jesus should also comfort anyone who still feels guilty because—try though he may—he cannot fulfill what he promised God “thoughtlessly with his lips.” (Leviticus 5:4-6) So while not treating our former vows lightly, not only can we now pray in Jesus’ name but we can appeal to God to apply the ransom sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, and we can beg for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Thus we can receive “the full assurance of faith, having had our hearts [cleansed] from a wicked conscience.”—Hebrews 10:21, 22.
[Picture Credit Line on page 24]
Priests taking vows at Montmartre