Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and, when you were done, you didn’t know what the other person was talking about? It is so easy for us to speak the same language and yet completely misunderstand one another. When I was in the Philippines, I discovered that “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes.” In fact, “yes” in the Philippines often means “I heard what you said,” not “I agree with you” or “I am going to do what you have asked of me.”
Communication is such an essential component of every relationship, yet we so often get it wrong. One of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill is, “America and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” Just because we use the same words does not mean that we mean the same thing. What we call cookies the English call biscuits. What we call the trunk of the car they call the boot. What we call a sweater they call a jumper. You get the picture.
Countries, companies, and couples often talk past one another rather than talk to one another. Both sides believe that they are being very clear, yet the other side does not understand what is really being said. This leads to misunderstanding and often conflict.
Of course, there is a dark side to miscommunication. Today we call it spin. A person may say one thing but intentionally mean something quite different. A person can use language to manipulate, confuse, or mislead others. That is what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:33-37
Why do people make oaths? They do it usually to try to convince someone of their sincerity. They need to do this because, in some way, they have violated the trust of another or have a reputation of not keeping their word. “This time I really mean it! I swear!” Jesus made it perfectly clear that we should always speak honestly so that there would never be a need to swear an oath.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus called the Pharisees onto the carpet for using oaths as a way to cloud the truth.
"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.” Matthew 23:16-22
It seems that the Pharisees had found a way to make promises without any intention of keeping them. They would give the impression of sincerity without the substance of it. It is like when a child promises something with their fingers crossed behind their back. “You promised!” “It didn’t count because I had my fingers crossed.”
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to be straight forward in our speech. Words matter. They reveal our heart, our character, our soul. God will hold us accountable for how we have used our words. Jesus made that clear in Matthew 12:33-37.
"Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.”
When we become careless with our words, not only do we damage our reputation, but we damage the reputation of Christ. Others will judge our faith by what we say and how we live. If we say one thing and live another, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is seriously called into question. Mahatma Gandhi rejected Christianity because people who called themselves Christians didn’t live up to what they preached. As followers of Jesus, we have been called to be straight talkers; people whose words ring true under the magnifying glass of public scrutiny.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.