Making and keeping promises is one of the things that distinguishes humans from animals. It is also what separates good people from bad ones.
Yes, I can imagine some promises that should be broken. What if I am a junior-high kid who promises his buddy to help get even with somebody who hurt his friend's feelings by trashing his bike or computer? Then I realize that I've promised to do something wrong. Break the promise! You had no right to make it. Adults sometimes get in those situations as well. Think first. Then speak.
Yes, I can imagine some good promises made in good faith that may be broken. Suppose a woman accepts a proposal to marry - only to discover over the few months prior to the wedding date that the relationship is a big mistake. Better to be honest and suffer embarrassment or break his heart now than create the long-term heartache and eventual failure of a formalized commitment.
But the general rule about keeping promises cannot be formed by exploring the exceptional cases. And the principle that holds a society together is that we must keep the promises we make to one another. Employment contracts, land sales, bank notes, installment loans - these formalized contracts about "things" require documentation and signatures. We enforce them in courts.
Then there are the adult promises we make to one another. They should be regarded as even more important to our integrity as human beings than the contracts we sign about mere things such as cars or money. Are they?
A Christian leader made negative headlines last week with his televised comment about keeping promises. A caller asked what advice to give a friend who had begun a romantic involvement with another woman after his wife began suffering the dreadful effects of Alzheimer's disease. "I know it sounds cruel," he said, "but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her."
The speaker's on-air partner asked about the traditional - and biblical - vow to love and remain together "in sickness and in health" until death parts them.
"If you respect that vow, you say 'til death do us part,' " he continued. Then he added: "[Alzheimer's] is a kind of death."
Lots of things are "a kind of death" - ranging from bankruptcy to paralysis from an auto accident to disfiguring cancers to Alzheimer's disease. That's why we make promises. That's why we take uncertainties out of the lives of the people we love. That's how we preserve integrity in complex and painful times.
This is what the Bible says about making promises: "It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it" (Ecclesiastes 5:5 NLT). Amen.
Dr. Rubel Shelly is Pastor of Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville and authors Fax of Life a weekly service. He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. To subscribe to Fax of Life, send email to faxOfLife@woodmont.org