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Promises, Promises …

How to make good on all those good intentions

A while back I chatted with a woman at a school event, someone I'd crossed paths with for years and often thought I'd like to get to know better. As we ended our conversation, I said, "Let's get together for coffee as soon as I'm out from under the pile."

"I'd like that," she said.

Well, I've been out from under that particular pile for two years—but I've never called her.

Why is it so easy to toss off promises as lightly as we drop a tissue into a wastebasket? We say: "I'll write you"; "I'll call"; "Let's have lunch"; "I'll be sure to pray about that." Sometimes we deliver. Sometimes we don't.

Too often "I'll call you" really means "See you later." It's become a glib social shorthand everyone understands. We don't really intend to follow up; it's just that we're caught up in warm feelings and lively conversation at a party, a business function, or coffee hour after church, and commit to something that's weeks or months in the future. Then time passes and life gets in the way, and more time passes . …

As my friend Tess observes, "We live such pell-mell lives that by the time we've met all our immediate commitments with family, work, and our closest friends, these other promises disappear from our consciousness."

Does it really matter if you don't follow up on a casual commitment? On a scale of bad behavior, not phoning someone when you say you will seems like a minor, forgivable trespass. It isn't as if you're lying, cheating, or stealing. Failing to show up to help out at some event may inconvenience a few folks, but chances are, they have plenty of other willing hands. And that person you said you'd call probably isn't waiting by the phone twiddling her thumbs.

But how do we know someone isn't hurt by an offhand promise? A few years ago, my husband and I planned to attend a gala company banquet. A neighbor of ours, a believer, promised to care for our then-toddler daughter. When the day came, we dressed up, got Amanda ready, and waited. And waited. And called.

No answer. She never showed up. We missed the dinner and later learned she just "forgot." I never quite felt the same about her again.

A pattern of unkept commitments—or even one big broken promise—can damage a relationship. And God cares about our relationships with others, both believers and unbelievers, because he wants us to reflect him in those relationships: "Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17). And it's not confined to relationships among Christians. When we so lightly break our word, what does this lack of integrity demonstrate about our faith to nonbelievers?

I once heard about a couple I'd call "seekers" who visited a church and received warm promises from the pastor and deacons that they would call or come by. No one called, no one visited. The incident left the couple feeling soured on church and Christians in general.

Jesus puts it plainly in the Sermon on the Mount: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No,'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:37). In other words, mean what you say and say what you mean. And throughout Scripture, from Proverbs to James, there are warnings against the harm a loose tongue can do. The apostle James goes as far as to call the tongue "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (3:8).

Our promises matter to God, who holds us to a different standard. In the words of a sermon I heard recently, "God wants our thoughts to be like his thoughts." Our God is a God of covenants, the Lord who throughout Scripture keeps his promises—to Noah, to Abraham, to Jacob and Moses, to David, and on down to the ultimate Promise fulfilled in Christ. He promises to be with us always, and he delivers.

Is there a way out of the "commitment lite" habit? How can we learn to make promises that mean something—and how should we respond when we're the one who is let down?

The best place to start is to watch what we say. I didn't realize how much I fell into this trap until I began guiltily recalling those times I'd reneged on a rash promise. I've said, "Sure, I can bake for the potluck," then, when the day came, thought, Oh, I'm too tired and too busy and don't even want to go. Or, I've promised my daughter Amanda we could go shopping or see a movie, then, as my friend Tess puts it, the promise disappeared in the pell-mell of life—until Amanda reminded me.

Throughout Scripture God keeps his promises— and he wants us to do the same.

I'm realizing I make these promises out of a combination of well-meaning impulsiveness and an overestimation of my capabilities—imagining I can take on another project or initiate a new connection when in reality I can't or shouldn't. So I'm learning the art of tongue-biting on occasions when I long to say something to a needy friend like, "Let's swap baby-sitting once a month" and I know I can't realistically carry out such a commitment. I'm trying not to make vague, open-ended commitments, but to be more specific: "Yes, let's get together. How does Friday the 15th look for you?"

This isn't to say I refuse to commit to anything, but that I've taken the time to think through—and pray about—my gifts, values, and priorities. The promises I now make grow out of that foundation. I can have only so many deep friendships. I can use my talents in only so many ways, help only so many people. And there are only so many hours in a day!

One woman I talked to said she tries never to make a commitment on the spot—at a church meeting, for instance—but asks for a day or more to think it over. That way, she's not tempted by that impulsive spirit of the moment (or by pressure from others), but can pause and reflect on whether this commitment would really make sense.

When it comes to remembering to pray for someone, my friend Laura has the right idea. "Recently a woman from our church went overseas to do some short-term missionary work, and I wanted to pray for her regularly but I knew that 'out of sight' can be 'out of mind.' So I asked the Lord to help me remember her in prayer, and it worked. Every so often I would sense this nudge, and I prayed."

Most of us need more concrete reminders to nudge us into prayer or anything else we've committed to. When our youth group went on a work trip, the pastor handed out little red dots to stick on our watches so we could remember to pray once an hour. Other people write down prayer needs in their Day-Timer, keep a prayer journal, or even pray right then and there. I know women who stick Post-It notes in their cars (where they spend much of their time) as reminders to pray or to make a promised call. Others swear by their lists.

Most importantly, we should commit our speech and actions to God, asking him for wisdom and discernment in all the commitments we make. If we need a refresher course on the meaning of promise-keeping, Scripture is full of lessons and models. Above all, we have the model of Christ himself, who wants his glory to be reflected in us and who will equip us for every challenge. And that's a promise that will never be broken.

Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse is a TCW contributing editor. Her latest book is God, I Know You're Here Somewhere: Finding God in the Clutter of Life (Bethany House).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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