Parenting involves lots of guesswork. After I’ve served our son two small plates full of food, I often guess that he should be full. Then, I follow up by telling him, “You’re all done with lunch.” Immediately, he sweetly asks for more food. Perhaps he is still hungry. Now, I’m in a parenting dilemma. Do I respond generously, even though I would be breaking my word that he was finished with lunch? Or do I hold fast to my words, even though he may still be slightly hungry?
Words are powerful. They are packed with meaning. One of the best ways to encourage people to trust me is to line up my words and my actions. Then, my children, my husband, my mom, and my friends all know that if I tell them something, that’s what I mean.
I see this same injunction of using words well in the Bible. As God called His people, the Israelites, into a holy relationship with Himself, He instructed them to make a solemn, lifetime covenant using their words. The Israelites took this covenant vow under the leadership of Moses. Millennia later, Jesus added caution against speaking promises when it was unwise to do so. He instructs us to speak plainly so we are living in a humble dependence upon Him. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Mt. 5:37). As I interpret God’s loving relationship with His people throughout history, I understand that there are wise and unwise times to give a verbal commitment.
In my own life, that means I’ve started using precise verbs in order to show the level of priority of my actions. Also, my verbs convey how long I’m going to choose that action. Mentally, I rank them in a continuum. The lowest priority and shortest duration begins with the verb phrase, “Planning on”. Then, “Experimenting with”. Next, “Deciding to”. Followed by “Committing to”. And, finally, “Covenanting to”. Let me explain…
If I indicate that I’m planning on something, it means I’m moving in that direction, but my plans could change. I am currently arranging my tasks and guiding my little people toward that activity or relationship. However, I haven’t committed to that course of action. I’m merely planning on it. Next, when I need to continue my actions for a bit longer and I am placing more priority on them, I announce that I’m experimenting. Experimenting with something means I think would be worth trying a few times, but we may soon decide not to continue. Beyond experimenting, certainly there are times when a decision must be made, especially if preparation is required in order to actually do the activity. In those times, I say I’ve decided to prioritize this activity or spend time with this person with a medium level of importance. Then, for some of life’s activities yet a higher level of planning and engagement is required. I will have to decide over and over again to build toward this activity or into this relationship. For these, I communicate that I’m committed to that course of action or person. Finally, there are relationships that require a continuous commitment. For those relationships, I declare a covenant. Covenanting means that I have chosen ahead of time that I will faithfully continue choosing this relationship as a priority for my time and love.
Choosing my verbs precisely is one of the largest helps I have for speaking with integrity. Another help I’ve found is talking less.
In an ideal world where I could follow through on every plan I’ve made, my saying “I will do _________.” wouldn’t be a problem. However, I live in a broken world. Life is full of unexpectedly large appetites and unexpectedly short naps. Thus, I often have good intentions on doing the things I say, but I have to adjust because of circumstances beyond my control. This is where I’ve learned to apply James 1:19b, “Let every one of you be slow to speak…” Instead of promising my oldest daughter that I will read that book to her after we practice her phonograms, I’ve learned to give an answer for the current time. “No, we won’t read right now.” I can still express my heart’s desire, “My heart wants to read with you.” But if I promise that I’ll do it later while her brother is napping (the duration of which I am not actually in control), I’m setting myself up for a promise I might not be able to fulfill. At that point, instead of building into my relationship with my dear daughter, I have broken it.
Instead of promising (and later regretting my promise), I’ve learned to express what I desire, to make a decision for now, and to keep an eye out for that desired opportunity at a later time.
Examples of promises I used to make:
vs. Examples of precise statements I now make:
- “Yes, I’ll help you find that toy after I do this.” vs. “I’ll plan on helping you find it when I’m available.”
- “Yes, you may dig in the garden.” vs. “Let’s experiment with that. This time you may.”
- “We are visiting Miss Becky.” vs. “I’ve decided to prioritize visiting Miss Becky.”
- “Yes, I’ll attend BSF and the women’s tea.” vs. “I’m committed to attending BSF and I’ll plan on occasionally joining in for tea.”
- “Yes, I will marry you.” vs. “I am covenanted to you as your wife.”
- BONUS: “No, you may not play guitar.” vs. “You may not play guitar right now.”