Empty Promises

Matthew 26:35, Peter said to Him, “Even if I must die with You, I will not deny You!” And all the disciples said the same.

When someone is grieving over a loss or they’re in deep sadness because of a bad breakup or any other reason, we are fond of the following phrase: “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” Really? What if the one grieving over a loved one who died calls you two weeks later and asks you to help pay for their mortgage because the funeral bills are too much? You did promise you would do anything for them, right? Our acts of selfless service often have limits.

Peter discovered the hard way how our sin causes our loyalties to fail and how our words fall short. After Jesus tells him that he will deny Him three times, Peter swears and promises he won’t deny Him even if it means his own death. Yet as we soon find out, Peter does in fact deny Jesus three times, failing on his promise and his words. When we say to someone, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know,” we might mean well, but good intentions aren’t good enough for someone who’s in grief and sorrow. Actions are more important. Don’t be hasty to make a promise like that unless you actually mean it.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has said these words to me and has failed to follow through. I’ve heard these words so many times: “If you wanna talk, just let me know.” And yet hardly anyone’s kept that promise. Most times when someone’s told me these words, I took them up on their offer by texting them or calling them or messaging them on Facebook, yet no one followed through on their promise. In fact, all my friends from the church I attended before I enlisted in the Army seven years ago suddenly all stopped talking to me even when I reached out to them numerous times. The last time someone made me this promise was some time last year. She swore, “If you ever need to talk, I’m always here.” A couple days later, I tried talking to her, but she proceeded to ignore me. I can’t tell you how much that hurts. Maybe you’ve had the same or similar experiences as me. We do the same thing when we tell someone, “I’ll pray for you.” How many of us actually follow through on that promise? I admit I’ve failed on that promise several times, which is why I’ve developed the habit of recording prayer requests on the Notes app on my iPhone, and it helps me to remember. Instead of accepting our failures, we need to develop ways to overcome them.

We might say something with good intentions, but those good intentions mean nothing because sin will turn those good intentions into bad action—or rather, a lack of action. We saw that in the apostle Peter, and we see that in our own lives whether it’s in other people or ourselves. In the Army, we were told, “Don’t raise your rifle unless you intend to use it.” In the same way, don’t make a promise unless you intend to fulfil it. Words are weapons, and they have the power either to build up or destroy (Proverbs 18:21). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Choosing not to speak up against evil is a silent proclamation of your indifference or timidity. Choosing not to act is to act for your own benefit.

I think we make such promises as an attempt to comfort someone because we often don’t know what to say, but these words become self-defeating because that comfort comes to null when we don’t follow through with it. Because of all these failed attempts, people like myself have a hard time believing these words when someone says them even when they’re sincere, and then we have trouble opening up to people because we don’t trust their intentions and that they actually care enough to be there for us. At least that’s my personal experience. People like me say, “All these people who’ve said the same before you have failed, so why should I believe you? How are you any different?” “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:5).

In spite of our failures, Jesus’ promises never fail. Jesus promised He would die for our sins so we wouldn’t have to face God’s wrath that we justly deserve, and He did. Jesus told His disciples He would rise on the third day, and He did. Jesus told them He would give them the Holy Spirit, and He did, and He still gives us His Spirit today in Baptism. Jesus promises to forgive our sins and give us comfort and peace, and He does. Jesus promises He will return again, and He will. We might be occasional failures, but our God is not. Failure is unknown to God. There is only His will, which He accomplishes through whatever means He chooses. When peoples’ words fail us, we can always turn to the Word of God, for it is full of promises that never fail.

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