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Making The Best Of A Bad Decision

When You Make A Foolish Vow

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 26, 2006

Selected highlights from this sermon

Our culture is replete with foolish vows. Many have made commitments, and because of the inconvenience of integrity, they fail to live up to their vows. But integrity matters to God.

Joshua made a bad agreement with the Gibeonites. God continued to help the Israelites, and He’ll help us too. But we should be people who keep our vows, even when it’s difficult. 

When You Make A Foolish Vow

I begin today with a true story. A woman called me and said that she and her boyfriend were intimate and because they felt guilty they decided they would say their marriage vows privately. They went through a very solemn ceremony in his house and sealed the deal. But sometime later the man wanted out of the relationship. He argued that they were not really legally married because after all, marriage is more than privately saying your vows just between the two of you, even if God is brought in as a witness.

So I called him and talked to him about the situation. He said, “Well yes, certainly it happened. But I was basically seduced into this,” he said. “She carried her wedding dress in the car and afterwards she talked me into it. I helped her into the dress, then we were married and then I helped her out of the dress.” And then he said, “Furthermore, this isn’t really marriage, you know. Marriage involves more than this, so I am going to walk from this relationship.”

Today’s topic is, “Living with a Foolish Vow.” And rather than this being a sermon, it is more like a fireside chat on the whole business of vows. And unlike most of my sermons, the introduction is going to be half of my message as we clarify some issues regarding vows.

To begin with, a vow is not like a promise. All promises have implied conditions. For example, if I were to say to you, “I’m going to go out for lunch and I’ll meet you at a certain restaurant.” In the process of going to the restaurant I’ve discovered that I’ve had an accident and need to deal with the police. You wouldn’t come to me later and say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer really doesn’t keep his promises.” We understand that there are conditions. I will have lunch with you if I don’t wake up sick and if I’m not in an accident, etc. Conditions are implied.

When we take our promises, our faith promises that we exercise in church, for example the Christian Life Center, with God’s help, we figure out how much we can contribute to the work. We know even behind that there are some implied conditions.

One day a woman came to me and she was in distress. She was a young woman and very sensitive to God. She said, “I made a certain promise that I was going to give a certain amount a month and now the money isn’t there. I’ve had some unexpected tragedies,” and she said, “I just can’t do it.” I smiled and I said, “Lady, go in peace without any guilt because we understand that even that promise has some implied conditions,” even if they are not stated.

Now if the situation would have been different, if she had the money and said, “You know I was going through this catalog and I saw this trip to Europe that I’ve always wanted to take and so I can’t give what I committed. I’ve just changed my mind.” Then we have an integrity issue, and that integrity issue is very serious because she made a promise that she could fulfill but because of inconvenience decided not to.

There’s a passage of Scripture that reads thusly in Ecclesiastes chapter five: “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it. For He has no pleasure in fools; pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than to vow and not pay. Let your mouth not lead you into sin. And do not say before the messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake and my promise has become inconvenient.’” I’m adding that interpretation. “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the works of your hands?”

In other words, you say something and then God is upset because He takes no pleasure in fools, “For when dreams increase and words grow many there is vanity.” That means don’t make a promise or a vow hastily, for God is the One you must fear.

You say, “Yeah, but the promise I made wasn’t really a vow and this has to do with vows.” I understand that. But remember Jesus said this: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” What He said was, don’t always think that you have to make a vow, because there were some people who were actually using the concept of vows to get around integrity. They’d make a vow but their fingers were crossed. Or they’d make a vow and they’d have some implied conditions. Jesus says, “If you are a person of integrity you are going to keep your word.”

Some time ago there was a woman who asked Rebecca and me whether or not we’d lend her money. We’d given her money in the past, and now she wanted more and she was going to borrow it from us. She said, “I am willing to sign a piece of paper that I am going to give it back to you.” I said to Rebecca, “Tell her this: We don’t want a piece of paper. What good is a piece of paper? If you are a person of character you’ll return the money.” Character is much more important than that piece of paper. Turns out that she took up the challenge and she actually did return the money.

You know that I would much rather, and wouldn’t you rather deal with a person of character than have someone who doesn’t have character, even if he swears on a stack of Bibles that he is going to do something? It means absolutely nothing to a person who doesn’t have character. Now our promises are important; our yes should be yes and our no should be no.

I’m told that our generation today finds it very difficult to commit. And I say to you with sadness that even among the leadership of [The] Moody Church at times, with the ushers, the parkers, the Sunday school workers, and a hundred other volunteers that we need, and we need a lot more than we have. Sometimes it’s troubling when people agree to something and then they don’t follow through, and maybe they don’t even let people know that they are not going to follow through. That’s very troubling and it does come down to an integrity issue.

Having said that, I am sure there are some people in the congregation who say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, there are some things you say you will do that you haven’t.” I have to confess, and this is a good time. I’m in the confessional booth for a minute. There are people who say, “Will you call so and so, will you write this letter, will you do this?” And when I say, “Yes,” I really mean it. I say to myself, “I want to do that.” Yet if I don’t do it immediately, it gets pushed to the back burner and then it is forgotten about. So if at times I have made promises to you I haven’t kept, I want to use this opportunity to ask your forgiveness. I prefer and desire that my yes be yes and my no be no. This is the whole issue today of commitment.

Some of us know of a man who had an organization where he took money from Christians, put it in at a certain rate of interest and then lent it out at a higher rate of interest. This organization, I think, was probably legal and the scheme should have worked; he was a man of integrity. But what he did is he actually lent the money to Christians at a hand shake, because he only dealt with born again Christians.

So one guy comes to him and says, “I need 25,000 dollars.” “Here’s a hand shake, pay it back on these terms.” “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.” You know what? I think the whole thing went down because only twelve percent of the money came back to him. People said, “You know we borrowed $25,000 and we were going to begin this video store and it tanked, so we don’t have the money to pay you back.” I say, “Tough. Have you mortgaged your house, have you sold your car? Why should that man bear the burden of your lack of integrity and not you if you borrowed it and said you were going to pay it?”

Even though this is referring to oaths or vows, a promise like that is very serious. “When you make a vow, do not delay paying it. For God does not have pleasure in fools,” the Bible says. And we need in our churches today and in our country a revival of integrity. I couldn’t believe that only around twelve percent of the Christians paid it back and the others said, “Well you know I don’t have the money.” Well, tough. Get it because you owe it. I said this was a fireside chat and it is becoming a little more serious as we go along, and I think that’s all right.

Very quickly four characteristics of vows. First of all, they are voluntary. Secondly, they can either be conditional or unconditional. God says, “If you walk in my ways I will bless you.” There is an “if” implied. And sometimes we enter into vows like that, too. We say, “I am going to do this and I am going to give you this money if you give me your car in return.” There is kind of a, “If you do this then I will do that.”

They can also be unconditional. Here you might not be so readily able to clap. Marriage is an unconditional vow, folks. When you stand at the marriage altar you are not saying, “I promise to be faithful if you fulfill your part of the bargain and you are always kind to me or you are always loving.” Or, “I will be married to you as long as you are as beautiful as you are on our wedding day.” It’s not that, folks; it is “till death do us part.” This is very serious.

We as a staff have a responsibility to talk people out of marriage, and we try to do that from time to time. I could tell you some very interesting stories. Here is one very quickly: I said to this man marrying this very beautiful woman, “If you are in an accident on your honeymoon and she ends up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, are you willing to take care of her?” He thought about it for a few days and then called the marriage off. He said, “I knew it was serious but I didn’t realize it was that serious.” Yeah, marriage is that serious; it is an unconditional vow.

God is also brought in as a witness when we make vows. When it says, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” it is really talking about vows, it is talking about court, and it is talking about bringing God into witness. It has other implications with swearing and all, but that is its primary meaning.

And that’s why with marriage we bring others to the event. Yes, it is before God, but God can’t be seen and your friends can be. Today I am talking to some people who probably are living together without the benefit of marriage. They say very piously, “What’s a piece of paper anyway?” Well, I am going to tell you what a piece of paper is.

Years ago my wife and I bought a house. We’ve sold that house and we are in a condo now. But every time we make a move like that, we have dealt with people of integrity. Why didn’t we just shake a hand and say, “Okay we will give you this much and these are the terms of the deal. Why do we need attorneys? Why do we need to sign anything? What’s a piece of paper?” Is that the way you do business? That’s not the way we do business. They had their attorney and we had our attorney and we signed documents for a half hour. Why? Because the next day, if we traveled down the street and saw a house we liked better than the one that we bought, life is tough and we are stuck with the one that we bought.

And that is why you get married with a piece of paper, all right? You find somebody you wish you had married a week later, life is tough. If you back out of this there are witnesses. “We saw it and we heard it. You’d better keep your promise.”

Finally, number four: With vows, both partners are expected to follow through. Should you ever break a solemn vow? The answer is absolutely yes. Whenever you make a vow to do evil, break it. In the Old Testament there is an example of Jephthah. I just read it this past week and I studied it a couple of weeks ago in detail. I read an article about it. I am absolutely convinced in Judges chapter eleven that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter.

What happened was the heathen in that day were sacrificing their children. So Jephthah said to God, “If you give me a victory, whatever comes out of my house I will sacrifice.” What in the world was he thinking? It was a heathen practice. He wins the war, his daughter comes out of the house and he tears his clothes because of his stupid vow and he sacrifices her. Foolishness.

You say, “You know he was really a man of integrity. He kept his word.” I’m saying he was foolish. That’s a mild way to put it. When he made the vow he was stupid to have made it and when he fulfilled the vow he became evil. He should have broken that vow. You make a vow like that to do evil, the best thing you can do is not to continue in the evil but to break it.

All vows to Satan must be broken. There are reasons why Satan has no right to make a vow. But if you make a vow to him, those of you who are in the occult, what he wants to do is to have you invest so much time and energy into that relationship that then he begins to tell you, “If you leave this relationship you are going to be in for the hassle of your life.” And you might be, but you need to break the vow anyway. Get Christians who know how to fast and pray and seek God and come against the enemy and break that vow in the name of Jesus, the name that is above every other name, all right? If you’re in a relationship like that, the vow must be broken.

All same-sex marriage vows should be broken—anything that scandalizes God. You don’t keep scandalizing God; you confess the wrongness of the vow. But what the Bible does not do is give us the opportunity to get out of a vow because of inconvenience or because of suffering or because of well, you name it. It doesn’t give us that privilege. “Who will ascend into the hill of the Lord? Who will dwell in His holy temple?” It lists people who meet certain conditions, and among them is the man who swears to his own hurt but does not change; Psalm 15, verse four. The person who says, “I shouldn’t have made this decision. It was a bad decision and it has inconvenienced me, but I am going to stick with it because integrity matters to God. The vow has been made; I’m going to keep it.”

You know that in Joshua chapter nine, now we are getting to the text, if you have your Bibles and you can find it there, Joshua makes a foolish vow. Let’s look at the context of the story. Here’s what happens: God had said in the book of Exodus, “Do not make any vow with the heathen tribes of the land.” They must have known that was one of the things God had instructed Joshua about. So there is a tribe called the Gibeonites and they think to themselves, “Wow! Joshua is wiping out all the different tribes and we’re next. What we are going to do is to pretend that we are not from the land. We are going to say that we originated from a far country and we are going to lie about our origin and identity. We are not going to tell him that we are from just a hill or two over from where he is, and we are going to trick him into making a treaty with us.”

So what do they do? They get some very old sandals, they get some moldy bread and they have dusty clothes and they come to Joshua and say, “When we began this journey our bread was fresh. When we began this journey our sandals were clean. We have come from a very far land. Would you make a treaty with us not to kill us?”

Well, that’s the context of the story in Joshua chapter nine. They are speaking and they say in verse 11, “So the elders and all of the inhabitants of our country,” this is now the Gibeonites who are talking, “they said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hands for the journey and go meet them and say to them, “We are your servants; come now make a covenant with us.”’ Here’s our bread, it was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you. But now behold it is dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey. Please make a covenant with us.”

Verse 14 says, “So the men took some of their provisions but did not ask counsel from the Lord. Then Joshua made a covenant with them to have peace with them and let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.”

Joshua. Out of rebellion? Of course not. He had a heart for God; he was the great warrior, the great one who trusted God. We can assess the situation and whatever appears to be right, and the way in which things appear to be, we can trust our judgment. Now think about this: Joshua thought to himself, and almost unconsciously so, because he wasn’t thinking, “Well, we don’t need God here.” He was thinking, “Yeah, it’s reasonable. We don’t have to seek God over this.”

Have you ever noticed that things aren’t often what they appear to be? Throughout the years, I have often asked couples who were severely mismatched, I don’t think I have ever used that phrase before but I think it fits, “Did you ever ask counsel of the Lord?” “Well, no. We just kind of thought, ‘Well he’s a Christian, or at least I thought he was a Christian and I just thought I blah, blah blah, and so we just went ahead.’” So you didn’t ask the counsel of the Lord, but things are often not what they appear to be. You can’t assess these situations on your own. Only God knows the future infallibly.

There was a Christian couple who sought the counsel of the Lord when buying a house. It looked as if they were going to buy it, it met their needs, it was in the right location, and in the right price range. But, somebody just bought it out right from under their nose. “You know God, we sought your counsel and this house was perfect for us and somebody else bought it!” Six months later a wall in the basement of that house collapsed and they began to think, “You know, maybe God was looking out for us.” Seek God’s counsel and He’ll look out for you, He really will.

So they sought the counsel of the Lord, not. Now to their everlasting credit Joshua didn’t say, “You know we can break this treaty because after all, it was made under false pretenses. They lied to us. They lied about the way in which they came to us, and they lied in reference to what they said to us. We don’t have to keep this treaty.” “Blessed is he who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”

The text is open and it says later on in verse 18, “But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord God, the Lord of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against their leaders, but all the leaders said to the congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. This we will do to them: Let them live lest wrath be upon us because of the oath we swore to them.’” “Blessed is he who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”

This is a series of messages entitled: “Making the Best of a Bad Decision.” And I am telling you today that God is bigger than our messes. Our blunders do not confuse Him, our foolishness does not confound Him, and our regrets do not limit Him. God says, “I am going to make the best out of a bad decision, out of a foolish vow.”

How did Israel benefit as a result of this? How did God come through in light of the decision they should not have made? There are two ways. First, Israel had help in the temple. You’ll notice it in verse 23. Joshua is speaking to them and he is condemning them for their deceit, which is only proper. I’ll pick it up in verse 22: “Joshua summoned them and said to them, ‘Why did you deceive us saying, “We are very far from you,” when you dwell among us? Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood, drawers of water for the house of my God.’”

All throughout the generations after that, I mean we are talking hundreds of years; Israel used the Gibeonites as servants for the temple of God. The Gibeonites also profited because there is no question in my mind that some of them came to saving faith in Jehovah as a result of this. Later on, you find that they become temple servants in the book of Ezra. And when you get to Nehemiah you discover that they are helping build the wall. “Next to so and so is this Gibeonite,” the Bible says. So Israel had help. It didn’t justify the foolishness of the vow. But what it did show is that God picked up the pieces and God blessed Israel as a result of their integrity.

But second, not only that but it is because of this foolish vow that the people of Israel were willing to keep that God gave them one of the greatest displays of His power that has ever been written upon the pages of this good book, the Bible. It’s awesome. In the tenth chapter, what happens is that there are some kings who hear about the vow of the Gibeonites and they say, “We better take on these Gibeonites. Let’s get a coalition of kings together and let’s go fight against them because they are in league with Joshua.”

This whole company gathers together and what happens? Joshua has to defend these people because he made a treaty, and his word is his word. Though he was deceived into it, his word is his word. What happens? Joshua goes to fight and one of the greatest miracles in all the Bible happened at Gibeon. You’ll notice it says in verse twelve of chapter ten, “At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel and he said in the sight of Israel, ‘Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and moon in the valley of Aijalon.’ And the sun stood still and the moon stopped, till the nation took vengeance on their enemies.”

Isn’t this written in the book of Jasher? We don’t have that book, but there were many books that circulated back in those times. “The sun stopped in the midst of the heaven and did not hurry to set for a whole day. There has been no day like it before nor since when the Lord obeyed the voice of a man, for the Lord God fought for Israel.”

God says, “Joshua, I’m going to do the greatest miracle recorded in Scripture, apart from the miracles of Jesus and the resurrection, and I am going to give you that ability because of your integrity, sticking with a vow that really you should not have made.” Israel saw the blessing of God and the power of God in the midst of living with a foolish vow. God blesses those who swear to their own hurt and do not change, who don’t say, “Yeah, but conditions have changed. Yeah, but, but, but…” No, you said it. Now do it and trust God for it.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what is the bottom line?” First of all, God obviously hears and honors those who keep their commitments. In the midst of hardship, in the midst of regret and suffering, His grace comes to us. You say, “But what about that couple that you began this message with?” Some of you are still thinking about them. Are they married? Teenagers getting married in the back seat of a car for reasons that are less than noble, are they married?

Marriage is not only a religious event. It is based not just on religion or Christianity, but it is a creation ordinance. That’s why it applies to all kinds of people whether they are Christian or not. That’s why people all over the world, for the most part, believe in marriage. So marriage is not just religious but it is also civil. And that’s why when you get a marriage license you don’t come to the church and get the marriage license, do you? You go to the state and then you have that marriage license signed. It’s a public event that is known in the community. That’s really what marriage is.

You say, “Then you can just blow off those vows and simply say, ‘I was tricked into it.’” No, those vows are important. And if you are a person of integrity, what you will do is get married properly and follow through. You say, “Can marriage vows ever be broken? You said they were unconditional.” I guess they can be because people are breaking their marriage vows all the time, aren’t they?

Isn’t adultery one of our great sins in the land? Don’t people swear their allegiance to one woman and then find someone at work who is more attractive and who understands them better? Isn’t that happening all the time? That is a breaking of the marriage vow. The man who abuses his wife, that’s breaking the vow, isn’t it? Wasn’t part of the agreement that you would protect her, care about her, and cherish her?

I have to tell you that there is nothing that causes us as pastoral staff here at [The] Moody Church more agony, more discussion, sometimes even disagreement, as divorce and sometimes even the more difficult problem of remarriage. Because what we try to do on the one hand is to affirm with confidence and strength that marriage is holy, that marriage is special in God’s sight, that the vows are unconditional. We hang on to that.

And then we also recognize that the Bible does say that because of the hardness of your heart there are various things that sometimes break the marriage vow. And sometimes we believe remarriage is even possible. But, it’s a difficult, difficult issue. Many evangelicals, many fine leaders don’t see eye to eye on it because they see the need to hold marriage high.

So just to summarize what we do as a staff is we want to hold high this side of the equation, that it is unconditional and holy. On the other side, we also have to take into account the hardness of hearts, and we try to walk and navigate between those two tensions, if I can put it that way. But God does honor those who do commit and keep their commitments.

You say, “Well, what about God Himself? Does He keep His commitments?” And the answer is, “Yes.” In fact, here’s something interesting that really should be explored, and can be when we speak about salvation. God has many promises that He throws out there and they are conditional. But the good news is that if you meet the condition, you become part of an unconditional covenant that will guarantee your way all the way to heaven. Isn’t that blessed?

Jesus said, for example in John chapter ten, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow Me. I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, who gave them to me, is greater than all; and no man can pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.” God says, “It is hands in harmony. My hands and the Father’s hands; no one can pluck them out of my hands.”

You become a sheep when you trust Christ as Savior. You need to belong to the right sheepfold, not trying to climb up into the sheepfold by some alien way. And God will guide you all the way to the pearly gates. He’ll discipline you for your sin, He’ll work with you in your need and He’ll bring you along. But in the end, everyone whom the Father has given to the Son will arrive in heaven for His glory. We serve a God who has integrity. Do you agree with that or am I all alone up here? Meanwhile He helps us, even in the midst of foolish vows. He’s there; he’s bigger than the mistake you brought with you today.

Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that you will help us to cleave to you, the Lord God. Thank you for the way in which you helped Joshua. Thank you for the way in which you displayed grace and power in his life. We praise you. We ask in the name of Jesus that those who are in relationships that they perhaps should never have entered, those who are living with foolish decisions, vows, and commitments, grant them wisdom and help them to understand that you are there for us even in our great need. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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