God’s nature is to make and keep promises, covenants we call them. Wherever and whenever God reveals himself in Holy Scripture he vows, and always the appropriate response to his vow is to return in kind.
The primary picture of God in the Bible is marriage. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride. At the root of marriage is promise. Where there is no promise there is no marriage. Human relationships need the giving and keeping of promises in order to thrive. In promising the relationship switches from the worthiness of the one loved to the love of the of promise maker. The promise maker is now on the line for his or her own integrity. That is what will make the relationship work, for at some point the one loved will fall short of being lovely. No matter! The promise has been made and will now be kept. It is the vow that will sustain the marriage. It is the constancy of the promise that will bring the marriage through.
It is natural for lovers to make promises. The contemporary trend of singles living together goes against the grain of love, and is perhaps an accommodation to the refusal of people to make ultimate life-and-death promises. At any point without consequence one partner may walk away from another – no financial obligations, no workload sharing obligations, no damage control obligations, no health caring obligations. These may be true for a time, but by nature they are only for a time and may evaporate at any moment merely by the word “goodbye.”
Because the Christian’s relationship with God is for an eternity the natural instinct to make vow finds a safe place to express deep love.
Some have taught that vow making is legalism and that the only response to God is to be faith, a wholly reliant relationship with God in which he is all, provides all, sustains all. Surely there is truth here. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Php 1:6) As surely true is that this faith will express itself by love. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”(Gal 5:6) True faith is not only believing but includes within it the loving that is doing. And love makes promises.
The Bible is full of vows made to God and vows kept. One of the more famous vows made is that of Rechab, referred by Jeremiah in Jer 35. Rechab had been a part of that great revival led by Jehu who God had raised up to destroy the household of Ahab and Jezebel. As a signal of his fervor Rechab had vowed that neither he nor his progeny would drink wine or build permanent homes. The Lord God would be their drink and he would be their home. Some 300 years later Jeremiah finds that the promise has been kept, proving thereby that the keeping of vow is not only possible but that the steadfast example of an ancestor can be followed and binding even upon those who did not in their persons make the vow themselves. A second, third, fourth, etc. generational vow.
Vows are simply expressions of what our faith looks like in our time and place. It is the concretizing of faith in a particular circumstance. What does it mean for you to follow Jesus Christ just where you are – married or single, widowed, parent, disabled, employed, neighbor, pastor, laity, majority or minority ethnicity, etc. Put all that together and then discern what it means for you to be faithful to Christ and your calling in Christ right here, right now. Make vow.
But what if I break my vow????? Why vow if I know I may possibly, and based on past experience even probably, fall short of the wishes I have for my walk with Christ? Isn’t this just a set up for disappointment? Won’t this make the Christian life harder than it has to be? These are the question often asked. And many Pastors based on such reasons discourage vow making because of what they deem to be unnecessary burdens on the Christian life. Better, they say, just to be led by the Spirit day by day.
But is not the Christian under vow already by virtue of Christ’s Lordship and the Law of his kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount? Have we escaped such obligations merely by refusing to make a concrete and specific vow? No, we have not. A resolution merely identifies areas where we must advance in Christ-following and Christ-serving particular to our situation. Not to discern this is to have refused the biblical imperative to examine ourselves. We must not only know Christ but also know ourselves. One involves the other, as John Calvin so wonderfully points out at the beginning of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Knowledge of God means the knowing of oneself. And to look at oneself is to look to God for salvation.
I find that the failure to really know oneself to be a great fault among Christians. They have been taught by many well-meaning Pastors that supposed navel gazing will be a fruitless and self-defeating endeavor. Better to look only to Christ and all will be well. The point is taken, but as it stands, it is simply untrue. We cannot follow Christ well without huge attention to the dynamics of our inner world. How to do this is simply not taught in the churches. But in the recovery communities to which I belong this is taught well and taught often. Celebrate Recovery, pioneered by Saddleback Church, has provided a great pattern for the life of self-awareness and knowledge of the exceeding deceitfulness of sin. I commend this to you. You might not be a drinker or substance abuser, but we all know what it means to be dominated by our hurts, habits and hang-ups. Part of the reason we are is that we have not paid enough attention to what is going on inside of us. When we do, we will see how much work there is to be done. A good book to introduce this dynamic is Gordon MacDonald’s Ordering Your Private World.
I encourage you to examine your ways, discern your patterns, face your discouragements and your longings and then make wise vows to the Lord. A spiritual director would be of great help, though this resource is mostly hidden from view. But they are to be found if you tap into the right networks. These are people gifted and trained in listening and discernment, not in counseling. They help Christians ask the right questions and go through the process of discovery. Consider http://www.ecswisdom.org and http://www.leadershiptransformations.org/selah_faculty.htm as a starting point.
More later, but for now press on and do not accept what is as what must be.