What is a Promise?

Posted on January 22, 2013 by


2013_01_21_10_26_50_0001“Why didn’t you fight in World War II?” In all the years I had known my grandfather, I had never asked him this question. I had always known that he didn’t fight in the war, yet I never knew why he hadn’t. It took the curiosity of my wife to finally ask the question one day. His answer shocked all of us: “My work was deemed too important to the war effort.”  Now we were hooked. “What were you working on?  What was so important?” He disappointed all of us when his answer came back, “I can’t tell you.”

Maybe you have been in a conversation with someone who has inside information, and they joke: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” as if they were a secret agent. There was no joking in my grandfather’s tone when he repeatedly refused to indulge our curiosity. He finally explained his silence this way: “I signed a document back in those days that said if I ever discussed the nature of my work, I would forfeit both my pension and social security for the rest of my life.” We tried to explain to him that after over 60 years, it was safe to talk about it–that certainly the statue of limitations had run out on that agreement.

I’m certain that a percentage of his reluctance had to do with the financial implications–fear that he would somehow be stripped of his only income. I’m also certain that the larger portion of his silence was due to something else entirely–his commitment to honor a solemn promise, no matter what.

Walter Wangerin Jr., in his wonderful book on Marriage, As For Me and My House, describes a marriage covenant, (and in my opinion, any serious promise) in this way:

The covenant’s very purpose is to establish a surety, a bank, a wall, a dike against the dizzy, destructive batterings and evolvements of time . . . As soon as conditions are introduced into the promise, it ceases to be timeless . . . it is no longer a special harbor in the high seas, no longer a promise worth consecrating, but a contract like all others of human society and of no particular comfort.¹

The day my grandfather refused to break a solemn oath he made long ago, he embodied this principle.  It didn’t matter that the promise was made long ago.  That is the purpose of a promise. It is not subject to the changes of time.

I take two lessons from his example. The first is to make promises carefully. My words and commitments matter, and my promises are understood by others as “a harbor” of safety against the winds of change. No attempt I make to rationalize breaking a promise later on will be able to stand.

The second lesson I take is that there is one who makes promises and never breaks them. This promise-keeper is the God of Abraham :

Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.  –Romans 4:19-21 (NIV)

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. This promise at the time looked unlikely to be fulfilled, but God did fulfill it, and is still fulfilling it though the power, love and grace of Jesus Christ. My grandfather’s promise was good for over 60 years. That’s impressive. God’s promises are good forever–that is glorious!

Questions to Ponder:

  1. What promises have you made that serve as a “harbor of safety” for others?
  2. What causes you to doubt that God has the power to do what he has promised in his Word?

¹Wangerin Jr., Walter (1990). As For Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last. [Kindle Version] Quoted from the section: The Four Characteristics of the Marriage Contract.