The Trouble with Vows

Have you ever made a vow?  Most of us have.  If you are married you made vows to God and to your spouse.  If you have ever given legal testimony you made a vow to tell the truth.  If you served in the military you made a vow to protect and defend the constitution.  In a few days I will be commissioned into the ministry of Spiritual Direction in my church and will vows to God about how I will function in that ministry. These are a few simple examples, you may have others in mind.

These vows are not bad things, when entered into soberly and intentionally.  Quite the contrary, they can be very good things. A vow to keep yourself “only unto” your spouse may make it easier for you to remain faithful in the face of temptation.  Our legal system would quickly fall apart if we couldn’t count on honest testimony.  My vows as a Spiritual Director can help keep me grounded and pointed in the right direction.

But there are other vows we make, often without sober consideration and sometimes without realizing what we are vowing.

I will never be like my father!
I won’t treat my kids the way my mom treated me!
I’ll never hurt anyone the way I’ve been hurt.
I won’t let myself be hurt again!

These are vows that we make to ourselves. We make them when we are angry, hurting, and vulnerable.  Often we make them when we are young, when we lack perspective and don’t realize the power these  vows can claim. We repeat them over and over to ourselves.  They become part of our internal wiring, exerting control over us long after we have forgotten we even made them.

Still, you may be thinking, “what’s so bad?”  Indeed, if you are trying not to carry forward hurtful behaviors that is, on the surface, a good thing.  But here are a couple of reasons why they may be hurting you spiritually today.

First, the enemy can use them against us.  The vows we make to ourselves are very hard to keep.  We will almost certainly fail in them, at least to some degree.  When we do, Satan, the enemy of our souls, is quick to jump in and remind us that we are failures and are doing the things we vowed we wouldn’t; we are failing ourselves and failing others.  If we are not well connected to the heart of the Father, Satan will likely be able to convince us that our failure to keep our vow is an affront to God, above and beyond any sin we may commit, even though the vow was one we made only to ourselves.  Those rashly made, often broken vows become needless sources of accusation and condemnation.

Second, they cause us to limit ourselves. One of the threads that is common to many of the vows we make to ourselves is that vow what we are not going to do or become or allow to happen to us.  When those vows we’ve made, that have been entrenched in our psyches, they tell us only what not to do, not what to do.  We pay so much attention to what we don’t want to do and limit what we will do.  We fence ourselves in.

In our spiritual growth terms, those vows limit our spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom, means that we desire nothing above knowing and following the Lord’s will.  The vows we make, ingrained as they are, become our primary focus, over knowing and following the Lord.

An example from my own history of vows may help here.  My father had many good qualities but he also had some not so go qualities.  Like many people with challenging parents,  I vowed that I would never be like him.  Part of that meant that I vowed to not be manipulative.  My wife and children could easily attest that my failure to live up that vow was epic.  However, as I matured in my faith and became more aware of my own sinful adoption of my dad’s ways, those vows kicked in anew.  My vow to not be arrogant or manipulative to shape as a desire to melt into the background. I so wanted to not be arrogant I actively rejected much of what I was being called to do and become.  I was hesitant and reluctant to engage in the preaching and teaching I was called to.  Being in the background is not inherently bad, but it was not what I was being called to in this season.  My vows were limiting my spiritual freedom.

What is the solution?  It is to learn to pay attention to your interior life, to learn what it is that motivates you.  Where you find vows that are not appropriate to your growth and freedom, take them to Jesus.  Acknowledge them, disavow them, and ask Jesus to guide you into the freedom he desires you have.

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