Simply Yes or No Matthew 5:37 pinky promise photo of two hands
Listen to “Simply Yes or No: What Does Matthew 5:37 Mean?”

I don’t swear to God or cross my heart and I don’t pinky promise. But I still have a problem with my mouth. 

In Matthew 5:37 we read, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Jesus said that. It’s hard for me to do that. Because I hem and haw. I rationalize yes and talk around no. In my efforts to look stronger, kinder, or wiser or to give myself an out, I do not simply say “yes” or “no.”

Today my sister said, “Just say it,” as we talked on the phone. Also today, my son told me, “Quit talking with a flourish and get to the point.” Yesterday, a popular talk show host observed, “Lying has now become a tactic.” Living by lies, or at least obscuring the truth, is now considered shrewd.

Giving a simple, no-excuses, no-exaggeration answer doesn’t come easy for me. I’d like to blame my Irish roots. I’ve written about the Irish language and admitted to being smitten.

It is the Irish way. In fact, Gaelic has no words for yes or no.

This has had an interesting effect on the English spoken in Ireland. Rather than use those words, a speaker will rephrase the verb of the question. For example, in answer to the question, “Is this the way to Bantry?” the reply is much more likely to be “It is, so,” rather than “Yes.”

Patricia Levy and Debbie Nevins, Cultures of the World: Ireland, pp. 91-91

While it’s possible that my penchant for beating around the bush is in my Irish blood, the certain source of my struggle to simply say “yes” or “no” traces back much further. For I am a daughter of Eve. And every Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve is by nature a liar.

If you also struggle to simply say “yes” or “no,” you are not alone.

3 Reasons We Don’t Simply Say Yes (or No)

Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. 

—Matthew 5:37 (ESV)

Here are three reasons why I don’t simply let my “yes” be “yes” and my “no” be “no.”

  1. I like loopholes. No one likes to say no and verbal loopholes seem like a gracious way out. Sure I can help, as long as… Or, I’ll be there, unless. We may add extra words because we are people pleasers and don’t like to let our friends down. Culture says making excuses is kind, but Jesus says, Simply let your yes be yes. 
  2. I want to add force to my words. So I exaggerate. I’m 99.9% sure, and To tell you the honest truth, as if there is another truth. We want to wow with our knowledge so we add extra words. But whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from trouble (Proverbs 13:3).
  3. I want to excuse my sin. I don’t simply answer my husband: Yes, I backed our van straight into a tree because I was in a rush. Instead I rationalize: I’ve been saying that those trees were too close to the driveway. “Yes, but” does not an apology make, but to admit guilt brings pain. Pain, and then mercy. He who confesses…finds mercy (Proverbs 28:13).

It’s easy to see that my excuses are focused on me. And self-focus is a form of pride. And pride is never good. It is only ever evil.

Simply Yes or no Matthew 5:37 graphic with flower

3 Reasons We Should Simply Say Yes (Or No)

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. 

—James 5:12 (ESV)

Here are the top three reasons I want to get better at simply saying “Yes” or “No.”

  1. God commands it. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is the 9th Commandment. That God commands truth should be reason enough. But if God commands it, it comes with perks. Great peace have those who love your law. Nothing can make them stumble. Telling simply truth about our neighbor pleases God and blesses us and our neighbor.
  2. God is honored by it. Who will dwell with God? Psalm 15 says we can tell by how he talks. He speaks truth in his heart… and swears to his own hurt. (A personal story about that here.) Horton the elephant nailed it, I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent. When we keep our word when we have something to lose, we honor God.
  3. The Body of Christ grows as we simply speak truth. Paul says it twice in Ephesians 4. First, in verses 15-16: Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up every way into him who is the head, into Christ. Then, in verse 25: Having put away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor. We grow up into Christ and build up his body as we speak clear, simple truth

Do you want to learn to simply say “yes” or “no”?

What Does Matthew 5:37 Mean? The Proper Place for Vows and Oaths

For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he swore by himself. 

—Hebrews 6:13 (ESV)

God swore. So it can’t be wrong. While Matthew Henry is spot on, that “a Christian’s sober words should be as sacred as solemn oaths,” there is a place for solemn vows.

Even though our every word should be gold. 

We are sons and daughters of the Father who is faithful in all his words and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ who is the faithful witness. We honor God when we simply let our “Yes” be “Yes” and our “No” be “No.”

But Scripture does permit oaths under certain circumstances. God Himself made oaths (i.e., Hebrews 6:13 and Luke 1:73), Jesus spoke under oath (i.e., Matthew 26:63-64), and Paul also said more than simply yes (i.e., Romans 1:9, 2 Corinthians 1:23). Without exception, their vows added weight to already truthful words. Our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:37 is not meant to discourage careful commitments like legal contracts or wedding vows.

But Jesus did mean that we cannot create levels of truthfulness simply by adding more words. He is saying, in Timothy Keller’s words that “every yes and every no must be as truthful as if you just swore it on a stack of Bibles on network television.”

But when we hedge our speech to gird up words that don’t prove true, we dishonor our Lord whose name we bear.

We honor God when we simply let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” After all, we are the sons and daughters of the Father who is faithful in all his words and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ who is the faithful witness and whose very Spirit in us is the Spirit of truth.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, ESV

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