Exaggerations and over-commitments seem fairly benign. They're not.
I'd already done all the work I could do without the deliverable I needed from Bob. If I didn't get his report, I wasn't going to be able to finish the project on time. He'd told me that he'd have it for me by the end of the day yesterday, and while he meant well, we all knew that Bob just used words differently. End of the day could just as easily mean end of the week. You simply couldn't count on the guy to keep verbal commitments.
As nice as he was (he always meant well), everyone in the office was starting to make up excuses to avoid having him as a part of their project team.
Words matter to God. A lot. On keeping promises: "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 that you should vow and not pay" (Eccles. 5:4-5). Or in Psalm 15, as part of a description of what it means to walk blamelessly, we read of one "who swears to his own hurt and does not change" (meaning he makes good on his word, even if there's a price to pay). Likewise, Jesus tells us that our simple "yes" and "no" should be sufficient (Matt. 5:37).
When looking at the whole Bible, it seems there are several types of speech-related dangers/sins. Gossip and slander (rumor-spreading) are in one category (Prov. 11:11-13; 12:18; 26:20). Harsh, inflammatory speech (yelling at someone) might be another (Prov. 15:1; Eph. 4:15, 29). Dirty jokes and other forms of unwholesome speech (vulgarity) are a third category (Eph. 5:4).
Then there is the overt misrepresentation of facts (Exod. 20:16; Eph. 4:25) — everything from calculated story-telling of the Catch Me if You Can variety to the so-called "white" lies where we either embellish our accomplishments or hide our shortcomings because those sinister twins, pride and the fear of man, hold an unconscious grip on our hearts.
I want to focus on a pair of dangers we often neglect, precisely because they can seem fairly benign: exaggerations and over-commitments. With exaggerations, we stretch the truth to fit our purposes. With over-commitments, we either lie and say we will accomplish what we cannot accomplish, or we neglect our other God-given priorities in order to make our word good.
So both exaggeration and over-commitment are distortions of the truth.
But why an entire article on such seemingly minor issues? For one, because God is a God of truth (Prov. 8:7). He delights in the truth (Ps. 51:6) and hates a lying tongue (Prov. 6:17). Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead over exaggerations (Acts 5). And secondly, because a good name is highly valuable (Eccl. 7:1), and, as Christian young adults, we should be eager to grow in favor with both God and men (as Christ did, Luke 2:52). Nothing will shoot down a reputation faster (yet more subtly) than being known for lacking discretion in speech.
I'm talking about situations in which we give our word on some matter only to later realize that we spoke hastily. We are now bound by our word to our co-worker, friend, or spouse, even though we may be in no position to make good on it. Technically our words form a verbal contract, and our name is at stake. To not deliver will result in a loss of credibility: Over time, our reputation becomes eroded as others recognize that we repeatedly set expectations only to fall short. In the extreme case, we become like the boy who cried wolf, and are disbelieved out of hand even when we do portray a situation accurately.
What Drives Over-Commitment and Exaggeration?
I'll speak from my own experience as one in the process of learning to temper my speech. In moments when I've either exaggerated or over-committed, I've found that it is usually the result of one or two things:
Some of us are more naturally wired this way, but we all crave the approval of others. This is part of why we fear confrontation and conflict, and sometimes verbally exaggerate or over-commit to avoid potentially disappointing others. We all want to be liked, respected, and appreciated. We want others to think we are competent, helpful, and considerate. So we sometimes offer words that are meant to minimize a perceived sense that somehow we are not cutting it.
Have you ever caught yourself "spinning" an answer to a question, just because you feared letting someone down? Maybe it was your boss, or a friend, or a relative. Maybe you felt the need to add a few details to an explanation to make a shortcoming come across as more excusable.
When my wife asked me to de-clutter my office before some guests came over, I readily agreed, but wasn't really paying attention to her request and promptly forgot. So when the guests came, the office was still a mess, much to her dismay. I told her I'd received some important e-mails that had to be dealt with right away.
Sometimes I emphasize the external factors rather than my conscious choices, both of which (in principle) led to my falling short. I think I do this because I prefer the "I couldn't help it" feeling — the denial of responsibility gives initial comfort, but in the long run, it kills motivation. It also represents an exaggeration: external circumstances alone rarely give a full account for a situation's outcome. I may have been late due to traffic, but I also didn't allow for the fact that I was driving during rush hour.
2. A failure to recognize my own limitations
The Apostle James warns us:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit" — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
Let's say I'm talking to a coworker and explaining my perspective on a situation in another department. My coworker says, "Your take on this is really interesting. You should write up a detailed letter capturing all these thoughts."
At that point, my ego has been stroked. Wow, she really likes what I have to say. I bet it'd raise my visibility to write that letter. But, in reality, I have not considered whether the topic is of sufficient importance to merit the added time required, or whether my workload even allows the time to write such a letter (without sacrificing other important things in my personal life, like fellowship with God and others).
In the moment I'm reacting, not choosing. "But if I say no, she may think I don't value her input, or that I'm not up to the task," I say to myself, as I carelessly agree. A week later when she sees me in the hall, I have to admit that not only have I not written that memo but that I probably never will.
The label arrogance can seem like overkill given our busy lives. After all, how is it arrogant to speak about our plans for the weekend? When I confidently commit to going into work on Saturday morning, meeting some friends for lunch and football, cleaning out the garage, then going out for dinner and a walk with my wife, I've neglected my need to have sufficient time with God, sleep (to have energy for church), and that things can come up, like a flat tire on the way home from work.
The concern in James 4 is that when we're living on autopilot, allowing no place for God in our planning, we fail to account for unforeseen circumstances. And consequently we tend to think (and therefore speak) with greater confidence about the future than is warranted. Alternatively, through greater awareness of God's sovereignty comes a greater appreciation for our finitude, not to mention our failings.
Such a mental map — a God-dependent modus operandi in our hearts and brains — leads to sober-mindedness. Though we tend to associate sobriety purely with a lack of influence from alcohol, the biblical writers associated the term with sensibility, a proper seriousness, and comprehensive self-mastery (cf. Titus 2:2-7).
Ultimately, exaggerations and over-commitments stem from unchecked pride. And pride, Augustine said, is the root of all sin. Pride eclipses God and elevates the opinions of others to ultimate significance. We forget our finitude; we fear disappointing others. We babble to hide our insecurity and failure to view ourselves from God's perspective. So what do we do?
1. Kill pride by remembering our dependence on God's sustaining grace
God is infinitely powerful and wise, but we are limited in countless ways. In particular, we are often unable to fully anticipate future events. Far from negating the importance of planning, the mindset I'm suggesting is one that including God in our plans. Failure to account for contingencies is often more a demonstration of arrogance and carelessness than of "confidence in God."
In the case where I bit off more than I could chew with that coworker, it would have been far better to have admitted my limitations right up front. "You know, that's a great idea. But I really don't think I'll be able to get to it. If I get a chance, I'll give it some thought and we'll see what happens." Whenever possible, set yourself up to over-deliver (a real reputation enhancer!) by acknowledging your limitations up front, to yourself and to others.
2. Sober estimations of ourselves and others
Paul exhorted the Romans to "not think of [themselves] more highly than [they] ought to think, but to think with sober judgment" (Rom. 12:3). There is a time when sober judgment dictates we have something to contribute to a discussion and that our contribution may be accompanied by additional commitments. There are also plenty of times to thoughtfully, actively listen or even decline additional obligations (though tread lightly if they're coming from your boss!). A sober estimation of ourselves helps us to be "slow to speak and quick to listen" (James 1:19) which in turn leads to fewer temptations to either exaggerate or over-commit.
If we have over-committed, we need to "deliver ourselves up like a gazelle" (Prov. 6:5), which means humbling ourselves by admitting that we blew it; we spoke out of turn and made a commitment we ought not to have made. We humbly request from the other person(s) to be released from our commitment. If our request is granted, we thank them. If not, we "swear to our own hurt" (Ps. 15:1) by bearing the consequences if, effort notwithstanding, we are unable to deliver what we promised.
Such consequences include, at the minimum, a dent in our credibility. And if we do in fact deliver on our over-commitment, it may come at the cost of neglecting other things God has called us to do. The consequences will serve as reminders of our dependency on God's grace, and help us to fight the temptation to over-commit in the future.
Words are powerful. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue," Prov. 18:21 tells us. By God's grace, we can remember our limitations. Past failures can become a sweet reminder of our dependence on God (and gratitude for our forgiven status) instead of a cause for despondency. We can keep our hearts aligned under God and discipline our speech to bless others, cultivating true humility undergirded by true confidence in our sovereign, dependable, truth-telling God.
For Further Reflection
- C.J. Mahaney, Humility, Mulnomah, 2005
- Paul Tripp, War of Words, P&R Publishing, 2000.
Copyright 2008 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.