A common narrative in the church relates to new converts who join the church despite intense pressure from their family or community. But does the calculus change any if a promise is involved? How and when should religious promises be broken? Let’s set out two potential scenarios: First, a promise to another person. Second, a promise to God.
Promise to another person.
Suppose that John’s grandmother asks that he promise to remain Catholic for life. He makes this promise. Years later, he discovers the church, reads the Book of Mormon, receives a testimony of its truth.
Should John join the church?
Promise to God.
Suppose that John is a Catholic, and his young daughter becomes severely ill. He prays for her recovery, and promises God that if his daughter recovers, he will remain a faithful Catholic for life. She recovers.
Years later, John discovers the church, reads the Book of Mormon, receives a testimony of its truth.
Should John join the church?
I’m not sure of the answers to either of these scenarios — I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, promises should not be made lightly. If promises do not constrain our future behavior in some way, they are close to valueless. That said, per church doctrine, John’s salvation and that of his family will depend on his joining the church.
When does the largely procedural value of promise-keeping trump the substance of a particular promise? It is going to be appropriate to break some promises. (E.g., a promise obtained through deception; or a promise to do something harmful like rob a bank.) But religious promises are not so clearly negative (or are they?).
The question highlights our inability at present to understand what our future desires will be — and thus raises questions about how much we should be able to constrain our own future behavior. If our understandings change, how much should we feel bound by past understandings? And how do we determine which promises can be appropriately broken due to changed understandings?
I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule. My sense is that more personal and intimate promises should probably be treated more seriously. (I.e., a promise made in response to the blanket request “I want all of my grandkids to remain Catholic” is less personal than a promise made in response to the personalized request “I want you to remain Catholic.”) But even a personal, intimate promise based on a prior understanding may ultimately conflict with new understandings.
The promise to God also raises interesting questions. It may be possible to view a promise made to God could be viewed as having been made under prior understandings which were then revised. In that case, maybe it’s okay to ask God whether he consents to a revised obligation. But how can we make such a determination?
I’m not sure of the answers — just that the theory of religious promise breaking is a lot more complicated than we probably think.