Breaking Promises

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?

Considerations.

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.

31 comments for “Breaking Promises

  1. CE_Digger
    July 31, 2006 at 8:00 pm

    Last week I was talking with a group about a mutual friend who left the church. They were all unified in condemning her as a covenant breaker. As a fence-sitter I was more sympathetic with the friend who left the church. I believe that people leave the church for myriad reasons. Sometimes they can’t overcome a certain “sin” and don’t like the social stigma the church creates. Sometimes people get offended and refuse to come back. I agree these are poor reasons to break a promise. But other times there are genuine truth-seekers who decide that either the church is wrong on some important issues, find dealbreakers in church doctrine/history, or decide that their witnesses of Mormonism’s truthfulness are insufficient. My feeling was that someone who sincerely believes the church is incorrect should not be thrown in with the sinner and the offendee. If our understanding of truth changes, shouldn’t our behavior?

  2. annegb
    July 31, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    See, Kaimi, I don’t think his salvation depends on his joining the church. I just don’t. I think it’s incredible hubris on our part to assume that church membership brings salvation.

    I’d give you a different hypothesis: a man joins the church and goes to the temple with his family, but he’s basically a jerk and a slacker. He pays his tithing sometimes, is unemployed other times and lives off church welfare, does his callings half-heartedly. His life is spent whining. However, he always has a temple recommend and dies a member in “good standing.”

    Who do you think gets to heaven quicker, him or Mother Teresa?

    I believe in the gospel and the atonement of Christ. I just think we are far more rigid than God will be in His final judgement.

  3. MikeInWeHo
    July 31, 2006 at 8:20 pm

    Re: Question 2. This one would not be a problem for John. If he felt he had received a testimony FROM God that the Church is true, etc, then he would necessarily presume that this superceded his previous promise TO God.

  4. Mark Butler
    July 31, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    Kaimi,

    I think to make a proper analysis here we must introduce a distinction between oaths and covenants, or unilateral promises and bilateral promises. Oaths are hazardous, because one is promising something pretty much arbitrarily, without any recognized benefit or penalty. Covenants on the other hand, are the very foundation of social order.

    As a rule, breaking a covenant is a much more serious thing than breaking an oath, because one ends up taking from someone, without giving what was agreed in return. So the courts enforce covenants, in the form of contracts, but do not enforce oaths.

    Oaths are on an honor system alone, and in my opinion only honorable oaths should be maintained, but better not to make oaths at all, except where absolutely necessary, e.g. oaths of office or of citizenship, lest one lose his honor, respect, and reputation among others. The scriptures are full of the deleterious consequences of oaths made in haste.

  5. July 31, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    The thing about promises is the reason why they are made or asked for. John’s Grandma didn’t want her son to just go through the motions of being a Catholic for the rest of his life. She wanted him to actually believe in it, to never loose faith in God’s true church. If he reads the Book of Mormon and has a testimony of the truthfulness of the LDS church then his continuing to go through the motions of being Catholic does nothing for the memory of his dead Grandma because he doesn’t believe anymore, he’s already broken his promise to her.

    In my opinion the despite the wordings we might use, the true promise lies in what the point behind it is.

  6. Mark Butler
    July 31, 2006 at 8:59 pm

    Annegb,

    I think the answer is that Church membership is to a degree a formality that is much more easily remedied than a life of sin or even idleness. However, there is no possibility that Mother Teresa or anyone else will inherit the kingdom of God without joining his Church, i.e. making a formal covenant to abide by the terms and conditions of a heavenly society, which is, after all what the Church is, the visible manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth.

    The other guy, if he is that much of a jerk and a slacker, will probably have a hard time meeting the standards of the celestial glory, where it would probably be easy for Mother Teresa, provided she is sufficiently humble.

  7. Michael McBride
    July 31, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    Mark #4. How would you categorize the “Promise to God” that Kaimi posed? Was that an oath or a covenant? If the Catholic man believes God healed his daughter because of his promise, then that would make it a covenant because it is two-sided, wouldn’t it? Or was it an oath because it was done at the man’s initiative?

  8. Mark Butler
    July 31, 2006 at 9:16 pm

    Michael (#7),

    I agree with both MikeIWH and Starfoxy on this point. If he now believes that God wants him to join a new Church, than he must also believe that God either has released him from his previous obligation, or now believes that the particular denomination was an not an efficient part of the covenant in the first place.

    It is perfectly valid to renew covenants under different terms with the agreement of both parties. The problem with oaths is there is no recognizable party to renew one with, so mistakes are a catastrophe of honor.

    Personally, I dislike it when people in Church try to extract oaths out of me, like I will promise to attend such and such an activity. I do not want to promise unless there is a compelling reason for me to make it in the first place, such as being counted on to perform some essential role or function. Otherwise extenuating circumstances and greater goods may intervene. It is worth noting how very rarely God makes unconditional oaths in the scriptures.

    Even most unilateral oaths have conditions, e.g. as I live and as the Lord liveth, we will not harm you if you will lay down your weapons and depart in peace. In other words, I will keep my promise or die trying, as long as you meet the requirement. Sort of a hybrid oath-covenant, or an oath that becomes a covenant upon acceptance.

  9. Don
    July 31, 2006 at 9:20 pm

    Michael, just because the child was healed doesn’t mean God was involved, it doesn’t mean God did it as a covenant because of the promise the mother made. So her promise is still a promise, an oath.

  10. Don
    July 31, 2006 at 9:27 pm

    In my first area on my mission there was only one member, a lady – she had 3 kids and a “jerk” husband. She was active while we were there and for a year or so after. They moved. Her husband make her promise on his death bead, one of the last things he did, to never go back to the Mormon Church again.

    While visiting my mission some 30 years later I discovered she had moved back, so I looked her up. I went there with a great Senior missionary. She smelled of smoke, wouldn’t let us in and told us of her promise. The senior missionary asked if he and his wife could come back and visit her.

    To make a long story short, thru their working with her she became active again, received her endowment and eventually had her husband baptized and sealed to her.

    I’m not debating the husband/baptism/sealing part, but she broke her promise and is certainly going to be blessed for it!

    I say break your promises if your directed by the spirit.

  11. Mark Butler
    July 31, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    Generally speaking, oaths made under duress are not considered binding, for the same reason that covenants entered into under duress are not considered binding. An oath made with arm twisted is not an oath at all.

  12. Frank McIntyre
    July 31, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    In order to be binding outside of this life, covenants must be sealed by the sealing power of the priesthood (D&C 132?). I don’t know that this answers Kaimi’s question, but it does provide some food for thought. It also differentiates the covenants we make in the temple from the ones we make with our grandmother.

  13. Michael McBride
    July 31, 2006 at 10:43 pm

    Don #9 The problem is that you’re looking at this as an outside observer, and it is the subjective individual who is making the decision. If the hypothetical man believes that God healed the child then you can make a claim that in this man’s mind, it is a covenant and not an oath.

    That said, I agree with the notion that the individual can come to believe that the obligation of his part of the covenant has been lifted.

  14. Mark Butler
    August 1, 2006 at 12:41 am

    I am not saying one should break oaths, rather to avoid making them at all, unless appropriate conditions are attached or where absolutely necessary.

  15. Curtis
    August 1, 2006 at 2:17 am

    Kaimi,
    How about when you make a promise to teach the Elder’s Quorum lesson every 2nd and 4th Sunday and for some inexplicable reason, don’t show on the 4th Sunday of July, thus casting the spotlight on the Elder’s Quorum President to see how well he teaches spur of the moment lessons?

    P.S. See you Sunday.

  16. Kaimi Wenger
    August 1, 2006 at 3:55 am

    Curtis,

    I think that in some cases, that kind of thing may fall under the “I was out of town for a week with my wife for our tenth wedding anniversary, mostly out of touch with the outside world, and forgot to make arrangements to cover it” exception. But it will depend on the particulars of the specific case. :)

  17. Dan Y.
    August 1, 2006 at 10:33 am

    It is easy for many of us to discount the promise made in #10 because, as it resulted from manipulation by a well-placed jerk, it was made under some duress. For many non-believers, it is likewise easy to discount any religious promise because they tend (in the view of non-believers) to result from explicit or implicit suggestions from well-placed insiders whose motivations are the perpetuation of a religion as much as genuine concern for the individual making the promise. We don’t necessarily see things that way in our church, but it is something to think about.

    Maybe the best approach is to have “strong opinions weakly held” (to borrow a catchphrase from Paul Saffo). This would be in line with Mark’s suggestion to avoid oaths but would go even further. It would imply that any religious promise made to God should be subject to revision from new/better information. That is essentially what some comments have implied, and I suspect that it is an approach to which God would lend approval.

    On the subject of religious promises of personal belief/membership made to individuals other than God, I personally would tend to give them little importance, as they tend to carry an element of compulsion, something I believe to be unwarranted. Ideally, they would be left unmade. A promise to a spouse to allow your children to be raised in this religion or that religion is a different matter. There, the initial promise may trump new information.

  18. bbell
    August 1, 2006 at 11:11 am

    I personally do not think that you can “force” God into a covenant. AKA. I covenant to remain a Catholic if you heal my child. This is not a covenant. God sets the terms and conditions of “true”covenants. Not man in a moment of need.

    See section 22 & 84 for a description of what a covenant is and who has the authority to make a covenant.

    I once baptized an Anglican minister who had made all kinds of covenants and promises to his church. He was converted and told me that all his former promises were null and void.

  19. August 1, 2006 at 11:12 am

    I’m with annegb and Starfoxy on this one…

  20. August 1, 2006 at 11:49 am

    Doesn’t answer your question, but I taught a teenage boy on my mission who stayed behind in Utah for his senior year while his parents moved east. His mum made him promise he wouldn’t join the Church. He was baptised on his 18th birthday.

  21. Wilfried
    August 1, 2006 at 11:53 am

    I think the dichotomy is often not that extreme. Do you renounce Catholicism as a whole when becoming a Mormon? Or are you adding more truth and a broader perspective to it? And those who pretend to leave Mormonism, do they ever lose it completely?

  22. August 1, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    My response: No promise trumps the testimony of the Holy Ghost. In the case of the grandmother I’m sorry for the pain it might cause her but his relationship with God is his concern; he can’t allow anything to get in the way. In the case of the promise to God if his sister would get better, God does not make deals like that. Promise to obey His commandements and yes He will bless you but He does not make bargains like the one you mentioned.

  23. Nicole
    August 1, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    I am a convert to the Church. I was a very active member of my last church prior to converting. I actually started taking the discussions a few years prior to my conversion, but refused to pray on them. That sounds harsh, but I was under a commitment with my former church to serve as an Elder for three years. I didn’t want to break this promise as when I made it, I wasn’t just making the promise to the members of my former church, but also was making the promise to God that I would fulfill my commitment.

    A few months after my commitment ended I did pray and received my answer and was baptized. I think for myself I made the right choice. I didn’t slack at my commitment to my former church and actually by taking the discussions at the same time I feel it helped me to do better at my service.

    I think promises are a very important thing, but at the same time should not be light hearted. I took the discussions for four years (8 months on and off prior to my commitment with my former church and 4 months after) before I felt I could pray on them. I probably knew the truth prior to praying on them, but I knew I had to be willing to follow the answer. That I had to have God’s will be done rather than my own and that I could handle what was thrown at me first. I didn’t want to make a commitment to God and then not follow thru.

  24. Buckeye the Elder
    August 1, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    I find it amazing that someone would say that Mother Teresa would perhaps not make it to, or inherit the Kingdom of God, becasue she wasnt a Mormon with a Temple recommend!!! ( see comment # 6).
    BTW, I find that a few of the questions asked during a temple recommend intervierw, and other stands in the mormon sub-culture to be coercive in nature, so, does making a covenant under such “coercion” be considered a “true” covenant made?

  25. August 1, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    If a person makes a promise based on bad information and then learns new information that demonstrates the foolishness of that promise, then the person has the right (perhaps even the moral obligation) to break that promise. That’s my approach to the questions above.

    Don’t starve to death inside a chalk circle, just because you promised not to leave that circle.

  26. Mark Butler
    August 1, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    Buckeye,

    That is me. And you misinterpret my position. I did not say that Mother Teresa will not inherit the kingdom of God because she was not a member of the Church, I said that she would not inherit it until she joins the Church of Jesus Christ, making a formal covenant with the Lord to take upon herself his name, and keep his commandments.

    There is no coercion involved. God doesn’t force people to go to heaven. He just requires people to abide by the laws that make heaven possible. “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Sam 15:23).

    There is plenty of liberty in heaven, but it is a system of liberty under law, not some sort of moral free for all.

  27. rachel p
    August 2, 2006 at 8:47 am

    Danithew, Wilfried & All,

    Re: #21 I converted a few years back. I definitely feel I am Catholic although I attend an LDS church regularly, which I guess makes me Mormon. But I try to forget the labels, especially since culturally I will never make the cut. Which has its advantages and disadvantages. During my conversion process I have come to have a more holistic perspective of my faith (appreciating other religions, not just LDS or Catholic as very valuable)…

    Also, Re: #25. I have just experienced the making of covenants the week before I was married. I really did not know the covenants till they were already said and done. Now I feel like I am in a jam. Break covenants or go though the motions falsely miserable. Right now, and I am open to a mind change whenever I am ready, I feel it is better to be honest, and break the covenants I did not fully understand and appreciate, than to be a fake.

    hope I made sense

  28. Buckeye the Elder
    August 2, 2006 at 9:33 am

    Mark – sorry I misunderstood the point you made. Please accept my sincere apologies.

  29. Kaimi Wenger
    August 2, 2006 at 11:07 am

    Danithew,

    “Don’t starve to death inside a chalk circle, just because you promised not to leave that circle.”

    Great way to put it.

  30. Mark Butler
    August 2, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    No problem, Buckeye. I was just making the point that our doctrine entails that the Church here on earth is the only properly organized and authorized extension and representative of the Church in heaven, i.e. they are the same Church. So if “Mormon” properly describes the Church here on earth, it also properly describes the Church in heaven.

  31. annegb
    August 6, 2006 at 2:49 am

    Myself, I’m with Tracy on FMH. I think we’re all good to go sooner or later.

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