Let Your "Yea" Be a Yea


Troy SmithDevotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

February 8, 2007
Troy Smith
Associate Professor of Political Science

President and Sister Shumway, members of the President's council, faculty, staff, and students -


In the Lord's 'Sermon on the Mount,' there is a verse that reads: "Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matthew 5:37). When I first began seriously studying the scriptures I read that verse and imagined a world where the only thing people said to each other was "yea, yea" or "nay, nay" and I thought what a horrible place to live; how would people communicate with each other and work together towards a common goal. I have since come to realize that Christ is not suggesting we limit our vocabulary to two words; rather he is, as usual, teaching an important key about how we should live.

To understand His injunction, let us consider the scripture in its full context, which is about swearing oaths. Beginning in verse 33 we read:

33. Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not
forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
34. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
35. Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city
of the great King.
36. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair
white or black.
37. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more
than these cometh of evil (Matthew 5).

The Apostle James repeated this teaching when he wrote: "swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay" (James 5:12). I understand these verses to mean that we are not to bind others (such as God or our mother's grave) in any oath. Why do people swear oaths on heaven or on their mother's grave? I suggest it is because they need something more trustworthy and honorable than themselves. Christ's teaching is that we are to be the type of people whose words will be trusted because of who we are. What kind of person is that? Let me suggest three qualities - and, as usual, the Lord is our example.

A person whose words will be believed and trusted is: first, a person who has the will, the ability, and the commitment to fulfill their promises. We learn this is a characteristic of God from Abraham 3:17, which reads as follows: "there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it." Second, a person who will be believed and trusted recognizes the value of words and uses them wisely and well. Said the Lord, "What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled" (D&C 1:38). Third, a person who will be believed and trusted is a person who speaks truth. God speaks truth, indeed, we are commanded to "live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God" (D&C 84: 44). Brothers and sisters, I propose that these are characteristics that we should strive to develop. I would like to explain each of these characteristics with experiences from my life and examples from politics and politicians. Now, most of you are probably wondering what you could possibly learn about truth, trust, and keeping promises from politics and politicians, and Pres. Shumway might be considering ending this devotional right now before things get out of hand, as a student of politics let me simply say, trust me.
The Power of Commitment

Christ's injunction to let your communications be "yea, yea, and nay, nay" is about the importance of commitment. I learned an important lesson about commitment from my rock climbing teacher and companion, Dave. Dave had climbed many rock walls, including El Capitan in California's Yosemite Park. In most climbs there is a difficult section called the crux. When I first started climbing I would climb to beneath the crux, then, hanging on the wall, I would stare at the crux and wonder, "how am I ever going to get over that." When Dave noticed me hesitating he would yell up to me, "Troy, committing is the hardest part. Just commit." It took me a while before I understand what Dave was saying, but with some experience I learned the value of his words. When I attempted, or tried, or went for it, I often fell. But when I truly committed myself that I would give everything I had, I found myself doing things that had seemed impossible, and I rarely fell. Sometimes we fear committing because we fear failing. Instead we merely show up or "try." Commitment creates a power that can be matched in no other way. It is a power that allows complete focus and concentration on one's objective; it aligns physical, mental, and spiritual powers; and it spurns distractions and diversions. The words "Satan, get thee behind me" are the words uttered by a committed individual focused on their goal.

The scriptures teach us the importance of commitment. Captain Moroni prevailed over corrupt politicians with his band of followers who committed themselves to the title of liberty. Christ tells us that, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). And President Spencer W. Kimball's motto "Do it" was another way of saying "just commit."

When you have agreed to do something, whatever it may be - a mission, marriage, a calling, or school - let your yea be yea, stand behind your yea with a commitment to bring your full powers to bear to accomplish what you have agreed to do. When you say "yes" to something, and back that yes with your commitment to accomplish it, then you are letting your yea be yea.

Let me relate this lesson to a current aspect of your lives. When you said yes to college, you accepted a commitment. The commitment college requires is more than a commitment to merely graduate. There is a mistaken belief in the power of a college diploma -- as if a slip of paper by itself could change your life. It is true that diplomas are awarded equally to those who earn a 4.0 grade point average and those with a 2.0 GPA. Why work hard if everyone gets the same piece of paper? I think in the local slang the phrase is 2 dollar, just get your 2 dollars. This mistaken belief in the power of a diploma ignores and neglects the sincere, concentrated, and persistent effort students need to gain the skills, discipline, and knowledge expected of college graduates by employers.

While it is true that most college graduates earn more money than non-college graduates, a college diploma does not guarantee this. Indeed, increasing numbers of college graduates fall into high school level jobs and low-earnings. This isn't all that surprising given a recent study that found many college graduates lack basic skills, such as the ability to read and understand a newspaper editorial or the instructions found on prescription drug medicine. What a waste and a shame-for them to have wasted all those years and all that money in college and to have little to show for it except a framed piece of paper on the wall.

The skills you need to succeed in college are the same skills you will need to succeed in life. Success in college requires commitment, good listening skills, individual initiative, accepting responsibility for your own and sometimes other's actions, consistent and conscientious work, and the ability to delay gratification.

College, unlike high school, places the burden of learning on the student. You, the student, are responsible for attending class, managing your time wisely, completing your assignments on time, studying unassigned material to improve your understanding, or personally seeking assistance from the professor or other students if you are confused. The burden and responsibility for your learning falls on you, not the professor. Do not expect professors to stand over you and tell you everything you should do. Do not expect professors to remind you when assignments are due. Professors will guide your educational endeavors, and hopefully, they will inspire in you a love of learning and creative endeavor, but learning is up to you.

Why is college structured this way? Because much of what comprises college education cannot be taught, but it can be learned by those who are dedicated and guided by those who know better. Moreover, your diploma signifies to employers that they need not stand over you and tell you everything you should do; they need not remind you when projects are due; rather, the diploma signifies that you are self-motivated, responsible, and possess the initiative to recognize problems, find solutions, and do what is necessary to get the job done. Your diploma will get you your first job, but if you do not have the skills, discipline, and virtues to perform it well, then you will probably fall to a job that meets your qualifications.

If your classes do not challenge, push, and stretch you, then you are wasting your time and other's money. Education, unfortunately, is the one thing we insist on not getting our money's worth.

One final word on commitment, we must commit ourselves to improve ourselves, but sometimes that will not be enough. The Lord has promised that if we will do all that we can do, then, if we call upon Him, He will make up the remainder. This is grace. Thus, commitment - real, true, deep commitment can draw forth power from within us and draw down power from heaven.

Dave was right - Committing is the hardest part. Please, commit to NOT just graduate with a piece of paper you can frame and hang on a wall, but to graduate with skills, knowledge, and the discipline and ethic that you will be pleased to carry with you the rest of your eternal life.

The Importance of Right Words

The Lord's teaching to "let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay" is also a message of the importance of using words wisely and well. Whatsoever is more than these," the Lord reminds us, "cometh of evil." Consider the power of words. Kings' words make knees bow; words spoken with priesthood authority can command the health of those knees or perform ordinances necessary for eternal salvation. Words can also hurt, tear down and destroy. Words used wisely and well, create and uplift.

I learned the importance of words by reading Vaclav Havel. As a citizen of communist Czechoslovakia, Havel used his words to oppose the communist government. The communists knew the power of words and policed their use carefully - there was no freedom of speech in the Soviet system and Havel found himself in jail a few times because of his words. In 1977, Havel wrote an illegal essay titled, "The Power of the Powerless." In that essay, Havel described a common phenomenon in his country. In every store window was a sign placed there by the shop owner. The sign read: "Workers of the world, unite!" The shop owners did not necessarily believe the slogan's Marxist ideology. All knew that if the sign was not posted, the shop owner would be visited by the state police. While most ignored the signs, Havel recognized their insidious message. The sign was a tacit acknowledgment that the shop owner had accepted his life under the communist system, feared the state's power, and would obediently comply with the state's other dehumanizing demands. The shop owner's sign was like a single brick, but each shop owner's brick together formed a bridge that spanned the gulf between what the people feared and despised and the reality of a totalitarian government. The shop owner's simple act of displaying this sign, Havel wrote, "Confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system." In other words, displaying the simple words of a sign that no one believed, created a world of appearances that justified and realized an unnatural and immoral political order.

Havel predicted, however, that communism would collapse peacefully overnight, because the powerless people would at some point get fed up with the world of appearances and stop supporting it. At that time, the bridge would collapse, and communism would crumble.

In1984, Havel wrote another essay noting emerging cracks in big brother's system resulting from a few courageous individuals who were willing to say openly what others only dared whisper privately. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book, The Gulag Archipelago, unmasked Stalinism by revealing the thousands of innocents locked away in a massive and horrible penal system, victims of Stalin's efforts to control society through mass terror. The physicist Andrei Sakharov's single voice, Havel wrote, can be heard over the continents . . . more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists. And Lech Walesa, "One simple electrician with his heart in the right place . . . and free of fear," was shaking the communist system with all its "army of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats." Havel concluded that "wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content," and "truth and morality . . . have an undeniable political power."

In the West, leaders such as England's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher contributed to ending the Cold War, according to the eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, by following Winston Churchill's example of using "words not euphemisms, to speak truths, not platitudes."

Havel's 1977 prediction came true twelve years later when communism throughout Eastern Europe collapsed, peacefully, almost overnight. The first to succeed in this fight was the simple electrician from Poland, Lech Walesa. Whether backed by political power or not, right words speaking truth have power to change the world.

These people exemplified the leadership qualities lauded by Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor and stoic writer, and by Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher. Marcus Aurelius wrote: "The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are" (Book 8). Only by "looking things in the face and knowing them for what they are" can leaders fulfill what Confucius identified as the first responsibility of leaders - to "call things by their proper names" (Analects, XIII:3). When leaders call things by their proper names then the people can properly judge the value of those things and order and organize their lives and place in society accordingly. In other words, if leaders will use words to teach truth and correct principles, then often people can govern themselves.

Leaders who wish to foster peace need the education, understanding, and honesty to recognize things as they are, and the courage and commitment to use their words wisely and well to identify truth, promote good, and edify those around them.

The Basis of Trust

When we speak wisely and well and commit ourselves to our words, then others know we are honest and reliable, they will learn they can trust what we say, and they know we will do what we say we will do. Trust is necessary for society, cooperation and collaboration. With people we distrust it is difficult to do business, find common ground, or achieve justice. When we must start with the premise that everything someone tells us is an illusion rather than the truth, then life becomes very complicated. Trust is the lubricant that makes civilization possible.

When we say "yes" we should mean "yes" and people should be able to rely on us to fulfill that "yes." Say "no" when you cannot give your commitment. This allows alternatives to be found. Saying "yes" when we intend "no" is a form of contention: it is a way of fighting without openly opposing; it creates a false appearance that covers the truth; it is deceiving and debilitating, and undermines others' ability to trust us. In Revelations, John the apostle explains the Lord's displeasure with those who will not commit with a "yes" or a "no:"

15. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelations 3: 15-16)

Honesty, used with tact, fosters truthful, trusting relationships

The importance of honesty and trust for civil society was demonstrated by Edward Banfield in his book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, one of the "great classics of modern social science" (Wilson 2003). In this study of Montegrano, Italy and comparison with Gunlock, Utah, Banfield showed that the Montegranese remained poor not because of economics or material circumstances, but because the people did not trust others outside their immediate family, and thus failed to cooperate to build a better community. Whereas, in "Gunlock, Utah, where natural resources are as scarce as in southern Italy, . . . people cooperated industriously: They contributed to the church and to other, often distant, causes: they formed voluntary associations, campaigned for local improvements, and worked to support the schools." Banfield's study demonstrates that our societies are not the consequence of external forces, economic factors of production, or material conditions, rather our societies are a product of us. What our society is a reflection of who we are, specifically, the trust we have for each other.

Curiously, Banfield's first study of Gunlock, Utah mischaracterized it as a competitive and inefficient society. Only after studying Montegrano was he able to look past Gunlock's surface competition to see the foundation of cooperation that made Gunlock function. To illustrate this point, consider a college basketball game. The obvious scene is one of competition on the court, but that competition is only possible because each player trusts that the other players will abide by the rules of the game. The winning team is usually the team that cooperates most efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, the competitive game is only possible because of the amazing amount of behind-the-scenes cooperation, such as coordinating schedules, distributing costs, preparing the facilities, and half-time entertainment, to mention just a few. In addition, the spectators collaborate as they enter the arena, find their seats, and enjoy the game. If any player, referee, coach, staff, or audience member breaks the rules - that is fails to collaborate - then the game or competition may be delayed or ended, and everyone's entertainment would be significantly reduced. In other words, overt competition often indicates a healthy, trusting, collaborative society.

Market economies are similar. The visible show, that is the show we see, is one of competition, but that competition is only possible on a strong, solid foundation of cooperation and mutual trust. Markets are characterized by the free and voluntary decision of a buyer and seller to exchange. Such exchange is impossible without cooperation and significant trust in the production, transportation, financing, etc., of a product.

Most of you will enter a market economy upon graduation. As a result of the global economy, the level of competition you will likely experience will be greater than any previous generation. Committing to your studies will help you meet the future's challenges. At the same time, the opportunities you will experience for collaboration with people from around the world will also be greater than at almost anytime in the past. If you will be a person who keeps their commitments, uses their words wisely and well, and can be trusted, then you will have the opportunity to be a great leader promoting peace internationally. Let your yea be a yea and your nay a nay, and you will set an example that encourages cooperation and trust.

In conclusion, don't be the type of person who has to swear on other things to give your oaths and words power and validity; be the type of person whose words carry power and authority because of who you are, the type of person whose yea is a yea and nay a nay. Develop the strength of character to fulfill your promises, the integrity to speak truth as you understand it, and use your words to identify truth, promote good, and edify others. By so doing, you will facilitate a world of trust, cooperation, civility, and peace.

This is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.