Is It a Sin to Back Out of a Commitment?
Is it a sin to back out of a commitment? Too often we write off a question like this for being too trivial for discussion. It’s not. It’s not because the topic is addressed in Scripture, leading to an email from one female listener to the podcast, Morgan, a college student. “Hello, Pastor John! I am writing you because there’s a wedding soon for a friend. I previously RSVPed to say I would be there. Now I don’t think I can attend after being told about a school obligation I did not know about until recently.
“The RSVP was formal and has caused me internal conflict about a broader ethical question. James says, ‘Let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation’ (James 5:12). And Jesus said we should not make an oath, but simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and stick with it (Matthew 5:34–37). This is, for me, part of a bigger question I have about backing out of commitments. Is it sinful to do so? And in this case, since I already RSVPed, should I honor my first commitment to the wedding at the expense of my college course? How inflexible are our commitments?”
I am deeply thankful that Morgan has a sensitive conscience, a sensitive conscience specifically about speaking the truth and keeping her word. She won’t regret this. This is biblical. This is the way it should be. We are not supposed to lie to each other or mislead each other or deceive each other or prove to be unreliable for each other. Christians are people of truth. We love the truth. We want to be trusted as people of the truth because our God is a God of truth. He keeps his promises, and so, Morgan’s concern is really, really good. So, what I would like to do is suggest that whether she should back out of this commitment, or commitments in general, depends on at least three factors.
1. How qualified was the commitment?
How firm, or perhaps better, how qualified or unqualified was the commitment, implicit or explicit? In other words, the qualified-ness or the unqualified-ness of it may have been explicit or implicit. Those are the kinds of questions to ask.
For example, when people ask me if I’m coming to something, I often say, “I plan to,” and I intend for them to hear a qualified intention to come. I really am aiming to come, but I recognize that circumstances that come up might make it impossible or unwise to go. So, the question I’m raising is this: Is the nature of this commitment such that it communicated an unqualified pledge, promise, vow to be there? Or does it communicate only a hearty, honest intention to be there, barring other relatively important things?
Now, I want to take seriously Morgan’s desire to get in line with Jesus’s and James’s words about letting your “yes” be yes, and your “no” be no, without having to back up everything with an oath. When Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37), he meant something like this: Don’t be so unreliable or fickle that you have to use an oath for people to count on what you say. Let your “yes” be yes, and your “no” be no. Let it mean something.
Now, what I’m suggesting in this first factor is that Morgan’s integrity and reliability and honesty need not be called into question for backing out, if there was a mutual understanding that the context of a given commitment didn’t have the standing of a pledge or an oath, but a good-faith intention, which might be interrupted.
2. Would a change of plans be more loving?
This leads to the second factor she should take into consideration: Is the new competing engagement of such a kind that keeping it and backing out of the first one would be seen as more loving or more honorable?
The point here is that we can all imagine new competing minor engagements, like “She really wants to watch her favorite TV program, and so she’s not going to go.” Or we can imagine major engagements, like “My father passed away, and his funeral is on the same day as the wedding.” And we can imagine all kinds of differences in between that have a bearing on whether our decision to go or not go is perceived as honorable and loving. When the Good Samaritan interrupted his travel plans to help the man on the side of the road in Luke 10:25–37, he may well have missed some important appointments.
I would say this happens fairly regularly in pastoral ministry and elsewhere. A pastor makes an appointment for 4:00pm at the office. The person has planned on it; it’s been on the books for four weeks, and the pastor gets a call at 3:30 about an attempted suicide in his church: “Would you please hurry and come?”
We see an illustration of this kind of thing in 2 Corinthians 1:15. Paul had evidently communicated to the church in Corinth that he was coming. And then, he had to change his plans. We’re not told why. This got him into big trouble, being accused of fickleness and duplicitousness. Now, here’s what he says:
Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. . . . But I call God to witness against me — it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. (2 Corinthians 1:17–18, 23–24)
So, Paul’s defense for not following through on his initial plan was that he was motivated not by fear or selfishness or anything self-aggrandizing, but by love: “It was to spare you that I refrained from coming again.”
I think a crucial question is this: Is the new competing engagement of such a nature that backing out on the first one will be seen as more loving, more honorable — and for that reason, will it not be such a serious damage to our reputation as truth-loving, promise-keeping, reliable people?
3. Can you humbly ask for a release?
Now, here’s the last factor I think Morgan should take into consideration: Is there a gracious way to honestly explain the situation, express support for the event that you committed to go to, and then ask for release from the commitment? I don’t think there are very many commitments that we make — of course, marriage vows would be a huge exception to this — in which it wouldn’t be fitting to honor the person we made the commitment to by explaining the new situation that has come up, and asking kindly, humbly, if they would release us for that commitment.
I think that would be my first approach in Morgan’s case. Call them up, explain the situation, offer sincere support for what you’re missing, and ask for a discharge, so to speak. My guess is that most people would feel very honored that you would go through the trouble to do that.
But let me end by saying again how encouraging it is to me to see Morgan’s vigilance over her word and her desire to be a person whose “yes” is yes and whose “no” is no. That is the way it should be.