I believe that it is a common phenomenon among parents that if they seem to agree to something, a child will take that as a definite promise. That child will then move heaven and earth in order to hold his or her parent’s feet to the fire regarding the so-called promises. But promises are a serious matter, of more weight than a child’s willfulness. Promises are sacred, after all, which is why we make them publicly very infrequently.
Making promises to oneself seems like a good thing. After all, each of us fights the battle of daily discipline. And on the occasion that we fail to live up to our own standards, we promise ourselves that we will do better tomorrow. But vows can be dangerous, especially when we consider the consequences of making vows, even a seemingly good one. When I think of a dangerous vow, I can’t help but think of Jepthath in Judges. He promises God that if he wins in battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that greeted him when he went home. Imagine his horror as his only child comes running out to greet him.
But our vows seem harmless in comparison. No one dies as a result of our internal commitments. However, consider this. Often our inner vows come with a judgment of someone else. An inner vow makes rigid determinations about reality, and often, stems from painful experiences as a child. An inner vow prevents maturity, and sometimes cannot be given up easily.
They become a sort of false structure on which we rely to hold ourselves up, to keep ourselves going, and to deny the underlying pain.
Inner vows form strongholds over our minds and actions and must be rooted out, formed as they so often are of bitter roots.
Here are some common promises to one’s self that hinder love and growth:
1. I will never be a burden on anyone.
When we make promises that we never be an inconvenience, we are essentially saying that we do not need anyone or that we are somehow worth less than others. Even if we do need someone, we will go without rather than rely on friends or family. This vow makes it difficult to receive. If we receive a gift, we must reciprocate immediately. We can never owe another, for that would be to become a liability rather than an asset in their life. This vow springs from a deep sense of unworthiness, as belief that we are not worthy of sacrificial love. A false pride stems from working hard to make sure that we don’t have to depend on anyone. In real life, we need each other. Christianity is about community, not independence. I find that those adults whose parents were ambivalent about their birth often suffer from this, as if from infancy on, they must try to not be a bother.
2. I will never be like _______.
Those of us with difficult parents or siblings often make this vow. Notice that it is grounded in a bitter judgment of another. This vow hampers love by defining another by their worst characteristics. To hold another in contempt is never the way of the cross and often denies the other a chance to change. Ultimately, this vow is evidence of unforgiveness at a deep level as well as pride and causes us to reject the parts of ourselves that are similar. We are all made in God’s image, and to reject another on such a fundamental level is to dishonor one of God’s creations. But worst of all, with such an inner vow in play, we cannot accomplish the forgiveness we must achieve in order to mature. We stay a resentful child rather than growing into an adult who understands that people are complicated.
3. I will be perfect, or good, or always nice, etc…
With this vow, we reject God’s righteousness with a standard of our own. This vow, like the first, comes usually from a root of pain. Rejection or criticism without love can cause us to try to erect our own system of achieving a form of blamelessness. For instance, making a promise that we will never imbibe alcohol sets us up for self –righteousness and a sneering judgment of those who do. And if we fail to uphold our vows to ourselves, the self-recrimination that results is a rejection of God’s grace.
The way out
The road to emotional health is not a straight one. The temptation is to write out your inner vows and renounce them one by one. This is in fact what I did. I wrote out 76 inner vows. Some of them were corollaries of the three I listed. Some value existed in this exercise in that it is a good practice of self-awareness. But the soul deep level of freedom took a bit more self-examination, vulnerability, and God’s healing touch.
God wills us to live in freedom. He does this by speaking truth to our inner parts, our hidden chambers, so to speak. The path out of bondage is forgiveness, most often of parents and siblings, and sometimes our own self. Emotionally healthy people accept care from others. Spiritually mature people are able to forgive the wrongs they have suffered and do not live a life of sin because they are free not to.
I have included some links that go more in depth on this topic, as inner vows can have a disastrous effect on both emotional and physical health. The first step to becoming free is recognizing the areas in which you are not.