Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. – James 5:12 (NRSV)
As far as this “let your yes be yes and your no be no” business goes, toddlers have it on lock. When a two-year-old tells you she does not want Cheerios, God help you if you put a bowl of Cheerios in front of her. She was not kidding.
Conversely, if you offer a toddler pancakes, you had better be prepared to make good on that offer of pancakes immediately if you don’t want to fall under condemnation. Because if said toddler indicates that yes, indeed, she would like to have some pancakes, she really, really means it.
A toddler has just learned to talk. It has taken them months and months of concerted effort. They have to learn the sounds, shape their mouths, twist their tongues. Glottal stops and velar ejective fricatives and voiced dental plosives—all learned from first principles simply by watching and listening. Their learning is driven by a deep need to be understood—to speak and have an impact on the world.
Words are precious to toddlers and, frankly, they have it right. It’s we who have spent decades swimming in words who have learned to treat them lightly.
Words can make meaning and shape reality, create connection or summon help. To take something as precious as words and waste them, is unthinkable to a toddler. Yes should mean yes, and no should mean no. James, chapter 5 will tell you that. James, age 2, will tell you the same thing.
God, will I follow you? Yes.
John Edgerton is Lead Pastor at First United Church of Oak Park, Illinois.