Promising Without Doing

Everyone dislikes empty promises. However, this is the way we often deal with God. In a sermon titled “Promising without Doing,” John Henry Newman considers the parable of the two sons: one who promises to obey but does not, and the other son who refuses to obey but later repents. (Mt 21: 28-30).

Newman describes the manner of acting of the first son. “He (the first son) said, ‘I go, Sir,’ sincerely, from the feeling of the moment; but when the words were out of his mouth, then they were forgotten. It was like the wind blowing against a stream, which seems for a moment to change its course in consequence, but in fact flows down as before.”

We, too, promise to serve God, but we fail to obey; this is the case not out of deliberate disobedience but “because it is our nature, our way not to obey, and we do not know this; we do not know ourselves, or what we are promising.” We are disobedient and lacking in self-knowledge.

Newman then identifies  three aspects of this disobedience:

First, “... that of mistaking good feelings for real religious principle.” A man “thinks that the characteristic of a religious man is his having correct notions. It escapes him that there is a great interval between feeling and acting.” This is a misunderstanding about religion and a lack of awareness of man’s original sin and his own sinful habits.

Second, there is the self-deception of delaying repentance to a moment later in life. Newman indicates that “there is a greater difference between intending and doing than they know of.” Jesus, Himself had said: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” (Mt 5:37). Newman writes: “’Deeds, not words and wishes,’this must be the watchword of your warfare and the ground of your assurance.” We are reminded of a locution St. Josemaría Escrivá once heard while comparing himself to some cloistered nuns: “Love means deeds and not sweet words.” (Forge, 498)

Third, Newman points out that we cannot be sure of ourselves in the future, how we will act under new circumstances: “... all, one good deed is scarcely the pledge of another, though I just now said it was. The best men are uncertain; they are great, and they are little again; they stand firm, and then fall.”

The parable points to the difference between dead faith and a real or living faith. “Because” as Newman notes, “there is an immeasurable distance between feeling right and doing right. A man may have all these good thoughts and emotions, yet (if he has not yet hazarded them to the experiment of practice) he cannot promise himself that he has any sound and permanent principle at all.”  

St. James teaches us: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” [James ii. 26.]

Newman continues explaining that we only apprehend “the strange original defect in our moral nature” when we examine ourselves. Only then do we see the depth and deceitfulness of the heart.

It is good to profess our faith, but these professions are prayers which need to be followed by actions.

Newman closes by alluding to the second son, pointing out that we can always repent when, like the second son, we say “I will not go.” He then reminds us of Jesus, the only One “who has said and done consistently; who said, “I come to do Thy will, O God,” and without delay or hindrance did it. He came to show us what human nature might become, if carried on to its perfection.”

To imitate Jesus we need a daily examination of conscience. When we act like the first son, promising without doing, the examination enables us to repent and obey. But do we perform this daily practice? And do we have a set time for it? We don’t want to make empty promises to God. Thus we must look at our hearts and actions every day.


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