3 Nephi 12:33-37
33 And again it is written, thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths;
34 But verily, verily, 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;
36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair black or white;
37 But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever cometh of more than these is evil.
As humans, we do not live in a world of absolute truthfulness, and that is not what the Savior was expecting of us. For example, when one’s options are between speaking kindness and frankness, kindness almost always needs the greater weight. When a lady asks if you like her new hairdo, there is only one appropriate answer, and, whatever you might think, that answer should never sound like: “Ouch! It makes you look like an unkept sheep dog!”
But that is not what the Savior was talking about. He is talking about lies whose intent is to deceive, to hurt, or to manipulate. His meaning is made clear in other places in other scriptures. For instance, when speaking of those who belong in the telestial glory, the Prophet Joseph wrote: “These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie (D&C 76:103).” Nephi’s brother Jacob said it more succinctly: “Wo unto the liar, for he shall be thrust down to hell (2 Nephi 9:34).” (There is no problem in the meaning of “hell” there. In the Book of Mormon the prophets see only two eternal options: either that one will be where God is, or one will be where God is not.)
To “forswear” means to swear falsely or to perjure oneself. In some cultures it is the norm for a person to give oneself credibility by evoking the credibility of some greater power. For example, Nephi tells us:
32 And it came to pass that I spake with him [Zoram], that if he would hearken unto my words, as the Lord liveth, and as I live, even so that if he would hearken unto our words, we would spare his life.
33 And I spake unto him, even with an oath, that he need not fear; that he should be a free man like unto us if he would go down in the wilderness with us (1 Nephi 4:32-33).
In our legal system, truthfulness in court is made by an oath. Even the American Constitution acknowledges the validity of this practice. It says of the President of the United States:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States (Article 2, Section 1).”
There was a reason the phrase “or affirm” is included: Quakers took the New Testament admonition very seriously and would not swear a oath, even in court, even though their refusal might be used against them. So in order to not preclude a Quaker from becoming president, the option of not swearing an oath was included in the Constitution.
The Savior’s injunction, “But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever cometh of more than these is evil,” probably has little to do with legal forms, but rather is about casual, flippant or perverse oath taking. Shakespeare echoed the Savior’s sentiment in one of his most beautiful loving scenes:
Romeo: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear
. That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—
Juliet: O, swear not by the moon , the inconstant moon,
. That monthly changes in her circled orb,
. Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Romeo: What shall I swear by?
Juliet: Do not swear at all;
. Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
. Which is the god of my idolatry,
. And I’ll believe thee. (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)
A person of integrity does not need to decorate one’s words with meaningless assertions of honesty. The question, always, is not “What does he say?” but rather, “Why does he say it?” That is, “Is there is no gap between what he says, what he does, and the motive for which he does it.” And there’s the rub: unfortunately even the truth may be a lie.
Macbeth, who had believed the deceiving witches, learns too late the meaning of their doublespeak. As he finally confronts his own reality, he laments:
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 8).
We are caught in this world of deceptions. We must not only pay attention to who tells the truth, but we must also be able to discern what kind of truth they tell.
There is a theme that runs as an undercurrent throughout the Savior’s entire sermon. It is that one must be true to the law of one’s eternal self. That theme comes very near the surface in these verses that conclude, “But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” As the revelation says about Hyrum Smith: “for I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me (D&C 124:15).
Probably the most quoted lines in any of Shakespeare’s plays are these spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3).
Hidden within the depth of those words is, for each of us, the greatest mystery of the universe. The mystery is the answer to the question: “Who/what am I?” That mystery will ever be enshrouded in darkness until one can be honest enough with oneself to answer the question: “Who am I just now?” To answer that question we return to the Savior’s command: “But let your communication [with your Self] be Yea, yea; Nay, nay. ” It sounds easy, but in a world that imposes its own identities upon us, sometimes it is the most difficult thing of all. However, until we can do that, the answer to the great mystery will remain enshrouded in the darkness of self-indulgence, self-denial, or self-disdain.
An equally acceptable way of understanding our verses is that the Savior was talking about making and keeping covenants. Covenants are the face of integrity, and are not to be taken lightly. Virtually every facet of the gospel is founded on covenants—on the covenants the Savior and his Father have made with us—and the covenants we make with them and each other.
In the conversation between Jehovah and the brother of Jared, the latter “answered: Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie (Ether 3:12). That is an extraordinary concept. In this world we deal with no one but little children about whom we can say “he cannot lie.” Yet, whether in this world or the spirit world to follow, until we can follow the Savior’s admonition to just speak only the truth, it is doubtful that we could be comfortable in the presence of a God who “cannot lie.”