Making vows to the Lord was a common practice in the Old Testament. In the Bible, vow specifically means “conditional vow”—that is, a promise to make some offering to God if He would grant some specific request. These are distinguished from the kinds of vows we usually think of: unconditional promises like vows of matrimony or monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which would have been called “oaths” in biblical language. An example of the biblical, conditional vow is the promise made by the patriarch Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel:
And Jacob made a vow, saying, “If the Lord God will be with me and protect me on this path I travel and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear and return me safely to the house of my father, the Lord will indeed be my God, and this stone which I have erected as a pillar will be for me God’s house, and of all You will give me, I will give a tithe [tenth] to You.” (Genesis 28:20–21)
Vows were an important part of worship under the Mosaic Covenant, regulated by instructions in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They were also made by Jephthah, Hannah, and the sailors accompanying Jonah, among others (Judges 11; 1 Kingdoms [1 Samuel] 1; Jonah 1:16).
In the years since I converted to Orthodoxy, I have from time to time heard of pious Christians from the Middle East even today making and fulfilling such vows to God (called nadher in Arabic). For example, I specifically remember a promise by parents not to cut a child’s hair until some blessing had been granted by God. Indeed, the idea of making conditional vows to God is actually quite common around the world, practiced in various world religions; even among people who are not very religious, one often hears of some desperate soul in great peril promising God (or an unknown, unnamed supreme being) to amend his or her life if rescued from that predicament.
I must admit that such practices among Orthodox Christians have perplexed me. They seemed superfluous, at best—or even superstitious. To my modern, rationalist mind, a vow (that is, promising God to do something if God first does something for you) seemed like a crude attempt to manipulate God. It seemed like bargaining with God, a mentality that scholars often identify with the Latin phrase do ut des, “I give that you might give.” Hadn’t we moved beyond all those primitive, anthropomorphizing practices, which dumbed down the divine-human relationship for simpler people? Shouldn’t our focus be on drawing near to God rather than getting things out of God?
However, I am now reconsidering my view of vows in light of what I’ve learned about a related ancient practice: sacrifice. There is great overlap between these two practices in Old Testament religion: many vows promised sacrifice if their conditions were met, and many sacrifices were performed in fulfillment of vows. Moreover, just as sacrifices were meant to continue in the New Covenant (as I show in my book Welcoming Gifts: Sacrifice in the Bible and Christian Life), so, it seems, were vows. According to the prophecy of Isaiah, both sacrifices and vows would feature in the Gentile renewal of “the last day” (that is, the age inaugurated with the coming of Christ): “In that day, the Egyptians will know the Lord and perform sacrifices and make vows to the Lord and fulfill them” (19:21). According to the Acts of the Apostles, a vow was made and fulfilled by the holy apostle Paul himself (21:23). And about every eight weeks, we are invited to do the same in this psalm verse read before the Sunday Epistle: “Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them” (75:12 [76:11]).
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how I might incorporate vow-making into my prayer life. I still haven’t come to any conclusions about the best way to go about this. It’s hard to do so, since I haven’t yet found any teaching on this subject from the Church Fathers or more recent Orthodox theologians and elders. Nevertheless, I am going to try here to put together some tentative reflections on what modern-day Christian conditional vows might look like.
In Welcoming Gifts I write, “A vow was a prayer with skin in the game” (p. 102). What I mean is that biblical vows were a way to make a personal investment in a request to God, by promising some kind of offering at the house of God (either sacrificial or non-sacrificial) as a demonstration of gratitude. I go on to explain that these promises were supposed to have a relational intent—the point was not to extract favors from God (as if He could be manipulated by our petty promises) but rather to engage Him in a cycle of reciprocal favors that would create a bond between Him and the one making the vow. God was invited to show His friendship toward the vow maker so that he could in turn show his friendship toward God. Vow-making was therefore an aspect of ceremonial giving, the ancient practice of building relationships by exchanging gifts—only, in this case it was directed toward God.
As such, vows should involve gifts on both sides (the requested blessing and the promised offering) that are meaningful to both parties. On one hand, the blessing requested from God ought to be something in tune with His will and our needs. On the other hand, the promised expression of gratitude should be something desirable to God that comes from our hearts. So it would be nonsensical to vow to throw a pizza in the ocean if God made one emperor of the world. Instead, it would make perfect sense, for example, to promise to increase one’s daily practice of prayer in a specific way if God would see fit to help one overcome some specific difficulty. Vows go wrong when they are selfish, focused on what one can get; they go right when they are focused on uniting us to God.
If we are going to make vows, it is essential that we keep them (that is, if God indeed grants the request on which they are conditioned). This point is emphasized in Deuteronomy:
If you vow a vow to the Lord your God, you will not delay to fulfill it, for the Lord your God will demand an account from you, and it will be a sin in you [if you delay]; but if you do not wish to vow, it is not sin in you. You will keep [the promises] that have come forth through your lips and perform whatever you vowed to the Lord your God as a gift, which you said with your mouth. (23:22–24 [21–23])
Likewise, Ecclesiastes tells us: “It is good for you not to vow / rather than to vow and not fulfill it” (5:3-5 [4–6]). Therefore, we must be thoughtful about how we make vows: “Prepare yourself before making a vow, and do not be like a man who tempts the Lord” (Wisdom of Sirach 18:23).
As a corollary, vows should be specific. On one hand, the condition of the vow should be specific—for example, “If God helps me overcome my anxiety and give this homily” rather than “If God blesses my ministry.” The whole point is to recognize whether or not God has granted the request, in order to know whether one should reciprocate. Also, the promised offering must be specific—for example, “I will say the Jesus Prayer an extra 100 times a day for two weeks” rather than just “I will pray more.” We should be able to recognize when we have fulfilled our promise.
Finally, since the conditional nature of the vow leaves open the possibility that the condition might not be met (i.e., God might not grant the request), we must consider what this means for us and how we will respond. Perhaps God is teaching us to refine our request or is redirecting us to some other priority. Perhaps He wants us to persevere and keep asking. Or perhaps we were stretching ourselves too far with the promise we made—maybe it’s more than we can fulfill and God is sparing us. Just as with simple prayers, a negative answer is not a reason to give up making vows but rather a moment for reflection.
As I said, these are just tentative reflections. I would love to hear your questions, concerns, and suggestions in the comments section below. I would be especially grateful if you know of any teachings by the Church Fathers or Orthodox theologians or elders on the subject of conditional vows. Please let me know! And stay tuned for future posts on this subject.