The Sentences We Live By

The Sentences We Live By

Without warning, the great white shark violently surfaced behind the boat with jaws wide open. Three men gasped at the sight. One man harpooned a barrel line into its back, but the giant fish easily dragged the container under and disappeared. The men commissioned to hunt it down stood breathless.

I made a vow during JAWSJaws was a 1975 thriller about a 25-foot, man-eating shark that terrorized a New England summer resort town. And yes, it pretty much wrecked ocean swimming for years.

In the very next scene, Quint the professional shark hunter, Brody the local police chief, and Hooper the marine biologist, swapped stories and got drunk below deck as night fell. They blew off steam, believing the danger had passed for the moment. However, we, the audience, knew the terrible shark was lurking. The deep bass music—da-dummm, da-dummm, da-dummm—gave it away.

How can they be so oblivious! Blood rushed to my face. A cold sweat broke out on my neck and shoulders. Come on…get a clue! The pulsating notes grew louder, the pace quickened. Oh no! No, no, NO! And all at once, the shark rammed the hull with tooth-rattling force. The guys didn’t see it coming.

Right then and there, I made an inner vow:

That will never happen to me…I will always be vigilant!

Vows hold us captiveJohn and Paula Sandford, in The Transformation of the Inner Man, taught that inner vows are an internal pronouncement of your will and are extremely binding. They hold us captive. Vows are made with words like, “I will never…” or “I’ll always…” or “See if I ever…” and are usually not said out loud. Still, the impact on our lives is defining. John Sanford said, they set a course, like a railroad track is to a train.

Inner vows become the sentences we live by.

Of course, marital vows are not in this category. Inner vows are wound-based, and their goal is self-preservation. In short, we never want to be in a position where we might get hurt.

Many vows are made in childhoodMany inner vows are set in childhood. For example, the Sandfords describe how a girl might feel unnoticed or unloved by her father. She may make an inner vow … “I will never need a man.” As she comes of age, she may have a string of relationships with guys but never really open her heart to any of them. She flirts in order to use them. Their attention meets an unmet need left by her dad. Still, she has no intention to risk a real relationship with a man.

Brent Curtis and John Eldredge wrote about the formation of vows in their excellent book, The Sacred Romance:

While we wish there was only beauty in the world, each of us has known enough pain to raise serious questions about life. When we get hurt it’s like an Arrow in our heart. We cannot deny The Arrows. Some arrived in a hail, blocking out the sun. Others descended in a more subtle way that only let us know we were wounded years later. When we were young, some of the most defining Arrows struck. It felt like an ambush and our response was at a gut level. Our deepest convictions were formed without conscious effort, and the effect was a shift deep in our soul. We made unspoken judgments (vows) to never be in that position again. If you listen carefully to your life, you may begin to see how you’ve been shaped by the unique Arrows you’ve known. (Paraphrased)

A parent can cause a child to make a vowSometimes the words of others become the sentences we live by. I saw this post by David Avocado Wolfe on Facebook, quoting Peggy O’Mara. It hit me hard. If a parent says something demeaning, a child can turn it into an inner vow that says: “I will never be good enough.”

Because most inner vows are negative in tone, some of you might think the vow I made during Jaws was appropriate or responsible. Not so. Why? Because it was made in fear, and fear is the opposite of faith. The point is this:

When you are bound by an inner vow, you’re a slave to the dictates of that vow. You are not free to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Vows are full of fearThis seemingly “good” vow had many ramifications in my life. I stopped swimming in oceans. I was afraid to walk to my parked car at night on Main Street. I practically went into the men’s bathroom with my young son at Walmart, when he became too old for the ladies’ room. I didn’t allow my kids to have a trampoline, because something bad might happen. Travel on airplanes, especially to Third World countries—produced a whole new set of anxieties. I could go on…

Scripturally speaking, I think inner vows are referenced in 2 Corinthians 10:5 as “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” Paul said they are to be destroyed, by “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

Vows can be brokenInner vows need exposure. They are usually hidden in the fabric of our innermost thoughts. But the Holy Spirit is able to zero in on them—when they were made, why we made them, and what were the specific words of the vow. Once revealed, an inner vow can be broken in the name of Jesus through prayer. Then lies can be replaced with truth—and truth sets us free.

Yet inner vows tend to stay stubbornly concealed, if we’re not willing to examine the Arrows in our lives.

If you’ve read my book, Closer Than Your Skin, you might remember the story in Chapter 1. Around 2:00 a.m., I was traveling with my college friend on a lonely two-lane highway in New Hampshire. God sent a rabbit to zigzag in front of my car, until I pulled off the road onto the shoulder. A split second later, a large semi roared around a blind corner, passing a car in my lane. Without that rabbit, we would’ve had a head-on collision. I have a thing for rabbits now. I always brake for them.

Trust in God overrides vowsAs I began to get free of my hyper-vigilant, “it’s-up-to-me-to-stay-safe” inner vow made long ago in a movie theatre, I turned to God with my fears. One dark morning, I left for the airport to join my husband in Africa–always an unnerving trip for me. But this time, I called out to God as I left my driveway.

“Oh Lord, please let me return to Montana alive.”

Yes, I’m sorry…it was that kind of prayer—full of fear, not faith. Yet God was and is closer than my skin. A tenth of a mile down the road, a rabbit ran out in front of my car. I slowed and smiled. God was speaking my language.


What are the sentences you live by? I encourage you ask God about any inner vows that are restricting the flow of your life and your connection to Him. Share your comments here…


  1. Inner vows and life sentences (self-loathing statements) used to be my best friends. It has taken years to disentangle myself from them… something I learned to do even BEFORE I realized it was second nature to say them so violently within myself. I had no idea no one else I met talked to themselves that way. I thought it was righteous! What delusion I suffered under. Like Peggy O’Mara said, I’d been well trained. I’m going to start to ask God for kind words. I’ve experienced so much kindness at his hand in images and other ways but I realize reading this how disarmed I am by a kind word… still. I need a deep cleansing of the words spoken to and over me for decades. I’m glad I read this and know it’s what I need to ask now. I want full sentences! ; )

    • Tricia…what an honest account of your discovery. Thank you so much for posting as it will touch many!