I was rather disappointed that my post Did Flannery O’Connor Write Christian Fiction? digressed into a discussion about cursing in Christian fiction, particularly taking the Lord’s name in vain (or to be more exact, having one of our characters do so). Anyway, during that conversation, much was assumed and implied about that particular expletive. I’d like to take a couple of minutes to address what I feel is our erroneous approach.
Let me begin with my thesis:
We have wrenched the Third Commandment from its context and reduced it to a simplistic formula, which betrays the very superstition it decries. As a result, Christians (or professing Christians) take the name of God in vain far more than do foul-mouthed unbelievers.
Most Americans assume, whether through conscience, social mores, or religious tradition, that taking the name of the Lord in vain means saying the phrase… “goddammit.” Christians take this a step further. We believe that the person who utters that phrase, whether it is used as an expletive, quoted, referenced, cited, or put in the mouth of a fictional character, is categorically profane.
I personally believe this approach is unbiblical and borderline superstition. Let me explain.
For one, God’s name is not… God. The English transliteration of the Hebrew name revealed to Moses is YHWH. Some translate the word as Yahweh or Jehovah. Call this a technicality, if you will. Nevertheless, the word “God” is generic for any deity or supreme being. Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Baptists, Buddhists, even atheists all use the word “God” in one way or another.
Believing as Christians do that there are false gods, if one curses in the name of their “god,” have they broken the Third Commandment? (I mean, does Zeus damn you! really deserve a lightning bolt?) Or can only those of a Judeo-Christian worldview take the name of God in vain? (Meaning all you druids are off the hook.) And if we are approaching this thing literally, then taking the name of God in vain would have to involve His actual name. Which means asking Yahweh or Jehovah to damn something (a request actually made by several biblical prophets) is really the offending phrase. Unless, of course, certain things are God damned.
Secondly, the commandment really has more to do with careless, frivolous oaths, than it does speaking any one particular word or phrase. Judaism 101 explains it this way:
In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God’s Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as “in vain” literally means “for falsehood”).
In other words, taking the name of the Lord in vain would be something like swearing by Jehovah, the God of Israel, that you did not swipe your neighbor’s plow, when in fact you did. Jesus appeared to speak to this when He said, “Do not swear an oath at all” (Matt. 5:33-37), for as this commentary explains, “oaths by definition called on a deity to witness them.” In this sense, taking God’s name in vain means throwing around reckless promises, oaths, and pledges using the Christian God as your witness.
In Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain, Credo House helps us understand the context of the Third Commandment.
The nations to which the Israelites were going had many gods. They were highly superstitious. Their prophets would often use the name of their god in pronouncements. The usage could be in a curse, hex, or even a blessing. They would use the name of their god to give their statements, whatever they may be, authority. To pronounce something in their own name would not have given their words much weight, but to pronounce something in the name of a god meant that people would listen and fear. They may have said, “In the name of Baal, there will be no rain for 40 days.” Or “In the name of Marduk, I say that you will win this battle.” This gave the prophet much power and authority. But, as we know, there is no Baal or Marduk. Since this is the case, they did not really make such pronouncement and therefore the words of the prophet had no authority and should neither have been praised or feared.
God was attempting to prevent the Israelites from doing the same thing. God was saying for them not to use His name like the nations used the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name to invoke false authority behind pronouncements. In essence, God did not want the Israelites to say that He said something that He had not said.
This interjects another angle into our understanding of taking the Lord’s name in vain, doesn’t it? It’s why noted Bible teacher Chuck Missler suggested that taking the Lord’s name in vain is less about vocabulary than it is about “ambassadorship.” In other words, we represent the character and power and dignity (the Name) of our God on this earth. We must live in such a way as to not trivialize, prostitute, and misrepresent Him. This is why I say that believers (or professing believers) take the name of God in vain far more often than do foul-mouthed unbelievers. Why? Because it’s not about our vocabulary but our overall witness.
If we reduce taking God’s name in vain to simply a string of words, not only are we missing the larger point of the commandment, we are potentially promoting superstition.
Remember that old urban legend about the Candyman? Stand in front of the mirror and say “Candyman” five times and you’re dead. As if the right (or wrong?) combination of words catalyzes some universal formula. How is our conception about taking God’s name in vain any different? You know, string those two words together and suddenly you’ve crossed the line. Like saying “Candyman” for the fifth and final time.
This, I believe, is evidence of a “touch not, taste not, handle not” (Col. 2:21) mentality that permeates Evangelicalism today. We demonize things — music, clothes, foods, art, objects, places, and words. It’s total paganism. The belief that a specific string of words is inherently profane is akin to sorcery. It is “abracadabra” in reverse.
Furthermore, if the real issue is not using the word “God” carelessly, then commonly accepted sayings like “God bless you” and “oh my God” are equally as sinful. I mean, do we really mean to invoke God’s blessings on someone who sneezes? Do unbelievers have the ability to summon such a blessing? Or is it just a stupid, yet well-intentioned, cultural idiom? Saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes can be as “vain” and meaningless as saying “God damn you” when someone doesn’t.
Of course, some people who use the aforementioned expletive ARE being flippant, profane, sloppy, and sacrilegious. I’m not defending them. The Bible is very clear about the power of words, the venom in our tongues, and our responsibility to watch how we speak. However, the Bible does not specify a hierarchy of cusswords. And neither should we.