Before my friend's dad became a Lutheran pastor, he was a rough and tumble seaman who, well, swore like a sailor. He was even reprimanded once by a Navy superior for using excessive foul language. So when The Pacific, HBO's new series about Marines in World War II, came out, he made sure to catch it.
But he could not watch it. The language—particularly the taking of the Lord's name in vain—was just too much. When a sailor says you've crossed the line, you've crossed the line.
The series was on HBO, a venue that loves going to extremes. But taking the Lord's name in vain has become something of a pastime in popular culture.
Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at the liberal political magazine The New Republic, wrote a blog post during the health-care debate that shocked me. "J---- C-----," the headline began, followed by the statement that some arcane legislative process was "Not That Difficult!"
When Tiger Woods returned to golf following his sex scandal, he retained his habit of cussing a blue streak whenever he made a bad shot. "G--! Tiger! J---- C-----!" he said after a lousy drive. The announcers didn't even flinch. Critics scolded Brit Hume for suggesting that Woods needed Christ's forgiveness, but almost no one cared when Woods swore in Christ's name.
Vice President Joe Biden got a lot of grief for dropping the f-bomb before President Obama signed health-care legislation into law. But how many people noticed that he used "Jesus Christ" to curse in a Wall Street Journal interview last year?
It used to be considered unacceptable to speak this way. Now it's beyond common.
Exodus 20:7 tells us, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain" (ESV).
For many of us, this commandment means, "Don't cuss." It does—but it means so much more than that.
Unlike the mythic gods of the ancient world, Yahweh is not revealed only by things in nature but is primarily known by his name and the deeds associated with that name. In the prologue to the Ten Commandments, Yahweh identifies himself and says he brought the Hebrews out of bondage. God's name is mentioned 5,343 times in 23,213 verses of the Hebrew text of the Bible.
"It is the revelation of his name that makes the Hebrews into his people, and it is by his name that he is to be remembered among his people forever. The name, then, is the only thing that Yahweh's people have by which to know and to worship him," writes David L. Adams in The Anonymous God.
The first tablet of the Law includes the commandments connected with God's self-revelation, which have specific threats of punishment and are expanded with explanations. That probably indicates that God cares deeply about his name and how we use it. Surely something so important to God ought to be important to us, even if it's completely counter to the spirit of our culture.
Unlike other commandments dealing with adultery and murder, the third commandment's prohibitions can be harder to recognize as sin. We think it doesn't matter as much because, after all, it's "only words."
The third commandment doesn't just mean we should avoid cursing or swearing in God's name. It's possible to violate it even if we never utter a curse word.
Martin Luther said that "the greatest abuse" of this commandment occurs "when false preachers rise up and offer their lying vanities as God's Word."
In other words, false doctrine taught by those who claim to speak for God is worse than the crudest and most profane comedy special ever to air. When pastors go beyond Scripture to promote the gospel of prosperity or to tell parishioners not to worry about sexual immorality, they are not just wrong—they have also blasphemed God's holy name.
As with all commandments, we keep them not just by avoiding certain behaviors but also by doing good works. So we are reminded to pray, praise, and verbally give thanks to God for his goodness and to call out to him in times of trouble. We must work to ensure proper teaching and employ God's name in defense of truth and goodness.
Or, as the psalmist says, "… call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me" (50:15, ESV).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles on swearing include:
'Bless and Do Not Curse' | What should happen to ESPN's Dana Jacobson? (January 24, 2008)
Clean Air for Ears | The FCC has rejoined the war against indecency. (June 1, 2004)
Joyous Cursing | Was Dale Earnhardt Jr. right about profanity? (October 1, 2004)
Previous columns by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway include:
Same Sex, Different Marriage | Many of those who want marriage equality do not want fidelity. (May 10, 2010)
Is Cosmetic Surgery Immoral? | Even more importantly: Why do you want to know? (March 16, 2010)
Segregated in a Whole New Way | A church family from the same generation isn't much of a family. (January 28, 2010)
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