Lately, I have somewhat begun to remove the name of God from my lips. I didn’t say “Merry Christmas” in the little cards I wrote to my co-workers last month. In my previous life I used to say, “Praise God” a lot, and “God bless you,” as I left meetings, but these days I work hard to find heartfelt ways to express divine support and love without saying “God.” I haven’t figured out yet what to do when someone sneezes.
Why am I trying to express my deep faith in God without using the name of God? The Third Commandment.
The Third Commandment was always kind of sleeper. Even as a child, it seemed to me that nothing the preachers ever said about it really seemed to crack the nut. Their sermons were always about swear words and courtroom oaths. The Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 36, with its warnings about cursing and perjury, didn’t help much, either.
I agree we shouldn’t swear. A great many of my fellow church members did swear though, as I learned when I joined our church’s softball team. Whew-wee, what a blue streak! When the men of my church took off their suits and ties and put on those jerseys and started swingin’ those bats, Old Number Three went down in flames.
I will admit that I have used swear words a great many times, and sometimes still do. I know that especially as a preacher, blessing and cursing shouldn’t come from the same mouth. But they have. I confess it as a sin, and work hard to fight it in my own heart and life.
Other Christians have valiantly tried to control their language by using substitutes. My favorite boss did this. He owned an insulation company, and he hired me when I was 18. He always substituted “hen” for “hell,” as when he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “How in the hen, Keith, did you insulate the wrong house?” Over the years, I have heard church people use “Dang” and “Freakin’” as substitutes as well. But when I was about 55, a man from my church who was mad about a Council decision screeched his pick-up truck to a stop, stomped up to me with fists clenched, got within six inches of my face, and used the true “D” and “F” words. I was his pastor.
It’s just my opinion, but I don’t believe God will send him to hell for that, and probably that’s where I got stuck with the Catechism, and with the Bible itself. The Catechism said that swearing was a horrible sin, and pointed out the places where the Bible said that if you swore, God would strike you down dead. What the hen!? It just seemed, even to my six-year old brain, that a commandment has to be bigger than that, and a catechism should be as well.
These days, when I walk through a grocery store or am just walking on a city street, the “F-Bomb” is as frequently heard as the words “and” or “but.” Politicians swear and use abusive, degrading language, to a disgusting degree. As a chaplain, when I walk through the care facilities of older people, their TV’s are on, and all I hear echoing down the hallways are the “Bleep bleep bleeps” of swear words being erased from the shows people are watching. It’s like semi-automatic bullet-swearing. I miss the old days, when people, like my boss, simply sought to honor the Lord by not swearing.
That same boss gave me a more indelible image of what the Third Commandment is really about. On two memorable occasions.
For my job, I drove an old puke-yellow van. Each day, I chocked it full of insulation, and then drove off to pack the insulation into the walls of houses. On one occasion, at the end of a day, I drove in to the shop and there was a new van waiting for me. The day after that, when I drove in, my boss was in the parking lot with a grinder, sanding down the sides of the old van.
I asked him why. “Well Keith,” he said, “I’m going to sell this old van. Whoever buys it can take it anywhere—bars, strip clubs, wherever. He can use it to rob a bank. And that’s my name and my company name on the side of the truck. I don’t want him draggin’ my name around to places like that.”
What my boss said in that moment has come to define what I believe the Third Commandment is really all about: God’s reputation. Thou shalt not drag the name of God around. Thou shalt use it only “with reverence and awe,” the Catechism says. Thou shalt not misrepresent God by driving God’s name to destinations of your own sinful desire, and then, when you get there, say your desire is about God. Or use God as your excuse. Or as your prop.
I think, for example, of times as a preacher, when I had reached some visionary conclusion about a program or a project. Hopefully I didn’t, but am afraid to say I probably did, invoke the name of God to get “buy-in” and funding for that project. It’s easy to paint a vision for a new building, or renovation, or church-growth scheme. You want it so badly. If it works, you will be the successful pastor of a successful church. You paint that vision, and put neon lights on it, and then you drive your God-van to it, horn blaring and lights flashing. That’s using God’s name in vain. It happens all the time, and certainly not only by preachers. “God, God, God…” “God told me this.” “The Spirit gave me this to tell you.” Put on an earthly show, adorn yourself with glory, and call it God.
It would be so wonderful if that was the only time I learned from my boss about the Third Commandment. What follows, the second occasion, still causes me to blush, more than 40 years later.
I was riding along in the big truck with one of the older employees driving. We were heading to a job, and we happened to pass by a place where people were picketing their job site. All-wise at 18, I had heard about this and concluded the picketers were wrong. As we drove past, I put my impassioned fist out the passenger-side window and raised my middle finger. I looked triumphantly over at my friend, the older man who was driving. He looked at me, not unkindly, but shook his head. He said, “Boss is gonna have a meeting with you tonight, I suspect.”
I didn’t get it, until we drove into the shop late in the day, and there was my boss, waiting for me. It’s important to say how much I loved that guy, and how much I admired him. He called me into his office. He didn’t yell. He certainly didn’t swear. It was just so crushing, though, when he said he was going to have to fire me.
Angry and hurt people had called him throughout the day. My boss said, “Keith, some of those people out on that picket line are personal friends of mine. Some them have hired me to insulate their houses. I live in this community, and I run my business in this community. You may have your opinion, but, that’s my name on the truck.”
I didn’t have any excuses, and didn’t make any. I just sat there in shame. The worst of it was disappointing one of the coolest and kindest Christians I have ever known. Think what you will when I use this term, but in my young life, he was my hero. Actually, he still is, though he has long gone to glory.
Some things just have to be burned into your soul, you know? It’s God’s name. There is a world of people out there. What we say and do creates an impression, makes a representation, of who God is and what God is about. “Those people are friends of mine. I live in this world, and do business in this world. You may have your opinions, but it’s my name and my reputation.”
All of this explains why when I saw a Ron DeSantis campaign ad, I just went cold. There was an announcer with a deep resonant voice, and as a sequence of images of Mr. DeSantis scrolled past, the deep voice used the language of Genesis 1, and said, “On the eighth day, God said, ‘I need a fighter.’” God said, God said, God said, all connected to the supposed attributes of Mr. DeSantis.
That is taking God’s name in vain.
Let me quickly say that I was troubled in the same way by Raphael Warnock’s speech after he was declared the winner of the Georgia Senate run-off. Full disclosure: I like Rev. Warnock a lot, and I sometimes listen to his sermons online. A campaign victory speech, however, is not a sermon. Warnock’s victory speech claimed God too much, in my opinion. (Similarly, prior to the election, people were saying that Hershel Walker is such a great man of God.)
Everybody uses God’s name to validate their own purposes. Someone stuck a MAGA hat onto a picture of Jesus at the January 6 insurrection. Others erected billboards of Donald Trump and imposed the words, “Unto Us a Son is Given.” When these blasphemies were done, nobody in the church raised an eyebrow. The Catechism says we should not be silent bystanders when God’s name is taken in vain. In those instances, the church was.
The result is God’s name means very little. It is over-used and wasted, ubiquitous and made worthless. Trailer-hitched to every whim of human fancy. Attached to absolutely everything, and thus reduced to nothing.
When I was a child and heard sermons about the Golden Calf, I had a hard time believing that people could worship a chunk of metal, having seen their own jewelry thrown in the fire. Now I believe it.
I have come to believe that the Golden Calf story is about how we take what we hold as precious—our own self-obsessed dreams and lusts, slap the name of God onto the them, and worship them. The name of God becomes the vehicle, the product, of our own twisted, fallen, miserable souls. We are like fish: take a shiny metal thing, paint God’s name onto it, throw it in the water, and we lunge for it.
So I am sick of the name of God. I am weary of typing the name and wary of preaching it.
When football teams brag that God gave them the win, when musical artists sing about drinking and sex and then win an award and point to the heavens and thank Jesus, when people put silver fish on their cars amid bumper stickers about God and guns . . . I’m sick of all of it. Sick of tee-shirts with bloody images of Jesus on his cross and yards signs declaring Jesus is Lord of our county. Even Christian music, all the time, blaring from a car or piped into a place of business gets to me. I know it’s mostly well-intentioned, but I am repulsed by it.
It has always been the marketing and missionary push of the church to proclaim the name. In these times, just like in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia book The Last Battle, confusion is everywhere. In that story, an ape took a lion’s skin and tied it to a dim-witted donkey and called it Aslan. The ape used the lion’s skin to get whatever he wanted. “Aslan says, ‘Bring me bananas.’ Aslan says do this, do that.” When it was proved a fake, no-one trusted the name Aslan anymore.
This is what has been done to God’s name by the church in our time. It has used the name in vain and fashioned it into a vehicle of our own idolatry. I said at the beginning, I am using God’s name less. Not because I do not revere God’s name. Quite the opposite.
In such a faith crisis, only actions that actually reflect the name reveal It. Saying it more often, or yelling it, or attaching it to vain earthly visions is just so much dancing around the wasted, golden idol.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a big point of rejecting outward piety, and cultivating inner, quiet, hidden obedience. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, nobody was watching when the Samaritan stooped down and wrapped the pretty-much-dead guy’s wounds, and only an innkeeper in a dusty village was in on the secret. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, this humble act took place in private, out of view of the rest of the world.
This is the power of the name.
As it turns out, my boss, friend, and mentor, out of sheer grace, without my deserving it at all, did not fire me that day. It was if I had never flipped the bird or used his name in vain at all. He kept me on his crew. He did this quietly, from his little humble warehouse office. I have always thought he looked very much like God in that action. From that day on, with only greater love, I was careful how I represented him when I was in his truck.