Now that I’ve gotten your attention, yes I am talking about the epithet, but no, I am not really defending the curse. Actually, I would just like to discuss language in general and why it seems to me like we are damning the wrong curse while completely ignoring its far more dangerous cousin.
This weekend I worked an event at the Texas State Fair. It was for a campaign to screen people for COPD (just google it). I will be doing a lot of work with the company running this campaign over the next month. I know that this information seems to move away from any discussion of coarse language, but a few events this weekend made me spend a lot of time thinking about the words that come out of our mouths.
During my work, I had a great time meeting a lot of the people from the advertising company running the campaign. They were nice, bright, and around my age. We talked about all kinds of things and as always, they eventually asked about what I do for a living. I told them.
The life I have chosen is not one which goes by unnoticed when I mention it. I often try not to broach this subject until I know people a little bit, not because I am embarrassed, but because they always instantly put me in a little mental plastic box. I become the somewhat strange person that they can observe, but must be kind of careful around. It is like I’m suddenly Hannibal Lector. It isn’t very fair to me, I must say. I haven’t had someone’s liver in years.
One of the most common reactions is “Oh, I’m sorry about my language. I’ll try to be more careful.” When they say this, I wonder if they secretly think that they are teaching me to use new forbidden words that I have never before heard. Like some two year old child, I would be at the platform the next Sunday saying “Screw You” (OK—worse) and then claiming, “I dunno, I heard it at the fair.”
In all truth, I do appreciate their reaction. It means that they recognize that some of their language is not healthy and that they should do something about it. I know that it isn’t them fearing me feeling judgmental, because I always tell them it is OK, that they can be normal, and people always then tell me that they need to stop cussing so much anyway.
But in all of these situations, what never seems to change is their use of “god” as a random interjection in sentences. Sure, if they get angry and say “God Damn it!” they look at me with a guilty look. This has happened on numerous occasions. But when they say “Oh god, I’m so tired,” or something like it, they think absolutely nothing about feeling guilty.
This isn’t unique to the secular world, though. In church, almost on a weekly basis I hear the “God, I _____,” quote emanate from some teenager’s mouth. In my little kingdom at church, I can say something about this. I stop and kindly remind them that it is rude to God when we do that, and that He thought it important to even include this as part of the Big Ten.
When someone say s, “God Damn it!” what they are saying is that they are really angry about something. This phrase literally means, “send this thing to hell.” I don’t think that this excuses the comment at all, really. If someone had done something blatantly blasphemous, or persecuted God’s people, I suppose one could make a case for the appropriate use of that phrase. I am not sure what I think on that. It is not our place to play judge and jury, or to call for vengeance. On the other hand, David and the prophets were often asking for God to do such things.
But when we slip “God” casually into every sentence, the word has no meaning whatsoever. When I was a teen, I used to say “like” almost every other word for a while. I wasn’t really comparing things. In fact, like I didn’t know I was even like saying it at all usually. Sometimes it still slips into my sentences.
I really think that was the point of God’s prohibition in the Ten Commandments. In the Exodus 20:7 mention, the one that everyone knows, the word translated from the Masoretic text as “vain” is the Hebrew word “shav.” In the rest of the Old Testament, this word either refers to meaninglessness, worthlessness, or falsehood.
Psalm 108 uses this word when it says “vain is the help of men.” Psalm 144 uses shav saying “…whose mouth speaks vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.” Both of these uses are commonly repeated in the Old Testament. So which one is the case for the Exodus passage?
Partly , I think it doesn’t really matter. There is no real doubt that God would want His name to be used falsely. In fact, that would break another commandment anyway. The real danger is in using His name without any meaning. For when God’s name is used in falsehood, the person is trying to use God’s authority for trickery, not something we are commonly tempted to do. That takes a real desire to rebel against Him.
But when we use God’s name without any meaning at all, it is lowering God’s position in our life to no different than an “and” or a “but”. Yes, I know that this isn’t consciously done. But doesn’t that make it even worse? The fact that God’s people would be throwing His very name around with meaninglessness is deeply offensive to Him. I think that this is just another reminder of the casualness that we have applied to God.
So let me say something a bit controversial in response to all of this: There is no biblical precedent for approaching God casually. It seems to me to be an American concept of God, that he is your best buddy who you can just hang out with. When I was a kid, I used to tell God jokes at night that I heard during the day. I still tell Him those jokes. I think we all should, and I think that He loves that. I bet He laughs—hard, even though He has already heard them all, and many of them were His inventions in the first place.
But under no circumstances is God our buddy. He’s the Father, the Maker, The Omnipotent Mover. Any response to truly being in His presence is nothing even approaching cavalier, but an immense feeling of being altogether different, and a healthy fear, reverence. When we lose that, we lose our understanding of our place in the universe. We begin to believe that it is all about us.
We talk about the cross as if God got in a really bad situation ‘cause He just couldn’t live without us, so He had to send His Son for a sacrifice, a last-ditch effort that luckily worked out. This is very far from the truth, and dilutes power of the cross. God didn’t need us, he loved us. We don’t deserve this miracle of atonement. We deserve judgment. God never owed us. He paid a debt we owed Him.
In response, we have changed His name to an “um” in the middle of our sentences.
I am not suggesting that we start screaming and acting like Pharisees to anyone who accidentally copies the same speech patterns of everyone around them. Instead I am suggesting that His Church start acting Christianly. I am suggesting that we stop making it cool to be a Christian because we can look like everyone else. I am suggesting that we stop approaching church as a hang out time with God, because He misses us so much, and we really should stop by and see Him once in a while.
I don’t see God writing a letter to the Church today asking if we could tone down the fancy clothes and the formality. He might see that as extraneous, but not offensive. But I am sure that He is hurt by His people making the Cross nothing more than jewelry, His House a hang out place, and His name an interjection in our sentences.