Dear Commandment Keepers:
I grew up thinking the third commandment was about forbidden vocabulary words. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (King James Version, Exodus 20.7 & Deuteronomy 5.11). The pivot of interpretation was the meaning of ‘taking’ something ‘in vain.’ It was conveyed to me as carelessness in speech, allowing one’s rage or decorum to become unhinged, resulting in the impulsive use of God’s name or its variants. “God damn it!” was, of course, the most obvious infraction, but so too were euphemisms like “gosh darn” or the singular use of the word damn, which made it fun to talk about beaver houses where the silent ‘n’ disappeared, removing its sense of violation.
Vigilance regarding speech was an indication of our family’s sanctification and a ready tool of criticism. I remember one night while my dad was on the creeper under a car in our garage. He misjudged the torque on the oil pan drain plug, resulting in hot oil running down his arm. Moments later I was in the house announcing to Mom how Dad had just used the term “darn it!” My mother emerged from the house to chastise my father while he was inspecting his hand for blisters. Clearly, hot words were to be feared more than hot oil.
Any intemperate use of the name of our Lord and Savior was also banished from our lips. Elongating the vowels in a “Jeeesus Chriiist” was considered irreverent even when reading scripture. Faithful Christianity demanded a faithful lexicon, lest we become abusers of God’s third command, making us equal to adulterers and murderers.
Of course, vanity runs deeper than referencing a simple glossary; and while I am not a fan of course speech, violations of the third commandment include the spirit as well as the letter. Nestled between idolatry and Sabbath-breaking, the vain use of God’s name expresses the height of arrogance. To suggest divine endorsement of vain preference stands at the center of every tyrannical injustice and every abuse of power. Announcing how acquiescence to my agenda is necessary because it happens to be what God wants is the beginning of the end for a free and egalitarian community.
There is, by the way, no tension between Romans 13 and the third commandment. Paul wrote how civil magistrates were in place to bring order to society and should be taken seriously because a sovereign God has given them power. Paul’s admonition was to avoid flagrant disrespect of secular powers; they could not be ignored simply because they were unchristian. I am not free from paying taxes simply because those who spend my money fail to do good as I define it. Any resistance to injustice cannot be defended because I know God’s intent better than those in authority. Resistance to injustice must arise from the motivation of love, never the selfish jockeying of power. There is no vanity in loving our neighbors as ourselves (Romans 13.9-10).
In these days when scriptural proof-texts are being shot like spitballs from the straws of bullies, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s words in the mouth of Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, Act I Scene 3:
Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart. Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
Gosh darn it, he’s right!
Trying to watch my language, I remain, with love,