"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." - Exodus 20:7
I never heard my mother or father swear. Well, almost never. I was shocked one time when my mother uttered an imprecation after dropping a pan on her foot.
Among my youthful peers "swearing" more often than not meant referring to a variety of bodily functions. In my family these words were considered vulgar, but were not considered swearing. For them swearing was not about these so-called "dirty words" but about taking God's name in vain.
When I was in confirmation the poor seminarian who taught us marched us through the Ten Commandments. When we came to #3, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain," he asked us what it meant.
A hand shot up. "Swearing!" someone said. "Well yes," he said, "we should not use God's name inappropriately, but it means more than that, can anybody guess?"
Nobody could. "It means not to use God's name lightly." He said, "In fact, it means not to take God lightly or for granted."
This understanding of the commandment has stayed with me. To speak God's name in worship, in awe and wonder, with reverence and respect, is powerful. But to throw God's name around in casual speech (or social networking) erodes our capacity to experience that power.
But the Third Commandment is about more than "swearing." In what other ways do we take God lightly? When we use the name of God to bless our causes, our politics, our ideologies, or even our prejudices. God's name gets tossed around a lot in our political discourse, often unmoored from any thoughtful theology.
Do we take God lightly when we pray for our favorite sports team? Do we take God lightly when we ask God to bless our nation, but not other nations and peoples?
If the church isn't attending to how it thinks and speaks about God it becomes a caucus of like-minded people pursuing their causes. That happens across the political and religious spectrum.
Words have power, and the words we use about our God are among the most powerful there are. Let us use them with care.
O God, remind us with your gentle power to be careful about how we speak about you. We pray in the name of the one whose name is above all names, Jesus your Son our Savior. Amen.
Richard L. Floyd is Pastor Emeritus of First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and author of A Course In Basic Christianity and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. He blogs at richardlfloyd.com.