Taking God's Name in Vain


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I do it every time I tell a friend I will pray for her, and then forget. I do it when I absently mouth the lyrics to a hymn or use the Bible as a weapon in order to win an argument. I do it when I gossip, speaking ill of another human being created in His image. I do it when I drop spiritual buzzwords into my conversations in order to fit in. 

I suppose we’ve all mastered the art of taking God’s name in vain. Christians in particular have a way of letting careless language about God creep into our idiomatic subculture to the point that we talk about Him (and thus insinuate things about His character) without even realizing it. 

Over the past few years, I’ve really struggled to discipline my tongue, particularly when it comes to talking about God. After going through a pretty serious period of doubt about my faith, I found myself with a heightened sensitivity to the use of God’s name in everyday speech, especially concerning 1) material blessings, 2) theological positions, and 3) life decisions. 

Material Blessings  

You know that expression, “It was totally a God thing”? For some reason, I can’t bring myself to say it. 

Usually used in the context of a positive turn of events or the receiving of some material blessing, the “God thing” phrase gets under my skin because it implies that God is behind every stroke of good luck in our lives. When I consider that Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, I find myself wondering if material blessings are really spiritual advantages after all.  If God causes the rain to fall on both the good and the evil, could pay raises and job opportunities and new cars and book deals be nothing more than pay raises and job opportunities and new cars and book deals? 

I suppose my aversion to “God things” is a response to what I see as a general acceptance of the wealth, health, and prosperity gospel even among those who say they reject it. Or perhaps it is the result of years of doubt and guilt concerning God’s goodness in allowing me to enjoy so many comforts in my life while thousands of children die every day for lack of food and healthy water.  I guess I just don’t want to spiritualize things (like money or status) that aren’t inherently spiritual. 

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve got to be less judgmental of those who choose to use such language to honestly express their gratitude to God. You don’t make a lot of friends dampening a conversation by saying, “Yeah, well what about the kid who just died of AIDS in Africa?” Anyone who thinks I don’t believe that God cares about the “little things” need only observe my own hypocritical habit of praying for a book deal! 

Theological Positions 

As I’ve mentioned before, I think evangelical Christians in particular must be a bit more careful of insisting that our theology is somehow God’s theology. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told, “your disagreement is with God, so take it up with Him,” I’d be a rich woman, even factoring in inflation. 

However, most of the time I find that my disagreement is not so much with God, but with Plato or Augustine or Calvin or Dobson, or some theological system or cultural paradigm that’s been attributed to Him. Of course, I’m as guilty as anyone else of assuming I know God’s thoughts about things, but I’ve recently found myself a bit more hesitant to call my biblical interpretations absolute truth. 

I much prefer Peter Rollins’ approach to religious tradition as “a loving response to God rather than a way of defining God.” When we recognize, as Rollins writes, that “negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation…that a desert of ignorance exists in the midst of every oasis of understanding,” we can more humbly dialog with those with whom we disagree and avoid using God’s name carelessly by inserting it into our presuppositions. 

Life Decisions 

As much as I hate to admit it, I once broke up with a boy because I “felt God was leading me in another direction.” The truth: I was a freshman in high school and I wanted to keep my options open, including the option to date the cute guy in my history class. 

I’ve matured a bit since then, but the collective habit of invoking God’s name to support decision-making remains an issue for the Church. I’ve heard some of the most outlandish and irresponsible plans justified by folks who insist they are following God’s will. Just the other day a couple announced their plans to relocate, adding “we can’t very well argue with God.”  Such an attitude renders the guidance and advice of other people moot. Furthermore, it places the burden of responsibility on God rather than the people making the decision. It’s a clever way of justifying what we want to do and spiritualizing our desires. 

The most exhaustive critique of this phenomenon can be found in Gary Friesen’s groundbreaking  book Decision Making and the Will of God. In it, Friesen deconstructs the notion that God has a specific ideal blueprint for every person’s life in favor of what he calls the “way of wisdom” as described in the Bible. I highly recommend it. 

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In Jewish thought, a name represents the reputation of the thing being named, which is why Jews are so careful with how they use the many names of God. An act that causes God or Judaism to come into disrespect is often referred to as "chillul Ha-Shem," profanation of The Name.  An act of righteousness that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism is referred to as "kiddush Ha-Shem," sanctification of The Name. If only Christians were as careful and reverential in our treatment of God’s name! If only we recognized how profoundly our use of God’s name affects His reputation.

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