It sometimes feels as if I hear reference to God and Jesus more times on a Monday morning than I do in church on Sunday. And yet they are spoken in very different contexts. On the one hand, God is spoken of with reverence and affection; on the other hand, God is spoken of with… well, not such reverence and affection.
It has become a cultural thing. The closing credits of an episode of Friends hardly pass without at least one, “Oh my God!” – especially if Janice is making an appearance – while the abbreviation of that very term has become a phenomenon in itself, with ‘OMG’ now the subject of many a status, hashtag and all manner of merchandise.
You would likely agree that most people do not take God or Jesus’s name in vain to be purposefully offensive to Christians, or indeed any other religion. Unfortunately, with such terminology spoken all around us, it has become part of the daily vocabulary of life and usually the default reaction to any surprise or breaking news.
And when uttered, there is little regard for what is actually being said. The word ‘vain’ means ‘without significance, value or importance; baseless or worthless’. By referring to God in such a way shows a lack of respect and honour for His name.
Admittedly, my own default reaction to any expression of profanity is usually one of apathy. I’ve grown too used to it and I am wary of being known as the profanity police, with my friends fearing my judgmental or awkward reaction to any innocuous slip of the tongue.
More recently, though, I have wondered: what exactly is the best response for Christians? Should we brush it off, or is a more thoughtful approach required?
In Matthew’s gospel, written to a predominantly Jewish audience, the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ is often used rather than ‘kingdom of God’. This reflects the Jewish tendency to use more words than necessary to refer to God, done out of reverence for the divine name because they were concerned they could use it in vain. Consequently, they often referred to God in an indirect or roundabout way, such as The Name, The Holy One or Heaven.
This approach is hardly surprising given the encounters God had with people in the Old Testament, not to mention number four of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name”. These words, along with the care shown by the Jewish people when speaking of God, serve as an important reminder to use and uphold God’s name well – not just in the words we speak, but in the way we live our lives.
We should be mindful of the casual way God’s name is often used. God is our Creator and Sustainer; Jesus Christ the Name above all names who came to earth for us all. He is the last person whose name should be spoken of so casually. We should caution against following suit and not encourage it.
Aside from this, do we take on that profanity police hat or demand an office swear jar, with 50p put in for any misplaced use of God’s name?
Our best response is live in a way that honours God’s name. Our talk and walk should point to the truth of Jesus, showing those around us the respect and adoration his name is uniquely due. People do see this, which can lead to friends and colleagues showing a respectful restraint as the words threaten to emerge. This can then offer an opportunity for us to inspire a deeper awareness of God’s true worth.
Aligned to this, I think there is scope to take on a more offensive and creative approach. One friend said that he, with a hint of mischief, sometimes interjects with: “Oh good, we’re praying. Can I join in?” He gets a quizzical look, but it is non-threatening and gets people thinking. Alongside this, we should consider what questions we can spontaneously offer that prompt thought and discussion.
The other day I sought to put this into practice. While chatting with the two colleagues, I randomly asked one of them, a Muslim guy, their thoughts on this issue. My other colleague keenly stepped in, apologetically admitting that she often blasphemes without thinking, which then led to her asking me questions on ghosts, forgiveness, whether I ever doubt my faith in God and a bunch of other stuff.
I was struck by the depth of conversation that followed. While this will not always happen, perhaps taking a more intentional approach may offer more opportunities than we first realised.
As with many things, a wise and discerning approach is required. But in the context of respect and love, done without threat and condemnation but with the intention to discover and provide space to talk about the love and value of Jesus, there is an opportunity here that can cause people to think twice before defaulting to what they have grown so accustomed to.