Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Taking God's Name In Vain

When I was a kid, I was taught that it was a sin to "take God's name in vain". What did that mean? I was told that saying "God damn you" to someone was an example of taking God's name in vain.

As I got older, I thought a lot about that, and I came to understand the connection between the two things. The word "vanity" has multiple meanings, but the definition gets to the heart of the matter, in my opinion, is not necessarily the first one listed in the dictionary. One dictionary defines the word thusly: "something worthless, trivial, or pointless". Also, "lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness: the vanity of a selfish life".

We often describe people who are excessively preoccupied with physical appearance as "vain". Why? Because it's pointless and futile to spend most of one's time trying to preserve one's appearance. Sooner or later, if we live long enough, we all get ugly, no matter how attractive we once might have been. (Of course, if we don't live long enough, our physical bodies and faces get even uglier! Bodily decomposition is not pretty to behold.)

Most other definitions of "vanity" also hinge on these fundamental assumptions. For instance, a "vanity" is a dresser where people traditionally spend their time in pursuit of the goal of making themselves look good, hoping that folks won't notice that they get older and uglier by the day. One might just as easily describe a gymnasium as a vanity, because muscles eventually grow flaccid, no matter how much time one spends in physical exercise. (There's a good reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger no longer looks like Mr. Universe, and it isn't solely on account of the fact that he no longer takes steroids.)

Just as it's pointless to try to prevent the aging and dying process from occurring, it's equally pointless to try to damn someone by invoking God's name. Why? Because God has not authorized any human being to damn other human beings. It's a bit like impersonating a police officer and pretending that one has been authorized by the state to place someone under arrest, when that is not actually the case at all. Just as impersonating a police officer is a crime against the state, claiming to speak for God when one has not been authorized to do so is a sin against God. It's the same principle.

Once one understands that a principle is at stake, one begins to realize that there are numerous ways to take God's name in vain, and not all of those ways involve threats of damnation. In fact, any unauthorized invocation of God's name could be described as a vain attribution, and could therefore be legitimately characterized as a violation of the injunction against taking God's name in vain.

There's a reason why false prophets were stoned to death in the Old Testament. It is not a matter to be lightly regarded when someone claims falsely to speak in the name of God.

To make an oath by swearing "by God" or by swearing by something which is of God is to commit a similar sin. Jesus forbade the making of such oaths. In Matthew 5:33-37, it says the following:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
In other words, if what you say is a lie, adding "I swear by God" or "thus saith the Lord" does not make it any less untruthful. In fact, it makes things much worse. It's bad enough to lie, but ten times worse to lie in the name of the Lord, because "God is not a man, that he should lie" (Numbers 23:19). Therefore, claiming that God said something when God did not in fact do so could be described as "taking God's name in vain," even if the word "damn" is never mentioned.

In 1987, Oral Roberts, a well-known TV evangelist at the time, claimed that God had told him that God would take Oral's life unless Oral's followers donated 8 million dollars to the ministry. Oral met and exceeded his fundraising goal, so there is no objective way to know for sure whether or not the claims he made about his "revelation" were legitimate, but I personally do not believe that God told him any such thing. Nevertheless, I hope for Oral's sake that I am wrong about that, because manipulating people by claiming that God has said something which God has not actually said might be deemed every bit as offensive and sinful as saying "God damn you" to someone. Of course, such a sin is forgivable (as are most sins, except for the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit), so I would not presume to make any statements with regard to Oral's eternal destiny, even if I knew for sure that he had sinned by making that claim. But my point here is simply this: When it comes to making claims about what God has or has not said to us, it is much wiser to err on the side of caution. If indeed a revelation from God is true, then adding "thus saith the Lord" will not add anything to the statement's truthfulness. That is why Jesus said that we ought to simply let our statements be judged on their own merits: "Let your 'yes' be yes, and your 'no,' 'no'."

How does one assess the legitimacy of claims which are made with regard to what God has or has not said? One excellent way to do so is to compare the contents of a person's claims about what God has said with what one already knows about the character of God, based on what the scriptures teach.

We know that God is not a liar, for example, so any claim which is demonstrably untrue would be inconsistent with the character of God. Consequently, prophesies which do not come to pass are obviously illegitimate.

There are also other aspects of God's character as well. People who have spent time getting to know God by reading God's word have a means of identifying those aspects of God's character.

For instance, God vehemently disapproves of sexual iniquity, so anyone who says, "God told me to have sex outside of marriage" has compounded the sin of adultery (or fornication) by claiming that God told him or her to commit such a sin. Likewise, God forbids idolatry, so anyone who claims that God told him or her to bow down to a graven image and worship that image is obviously lying.

The aforementioned ideas are pertinent to something which occurred to me recently. On Sunday, I attended a new church in Chicago for the first time. The folks at that church were generally nice to me, and I enjoyed the worship service for the most part. But the pastor said something from the pulpit, and it deeply disturbed me.

The aforementioned pastor stated, correctly, that God sometimes tells us things which we don't want to hear, but which we nevertheless need to hear. So far, so good. I have no problem with that idea. Jesus is not the wimp some folks seem to think that he is, and there are recorded instances in which Jesus said things which might be regarded by some folks as harsh and even "judgmental".

But then the pastor went on to cite a situation which he considered to be a good example of God saying something which he needed to hear. He said that he'd been feeling sorry for himself because he hadn't yet found a wife for himself. According to him, God told him to "man up" and get off of his "pity party". When the pastor said that, a huge red flag appeared in my mind, because I honestly do not believe that God would ever say such a thing to any person.

To say that a person who is feeling depressed about his situation needs to "man up" is to imply, incorrectly, that real men do not get depressed, or that they most certainly do not tell anyone about their depression if in fact they do get depressed. That idea might come as a great surprise to decidedly manly men such as Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and others who have struggled with severe bouts of depression at various points in their lives. (I'm not arguing that the aforementioned men were perfect; but whatever problems they might have had, lack of masculinity was not one of those problems!)

If one prefers biblical examples, it should be remembered that the prophet Jeremiah was described as the "weeping prophet". It's unclear as to whether or not Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations, but whether he did so or not, it seems noteworthy that there is an entire book of the Bible which has that particular title. (A "lamentation" is an expression of sorrow or grief.) David poured out his feelings of grief in very clear language in certain portions of the Psalms. And Isaiah 53:3, which is considered by most Christians to be a description of Jesus Christ, describes him as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief".

So where's the justification for a belief that it's unmanly or ungodly for a person to experience grief and depression? To my way of thinking, such a claim is unsupported by logic and by the scriptures.

I also can't help but wonder if women are exempt from the need to "man up". Is it OK for women to feel sorry for themselves but forbidden for men to do so? If so, why the double standard? Whatever happened to the idea that in Christ, there is no male nor female, as stated in Galatians 3:28?

I would be hard pressed to think of a much more uncompassionate phrase than the phrase "pity party". It falsely implies that people enjoy being depressed. That's absurd, and it's insulting to those who suffer from depression. Most depressed people would gladly accept any legitimate solution which would relieve them of their mental anguish.

Matthew 5:1-16 says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Perhaps Jesus should have added, "unless, of course, they happen to attend a church led by a pastor who thinks that it's more appropriate to tell them to 'man up' and bury their feelings than it is to comfort them."

God is a compassionate God. There is nothing with which I am familiar, in the scriptures, which would support the idea that God disparages or condemns people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from depression. I'm inclined to think that the aforementioned pastor's concept of God was derived from too many viewings of old Clint Eastwood movies, and I'm inclined to think that his beliefs about God insofar as the issue of depression is concerned have more in common with the pagan belief known as stoicism than with Christianity. I do not believe that God ever told him what he claims that God told him, so I'm also inclined to think that he's guilty of taking the Lord's name in vain. I could be wrong, of course, but that's how I see things.

None of this is to deny that it's undesirable for people to wallow in self-pity. But there is a right way to respond to such people when they seek help, and there is a wrong way.

The right way to deal with the situation, when one is confronted with depressed people, is not to add to their feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness by telling them to "man up" and implicitly accusing them of being immature sissies. The right way is to comfort the afflicted, pointing out that Jesus also suffered, and that Jesus is there with open arms and a heart full of love for those who suffer from deprivation or from the perception of deprivation. The right way is to take one's responsibility to "bear one another's burdens" seriously. Ridiculing people is generally not a good way to bear their burdens! To implicitly ridicule hurting Christians is to abdicate one's moral responsibility to one's brothers and sisters in Christ.


Anonymous said...

Are you sure swearing while saying God's name is forgiveable?I've on occasion in moments of emotional weakness and immaturity done it and immediately repented.

Mark Pettigrew said...

I know that many pastors would say that the only unforgivable sin is to reject Christ as Savior by neglecting to repent and ask forgiveness.

I certainly think that they're correct in believing that that particular sin is normally unforgivable, when it's committed by people who have already been presented with the truth of the gospel. There's an open question about how God deals with people who are never presented with the gospel of Christ, and who therefore never have a realistic chance of accepting Christ as Savior, but I prefer to believe (as the Bible states) that God is a just and merciful God. Therefore, God does not demand the impossible from people.

However, the book of Romans does make it clear that ALL people (even those who haven't heard the gospel) have a certain moral awareness with which they were endowed at birth (sometimes known as a conscience), so there is nothing unjust about God holding people accountable for the manner in which they've listened to, and obeyed, their own consciences. And sadly, we've all violated our own consciences from time to time. That's why I'm very glad that someone preached the gospel to me!

The only scripture which refers to an unforgivable sin (so far as I know) is the one in which certain people had accused Christ of healing people through the power of the devil! Jesus responded by saying that people would not be forgiven for the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it seems reasonable (from the context in which Christ made that statement) to believe that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit consists of attributing the miracles of God to Satan.

Saying "God damn you" to someone is certainly a bad thing to do, as my blog article pointed out, but I don't think that it has anything to do with attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan! Therefore, I have personally seen no scriptural evidence to support the idea that God can't or won't forgive the sin which you've sometimes committed, according to your comment. I believe that such a sin is forgiveable (as are comparable sins) if we repent, as you say you've done. I personally believe that God has forgiven you and that you have nothing to worry about.

But ultimately, it isn't up to me. So rather than taking my word for it, study the scriptures for yourself, and let God speak to you. I'm not infallible. Only God's word is infallible.