Who is really taking God’s name in vain?
(Warning! If you are offended at the use of STRONG LANGUAGE, do not read any further. Ed)
As a child growing up I was starkly aware of the Ten Commandments and the awful penalty for violating them. During my grammar school years we were not yet attending the Radio Church of God, but one of the Armstrongs was on our radio at least once a day and our house was littered with dozens of booklets and issues of The Plain Truth.
Thus, years before I ever set foot inside an RCG meeting, my life was already under Armstrong’s control. I was living “under the influence” of the most deadly drug I would ever fall victim to.
My mother had been raised in the Assembly of God and had spent time in the Seventh Day Adventist church before embracing HWA. As a result, prior to actually attending church, she raised me with her own patchwork list of what did and did not constitute “sin”. Mom’s version, heavily influenced at that time by SDA and Pentecostalism, included the following offenses under the “Sin” column:
The obvious ones: murder, theft, adultery, etc.
Playing cards (any cards, including Old Maid)
Playing with dice (including board games such as Monoploy)
Comic books (newspaper comics were okay)
I’m sure there were many others, but I don’t recall what they were. I was too young to know about sex, so I was spared the confusion that surely was involved with that subject.
When Mom was finally baptized into the Armstrong cult in 1961, we rode in the minister’s car to the river (local elder Al Dennis). In the back seat of his car were several comic books. I was stunned! Were comic books not a sin? (No, they weren’t. Neither was dancing, card playing, dice rolling, or drinking–but smoking still was.)
But “cussing” was still taboo. It was a violation of the Third Commandment–“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. And “cussing” included a whole range of words that one would never suspect. That much had not changed, apparently. I could not say any of the following words without having to go off and repent:
God damn (obviously)
Damn (with or without qualifiers)
Any combination of words beginning with “G” and “D”
Any of the hundreds of words relating to sexual or bathroom functions. (They were “filth”, or “blackguard”.)
Also suspect were:
Some time after we began attending church I discovered one more word that was not kosher. That word was “Gee”. No matter how you used it, it was a “sin”. (As recently as 1989 I heard Lester McColm chastise a man in Spokesman Club for using the word “Gee” in a speech. “That is a euphemism for ‘Jesus’!” he railed. “I’m sure you don’t want to offend your savior, do you?”
Whaaaaaaaaat? Is Jesus that sensitive? If he is, he has a problem.)
The church was obsessed with euphemisms, including those that related to archaic pagan practices. You could not tell someone to cross their fingers. You could not say “bless you” when someone sneezed. You couldn’t say “knock on wood” when you made a hopeful statement. Almost anything you said had to be thoroughly inspected for a “pagan” history before you uttered it, lest some inwardly anal Worldwider rush off to the minister and report you (and the ministers did take action on such reports!)
For example, when I was probably 17, I remember once telling a man of about thirty that “I could have sworn I saw such and such. . .” Whereupon he glared right into my eyes and informed me, “You’re not supposed to swear!”
(Give me a break! I knew that! Hell, he’d only been in the church a year. I’d been around at least four! I knew far better than he did!)
You could hardly carry on a conversation without running afoul of some picayunish stupid rule. On another occasion (about ten years ago) another man called me at the office. I was extremely busy. He was in the habit of calling up whenever he felt like chatting. Because he was a “brother”, I was reluctant to offend him by being blunt and telling him that time was money and I was being paid to do a job. Instead, when he asked the generic “How’s it going?” I replied with a terse “I’m up to my ass in alligators.”
That went straight to the heart of his Christian sensitivity. He had always been a self-righteous prick, and his response was:
“Ahhhhh. . . . . hah!”
Which was his way of letting me know that I had just sinned big time. But this was 1990, and while I was still a True Believer, I had at least come to terms with the fact that certain words, while not perhaps the most polite vocabulary, did not violate any biblical statute. The New Testament stated clearly that “sin” was the “transgression of the law”, and there was no law anywhere in the book that forbade the phrase “up to my ass in alligators”.
Even the dreaded “F Word” was not mentioned in the Bible, although it no doubt came under the admonition to “avoid filthy communication”. But let’s face it–that admonition was not part of any biblical statute, either. It certainly was not in the 10 Commandments. It was simply one apostle’s opinion, and as every one of us knows, “opinions are like assholes—everybody has one”.
Nevertheless, for many years I was intimidated by the 3rd Commandment. As a teenager growing up, I wanted to fit in with kids at school. The vast majority of kids at school (including “Christian” kids) used bad language. So did I (although I avoided “GD”). But every time I uttered a “bad” word, I silently asked forgiveness.
That is a terrible burden on anyone, especially a kid.
My own kids, as small boys in the church, were exposed to bad language much earlier than I had been (both at school and at church). I worked hard to keep them from saying certain words, but of course it was futile. They, too, wanted to fit in, and they did it behind my back—and felt guilty about it. (What made it worse was that occasionally I let it slip in front of them, so we were all rolling in guilt.) My mother, still living at the time I left the cult, clung to the old way, making faces every time someone voiced a word that even edged toward “off-color”, and heaven forbid should someone actually swear.
After I left the cult in 1992, I deliberately and systematically began to reevaluate everything I had ever believed. Not only every doctrine, but every opinion about anything, from politics to military service, from marriage to abortion, from racial prejudice to homophobia—everything.
In the process of this evaluation, I came to question the actual meaning of the 3rd Commandment. Because I had long noticed that Christians (the traditional kind) seemed sensitized only to certain words. I had a mechanic who was very devout. I asked him one day if I should do such and such with my car. His response was, “Oh, heavens yes!”
That amused me at the time, because he would never have said, “Oh, hell yes!” He just wouldn’t. It would have been a sin to him.
I had heard others (Worldwiders included) use the phrase “Oh my Lord!” or “Good Lord!” when something bad happened. Yet they would have died before saying “Oh my God!” or “Good God!” It would have been unacceptable.
And what was wrong with evoking hell, anyway? The word “hell” does not interfere with God’s name. How can saying “hell” be taking God’s name in vain? I knew people who would say to their kids, “What in the world is wrong with you?” They would never have dared say, “What in the hell is wrong with you?”
But what’s the difference? The Bible said not to swear by heaven or earth or whatever is beneath the earth. And yet when you think about it, swearing (unless you say “by God”, as Stanley Rader did to Mike Wallace in 1979) is not an invocation of the 3rd Commandment, is it? If you say: “What the hell!” that does not take God’s name in vain. There is no way you can twist it so that it does.
During my ruminations on the subject (post 1992), I came to the conclusion that the vast majority of people who say “God damn it!” are not taking God’s name in vain. In order to do so, they would have to be speaking in a religious context. Almost nobody speaks that way in today’s world. When people use “god” and “damn” together, they aren’t even thinking of God. Or of damnation. The word is used for emphasis only.
“Turn off that goddamn noise!”
“Throw the goddamn ball!”
“You are pretty goddamn special to me.”
Yet when you watch movies of the Middle Ages, in which everyone appears to have been obsessed with God and religion, the 3rd Commandment (as we were taught it) seems to be violated continually, and by the most devout people. A good example is the miniseries Shogun (which aired around 1983, starring Richard Chamberlain and John Rhys-Davis). The Portuguese (Catholics), the Englishmen (Protestants), and the Japanese (heathens) were all competing with one another, and several times the Portuguese priest condemned the English sailors with such statements as “May you burn in hell for all eternity!” (Now that is a goddamn curse!) And the English responded in kind, flinging “By God”s all over the place. “By Christ we’ll butcher those bloody heathen Jappos in the mornin’, we will!”
Historically speaking, I assume people really did talk like that in those days. Surely author James Clavell and the miniseries scriptwriters did their homework.
So why would God get so anal about people using his name out of turn? Why waste an entire commandment just to keep people from saying “goddamn”? God should be bigger than that, shouldn’t he? And if not, is he so touchy that he’s going to kill someone for saying “Gee whiz”? Or just “gee”?
I mean, let’s face it—the 1st Commandment was pretty important, wasn’t it? No other gods before God. Makes sense, because he is a jealous god (we aren’t allowed to be, but he is). The 2nd Commandment says no graven images, which prohibits idol worship. Again, it makes sense, because he is a jealous god. The 4th Commandment says to observe a special day, as a sign that you belong to him. Sort of like wearing a wedding ring, if you will. Pretty important, because he is a jealous god.
But the 3rd Commandment? Why would God get so uptight over a few cuss words?
Or maybe. . . .
Holy shit! Is it possible?
Do you think, just maybe—it might mean something else entirely?
Could it be?
What exactly does it mean to “take God’s name in vain”, anyway? (Sounds like an old church booklet, doesn’t it? Just What Do You Mean, “Cusswords”?)
When I reevaluated everything, this was what I finally arrived at. The understanding that when the Bible said “take God’s name in vain” it did not refer to a casual “goddamn” or “Jesus Christ”. If you believe in the Bible, and if you believe that God is everything he is supposed to be, then you have to understand that God is bigger than the occasional “shit”, “fuck”, or “goddamn”. (God doesn’t give a shit if you say “crap”!)
Taking God’s name in vain is much more serious than any of that. What the 3rd Commandment refers to, within the context of the Bible, is something so serious that the occasional “cussword” pales by comparison.
How, exactly, DO you “take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”?
Does anybody know? Anybody in Christendom, anywhere in the world? Anyone at all?
It’s really very simple, and you almost have to be a cult survivor to recognize it.
The only way you can take the name of the Lord in vain is . . . .
You are a religious organization and you invoke the name of God to enslave people so that they do what YOU want, so that they forsake their natural lives and dedicate all their blood and energy to YOUR desires, and pay all their money into YOUR bank account.
YOU ARE A DANGEROUS CULT, AND YOU ENSLAVE PEOPLE BY INVOKING THE NAME OF GOD!
That is how you violate the 3rd Commandment.
That is the ONLY WAY you violate the 3rd Commandment.
None of us, in the church, at the membership level, ever violated the 3rd Commandment. Only the ministers, the elders and pastors and evangelists and Herbert Armstrong and Joseph Tcrotch and his ugly bearded baby boy and all those lying headquarters ministers broke the 3rd Commandment. BECAUSE THEY LIED TO US. IN THE NAME OF GOD AND JESUS CHRIST THEY TOOK OUR LIVES AND OUR MONEY AND OUR FREEDOM. THEY “TOOK GOD’S NAME IN VAIN” IN ORDER TO ENSLAVE US.
That is the only way anyone can ever take God’s name in vain. To break that commandment you have to invoke the name of God or Christ to take advantage of other people.
End of story.
So if you hit your thumb with a hammer and yell SHIT! real loud, you don’t need to go off and pray. If you’ve had a bad day and you sit down at the end of it and give out a big sigh and say, “God damn, what a day!” you have not sinned.
But that pious son of a bitch who condemns you for it, telling you in the name of Jesus that you are going to roast in hell for saying it—HE IS THE ONE who has violated Commandment Number Three. Because he has placed himself in God’s place. (The “Vikker”, dontcha know!)
You may not believe it, but it’s true.
I swear it’s true.
More from this author.